TAMPA — Aaron Boone walked to home plate for his first game as a manager at any level and was greeted by Detroit's Ron Gardenhire, a 60-year-old baseball lifer back in charge of a big-league team for the first time in four years.
"I told him to go easy on me," Boone said. "I didn't want to look him in the eye — like Jedi mind trick on me or something."
Hired to replace Joe Girardi, the former ESPN broadcaster managed the Yankees over the Tigers 3-1 on a warm and sunny Friday afternoon in their spring training opener.
Boone arrived at Steinbrenner Field at about 7 a.m., his usual time, six hours before the first pitch. He got in an early morning workout, was in the famous pinstriped uniform more than an hour before game time and wore his cap high on his forehead, like Joe Torre did when Boone helped the 2003 Yankees reach the World Series with a pennant-winning home run.
Boone watched the game from a folding chair on the home plate side of the Yankees dugout, with new bench coach Josh Bard alongside. He tapped his chest, giving signals to a lineup that included big-league home run champion Giancarlo Stanton, who walked and grounded into a double play in his first game since Miami dealt him to New York. Boone said it was likely the first time he watched an entire game from the dugout area since he was a young player in the 1990s.
"One of the things for me anyway in spring training is just kind of really getting on the same page communicating with my coaches, whether it's through signs, whether it's through comments or whether it's just through non-verbal understanding of each other," Boone said. "Those are the things that for me personally will be something that I really want to iron out and button up here over the next five or so weeks."
New York is opening Steinbrenner Field's gates three hours before each game, an hour earlier than before. But those who came to gawk and ball-hawk were disappointed — Stanton hit at the minor-league complex, and AL home run champion Aaron Judge took batting practice on a back field.
Anticipation and expectation have soared since Judge and Gary Sanchez led the new-look Baby Bombers to Game 7 of the AL Championship Series last October, back at a high level for the first time since the desiccated remnants of the Core Four plus A-Rod era repeatedly flopped following the 2009 title.
"Even in BP and just in practice, people are watching. They're not just at the park having a good time," first baseman Greg Bird said. "Yeah, there was definitely a buzz."
Boone has not instituted revolutionary changes to a team Girardi managed for a decade. Bard's workout chart with boxes in green, blue, red and yellow has replaced the monochromatic editions of his predecessor, Rob Thomson. The manager's office has the same generic Yankees photos and inspirational quotes. The only hint of personalization is on the white board containing the schedule — notations for days when family arrives and departs.
New York wanted generational change, and it went for a 44-year-old in a three-generation baseball family. Boone was caught by television microphones chirped "Good job, Birdy!" at his first baseman, much like most managers would.
"That's ball talk. That's my whole life," Boone said. "I'll throw things out there. I don't think I'm going to be overly rah-rah or anything like that, but you'll hear me."
Boone had worked as a television commentator since his final season as a player in 2009. The dugout view is quite different when you're in charge.
On the second pitch of the game, second baseman Gleyber Torres sprawled attempting a backhand stop of Leonys Martin's grounder, which glanced off his glove for an infield hit. Playing for the first time since tearing a ligament in his left elbow during a headfirst slide at Triple A last June, Torres got up a tad slowly.
"You do hold your breath a little more for your guys now in this role, no question," Boone said.
Stanton, tall and chiseled, brings a star air with him from Miami. He spoke in the clubhouse with gold-colored Monster headphones lifted just above his ears, happy to have escaped the perennially rebuilding Marlins.
"This is better. More excitement," he said. "Can't wait to see what we can do. That's what would be the difference."
Bird watched from the vicinity of the on-deck circle as the big hunk hit.
"I got the best view in the house besides the catcher," he said.
Boone liked his vantage point, too. He took notice when top prospect Estevan Florial missed a pitch in the fifth inning and let his bat fly over the new netting atop the first-base dugout and into the seats, where a fan made a one-handed grab.
"I turned to Josh Bard and said it always amazes me when guys torpedo the bat like that," Boone said. "I had a death grip on that thing, so I don't think I ever let go of one."
An attitude that likely carries over to his new job.