I went to Aaron’s Boone’s surprise 40th birthday party in Scottsdale, Arizona, during the winter of 2013. He has a million friends, but I was particularly taken by three of them, all acknowledged nerds, as they were when they met Boonie in junior high school when his family moved to Anaheim, California, in 1982. It was so refreshing that after a 12-year major league career, after hitting one of the biggest home runs in postseason history, Boonie remained buddies with these guys. And after a month at that new junior high school, the three nerdy guys finally decided: “Hey, the new kid, the great athlete, we think his dad catches for the Angels.”
Aaron Boone had not told them that Bob Boone was his famous father, which tells you a lot about Aaron Boone, who is a normal, well-grounded guy, more like the common man than any major league player I’ve ever met. With a grandfather, a father and a big brother who played in the big leagues — the only three-generation family of All-Stars in major league history — he’d have opportunity to be arrogant, pretentious and condescending, but he is the opposite. He doesn’t take himself too seriously, he plays fantasy football and baseball, he loves USC football, he is self-deprecating. You can poke fun at him and he loves to poke fun at others. He is a great communicator and he can, and will, talk to anyone about anything. All of this says that in this new day of managing, where people skills are more important than anything, Aaron Boone is an excellent choice to manage the New York Yankees.
He has no managerial experience, but he has been around the game for his entire life. And for his entire life, he has paid attention, he is one of the most observant people I have ever met, which is a crucial part of being a manager, and partially explains how he can imitate virtually any batting stance, or pitching motion, of any player over the past 35 years. Pete Rose. Larry Bowa, Ichiro. Dave Winfield. Tommy John. Rick Sutcliffe. A-Rod. Rod Carew. All of them perfect down to the last detail, a facial twitch, the pursing of lips. “I’m working on my Joe Torre,” he once told me.
I assumed he was going to give me the batting stance of Torre from 1971 when he hit .363, instead Boonie did this hilarious impersonation of Torre, as the aging Yankee manager, walking — more like slinking — to the mound to remove a pitcher. He did the Torre impersonation on Baseball Tonight six years ago. Torre saw it and loved it, and then-Yankee manager Joe Girardi saw it, begged Boonie to do it on the field at Yankee Stadium before the game, which he did, as everyone, led by Girardi, burst into laughter.
Boonie can do almost all accents and dialects; he does impersonations of famous and not-so-famous people, including Moses Malone at the free throw line, wiping sweat from his chin, or an offensive tackle in the NFL backing up to get in blocking position or Chris Farley’s famous “Living In A Van Down By The River” skit from “Saturday Night Live.” When the USC baseball team needed a pick-me-up, a teammate would invariably look at their star third baseman and say, “Boonie, give us some Matt Foley.” As always, he lit up the room. His personality lights up a lot of rooms, and he surely will light up the Yankee dugout.
Ask Boonie any uniform number of any player over the past 35 years, and he has a shot at it.
“Johnny Ray,” I once asked him.
“With the Pirates or Angels?” he said.
“Pirates,” I said.
“3,” he said.
Show Boonie any baseball card from the past 35 years, and he will be able to tell you in what ballpark the picture was taken. For me, it is like looking at a sonogram, but for Boonie, the small clues — the color of a seat, a marking on the outfield wall, the look of the infield dirt — is a clear giveaway. Like Will Hunting said to Skylar in the movie “Good Will Hunting,” Boonie told me of his unique skill, “I can just see that stuff.”
Boonie can’t remember pitch counts from 1999, but he remembers moments so well, which is so important for a manager, including the famous home run he hit off Tim Wakefield to send the Yankees to the World Series in 2003. “I told myself as soon as I knew it was gone to savor every second of my trip around the bases,” Boonie told me. “But it was so overwhelming, that as soon as I hit first base, I don’t remember anything else.”
He remembers being ejected from the first major league game he ever played; he threw his helmet after being thrown out at the plate “and I almost started crying on the field after realizing that I had just been thrown out.”
He remembers the date — June 3, 2005 — when he staggered to the batting cage at 1:30 p.m. for a 7 p.m. game, dragging his .151 batting average behind him. “Our (the Indians’) hitting coach, Eddie Murray, took one look at me coming and just shook his head, almost as if to say, ‘oh no, not you again!'” Boonie said with a healthy laugh. “I looked at him and said, ‘Do you think I want to be coming down here every day?! Do you think I want to be hitting .151 on June 3?!'”
But for all of his playfulness, his tremendous sense of humor, there is nothing more important than the game for Aaron Boone. It must be respected, it must be played properly, and if it isn’t, believe me, the Yankee players will hear it from their manager. I know. I did a game from the ESPN booth last summer, and I explained that the play the third baseman failed to make was indeed a difficult in-between hop. I got an immediate text from Boonie, screaming at me, “Not a difficult play. He went after it the wrong way!”
And yet, in seven years working with Boonie on Baseball Tonight, he always treated me as an equal, which not all former analysts have. But, that’s him. When Boonie played for the Reds, Hal McCoy, a Hall of Fame baseball writer, suffered a rare eye disease that took away most of his vision, necessitating McCoy to contemplate retiring. “No, you’re not,” Boonie told him. “You are not going to retire.” Then Boonie helped arrange help for McCoy — including a driver to and from games — so he could continue his work. Boonie received two votes for the Hall of Fame in his only year on the ballot, one came from Hal McCoy.
“I just saw Hank Aaron in the elevator,” Boonie told me at the 2014 All-Star Game in Minneapolis. “I looked right at him and couldn’t speak … that’s Hank Aaron!“
Everyone in the game respects Aaron Boone because of the way he played the game, and the way he goes about his life, being a great husband and father of four, including adopted brothers from Haiti, treating people right, and never putting himself above anyone else. Several years ago, a radio play-by-play guy for a major league team mistook him for someone else, and called him by the wrong name three times in one season. Instead of telling the guy, “Hey, I’m Aaron Boone!” he had me gently inform the guy of his correct name, so not to embarrass the guy the next time it happened. Also several years ago, Boonie did the Ice Bucket Challenge the day of a game we did in Boston. He asked the guy working the hotel bar if he’d help him by dousing him with a bucket of cold water.
“I’d love to,” the guy said laughing. “I’m a Red Sox fan. I hate you.”
And now Aaron Boone is the manager of the Yankees, which means I’ll have to stop calling him Boonie. Two weeks ago, I called him and told him — I was guessing — that he was going to get the job.
“What’s it going to be like when, instead of you walking into the manager’s before an ESPN game, the ESPN crew will walk into your office at Yankee Stadium and ask you the questions?” I asked him. “The first question I am going to ask you is, ‘How in the hell did you get this job?'”
Typical Boonie, he laughed out loud.
And yet, I think he will do a great job managing the Yankees. More importantly, so does he.