Aaron Boone heard the rumors all season. He knew fans were calling for his job and media members were questioning his decisions.
A 13-game winning streak and a trip to the AL Wild Card Game quieted the detractors for a little while, but when the New York Yankees were unceremoniously eliminated by the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park, the volume was turned up on those rumors.
The one thing that wasn't turned up was the heat on Boone's seat. Tuesday morning, the club announced a new three-year contract for Boone with a club option for a fourth season.
"The reality is, I know the rumors and everything that were out there but they were only that," Boone said in a Zoom press conference. "I've never stopped being under contract with the Yankees. Myself, my agent and my family have treated it as such. It was about walking through the process and the negotiations of getting me back to extend this."
It was an unpopular decision for the fans, who wanted him gone months ago and expected him to be gone as soon as the final was recorded in Boston. The Yankees parted ways with key members of Boone's staff last week, declining to renew the contracts of hitting coach Marcus Thames, assistant hitting coach P.J. Pilittere and third base coach Phil Nevin, a close friend of Boone's.
"That was a couple of tough days for me," Boone acknowledged. "I even talked to Phil about coming back. Those are tough conversations you have. But that is the difficulty of this business."
If that's the case, why would Boone want to work for a team that doesn't let him make his own staffing decisions? It's clear he wants to finish what he started in New York. He did not give the team an ultimatum with Nevin.
"I did not have a this or that, Phil stays or I go," he said. "Or I wouldn't be here right now."
This was an unpopular decision, but it was not a bad decision by general manager Brian Cashman and managing partner Hal Steinbrenner. Boone has his flaws as a manager, but the blame for this season does not solely lie with him.
"I thought Aaron Boone was part of the solution," Cashman said. "He wasn't a problem or the problem."
The roster was poorly constructed. You can blame the lineup construction on Boone, but he had no choice but to roll out a lineup heavy on right-handed hitters in one of the most lefty-friendly ballparks in baseball because those are the players Cashman put on the roster.
Key young players regressed and the hitting struggles were magnified by a few particularly bad months (the Yankees finished 13th with a .729 OPS). The defense was especially bad. The Yankees were good, but not good enough. Cashman thinks improvements can be made and that they can be made quickly, but he thinks there are pieces in place that, with the right supporting cast, can contend for championships.
Those problems are Cashman's problems.
Cashman admitted to some of his mistakes, like playing Gleyber Torres at shortstop instead of second base, which is probably where he belongs, but he's blocked by DJ LeMahieu. And LeMahieu had an uncharacteristically bad season at the plate, but much of that can be attributed to the core injury he played through, which was recently repaired surgically.
The longtime Yankees GM also lamented the team's overall athleticism and lack of contact hitting. He said the acquisition of Anthony Rizzo at the trade deadline was an attempt to address some of these issues (defense, lack of left-handed hitting).
A general manager has to stand behind his manager, but Cashman didn't sound defensive in his hourlong press conference. He sounded like someone who is trying to build a championship club but knows it doesn't have the right pieces to contend yet.
This matched up with Steinbrenner's statement that was issued when the team made the announcement.
"We have a person and manager in Aaron Boone who possesses the baseball acumen and widespread respect in our clubhouse to continue to guide us forward," Steinbrenner said. "As a team and as an organization, we must grow, evolve and improve. We need to get better. Period."
The word "grow" might not be one fans want to hear, but Cashman looked at it as a positive, especially when it comes to Boone.
"He's growing already, already has grown and will continue to grow. That's one of the reasons we're attracted to him," Cashman said. "You don't want to be in a position of, this is what you get and that's all you're getting, the ceiling is the floor, essentially. Ultimately, he's grown into one of the better managers in the game."
Cashman also said that if Boone had become a free agent at the end of the World Series, which is when his previous contract would have expired, then he would have been the most coveted commodity on the market. He isn't wrong. The San Diego Padres likely would have been interested, and over in Queens the Mets likely would have inquired as well, which would not have been a good look for the Yankees.
There is a major disconnect between the fans and the front office. Part of that is the perception that Boone and the front office rely too heavily on analytics and lack a feel for the game. While that might be true at times, this is a common fan complaint in just about every sport these days. Basketball players don't have a feel for shooting anymore; they shoot based on when and where the numbers tell them to shoot. Hockey players don't have enough grit and tenacity anymore.
The best teams use the numbers as a tool, which is how Cashman described Boone's approach to advanced stats, saying the analysts present "a buffet of information" for the manager to choose from.
Fans are also upset at Hal's reluctance to spend like his dad did. The Yankees are not over the luxury tax. It's no longer expected that the best free agents on small-market teams will end up in the Bronx when they hit free agency.
But this is a different economic climate than when George Steinbrenner was running the team with an iron fist and an open wallet. While the return of fans in the stands during the 2021 season might have provided some sort of financial windfall, it might not be enough to make up for the losses of 2020.
The Yankees have to make some key decisions soon. It might be time to move on from Gary Sanchez. It might be time to get a shortstop in free agency, even though the club has two highly touted infielders coming up through the system (Anthony Volpe and Oswald Peraza). It's a loaded class, but money is, of course, the question. And it's definitely time to invest in more starting pitching.
So this isn't all on Boone. There are areas of improvement for everyone, him included. His bullpen management was criticized late in the season and he'll need to find ways to get more out of struggling young players like Gary Sanchez, Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar. He's well-liked by his players, many of whom will still be around for the next few years.
Much of this is on Cashman and the front office to set up their manager for success.
It doesn't have to be a popular move to be the right one.