The first New York Yankees game I attended was in 1988 — when the team was slogging through a series of fifth-place finishes in the then seven-team American League East, against the Oakland Athletics, who were then at the start of a five-year stretch of otherworldly dominance that somehow only yielded one World Series championship.
In my memory, Billy Martin managed that game, one of the last in his final of five (!) stints as Yankees manager. But after consulting the indispensible Baseball Reference, it appears my memory was clouded by the team yearbook I read cover to cover hundreds of times as a kid.
Sure, Billy was the manager when that yearbook was published at the start of the 1988 season, but by the time I saw that late August game (where Tommy John tossed seven-plus innings in a 5-4 win!) Lou Piniella had succeeded his mentor as manager, only weeks after Piniella himself had resigned as Yankees general manager.
If such in-season anarchy isn’t indicative enough of the franchise’s dysfunction at the time, this was the second time in two years that Sweet Lou had replaced Billy as the Yankees’ field general.
That was the franchise I grew up with. Unstable, tumultuous, its winning tradition a faded memory — where managers had worse job security than Trump administration cabinet members.
When Aaron Boone was hired this offseason as Yankees manager — despite having no managerial or even coaching experience at any level — some people wondered if the famously steady general manager Brian Cashman was channeling the late bombastic owner George Steinbrenner, who was known to make personnel decisions on a whim after consulting his Tampa drinking buddies.
Cashman swears he has a plan built around Boone’s reputation as a warm-hearted communicator and stat geek — and to be sure, Boone’s work as a TV baseball analyst certainly speaks to the latter — and I’m personally inclined to give Cashman the benefit of the doubt, for a couple of seasons at least.
Unorthodox though the Boone hiring may be, the doubters need to take a deep breath and marvel at the fact that this is only the fourth Yankees managerial change since 1992, when Buck Showalter was hired to replace Stump Merrill — which itself was the 20th managerial change since Steinbrenner bought the team in 1973.
With then-GM Gene “Stick” Michael famously holding on to the jewels of the farm system (including Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, and Jorge Posada), as well as refusing to trade budding star Bernie Williams, Showalter was able to guide the Yankees to a winning record by 1993 (they would have made the playoffs that year if there had been a Wild Card, which was introduced a year later) and finished the strike-shortened 1994 season with the best record in the American League.
Showalter was let go after the Yankees blew a two games to none lead and lost the ALDS to the Seattle Mariners (that one still hurts), but the Buck/Stick years laid the groundwork for the dynasty under Joe Torre (who was hired to great skepticism prior to the 1996 season, only to manage the Yankees to four World Series victories, six pennants, and 12 playoff appearances in 12 years).
After Torre came Joe Girardi, who managed for 10 seasons. Though he was dismissed having won only one World Series championship as manager, Girardi never had a losing season and guided several squads to overachieving campaigns, none more surprising than 2017, when a team that was thought to be in rebuilding mode came one win away from the AL pennant.
Whatever doubts one may have at the start of the Boone era, it’s worth remembering that two-and-a-half-plus decades of stability and success in the Bronx was hardly the default state of the team for the first two decades of Steinbrenner ownership.
From the time The Boss bought the team in 1973 until Showalter’s hiring in 1992, Yankees managers were changed in season in eight out of twenty years (the 1982 season featured three Yankees managers).
In addition to five-time manager Martin and two-time manager Piniella, Bob Lemon, Gene Michael, and Dick Howser each managed the Yankees twice in that period (Ralph Houk and Yogi Berra also each managed the Bronx Bombers for one stint under Steinbrenner and one pre-Steinbrenner).
Boone is not the first manager with an otherwise pedestrian playing career burnished by one legendary Red Sox-killing home run (oh hi, Bucky Dent!), but even if the hiring of a manager based on his TV work and his purported people skills seems bizarre, it’s nothing compared to the absolute chaos and instability that once defined the Yankees manager’s office.
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