TAMPA, Fla. — It was, I suppose, like any other first day of spring training for the New York Yankees. Gary Sanchez inspected a stack of orange Nike boxes full of new sneakers. A clubhouse attendant placed a pair of very large and freshly scrubbed spikes in CC Sabathia‘s locker. Dellin Betances answered questions about his weight — he’s at a trim 264 pounds, down from 280 at the end of last season, although he joked, “I know I’m going to gain some weight during the season with all the late-night eating.”
Of course, it wasn’t any other day at Yankees camp because it was Aaron Boone’s first real day on the job as manager. As he took questions from the media, it was immediately clear the Yankees will have a different kind of manager guiding the team after 10 seasons under Joe Girardi, and also a notice of how much has changed for the Yankees since last spring.
A year ago, Girardi entered the season in the final year of his contract. At his initial spring training news conference, he said he hoped to manage the Yankees beyond 2017, while admitting that nine seasons is “a long time.” As ESPN.com’s Andrew Marchand wrote last February, Girardi’s state-of-the-team sessions were boringly efficient, with a main goal “to provide nothing of interest.”
While Girardi approached his job like an investment banker, Boone promises to be more personable, a little more huggable, a little more like Joe Torre and a little less sandpaper personality. After he was hired in early December, Boone made it a point to connect with many of the players, embarking on dinners and golf outings with some of them. He stressed that he wants to create a clubhouse culture “where guys are at ease, where guys are allowed to be themselves, where you walk into our room and it’s not a stressful place.”
That wasn’t a direct dig at Girardi, but it does point to why general manager Brian Cashman made a managerial change following a successful season. After all, ESPN.com ran a profile of Girardi last spring with the headline, “Is Joe Girardi having fun yet?” The feeling was that Girardi didn’t connect with the young players.
Gary Sanchez was one of those players. Sanchez received a lot of criticism from Girardi because of his mistakes on defense — not without warrant as the young catcher struggled at times on some of the finer aspects of his game. Girardi benched Sanchez in a game last August in Cleveland, a decision that caught Sanchez by surprise at the time. On Tuesday, Sanchez said he understood the critiques from Girardi. “Looking back, all the things Girardi said were to help me get better,” he said. “In the end, I feel like he did help me get better. You also have to move on.”
Still, while Boone takes the reins with no managerial or coaching experience — he has spent his post-playing days as a broadcaster for ESPN — he knows what he’s stepping into. While Girardi had his binders and his corny jokes and his daily routines — he had the same breakfast of six egg whites and ham on wheat toast every day — he also was successful. He won a World Series and never had a losing season. After a period of rebuilding, the Baby Bombers won 91 games last year, the most for the Yankees since 2012, and came within one win of reaching their first World Series since 2009.
Last spring, only one of 35 ESPN baseball contributors picked the Yankees to win the American League East. Only nine picked the Yankees to make the playoffs. The forecasts this year will be completely different. The Baby Bombers are a year older. Aaron Judge is no longer a question mark who may win a job in spring training — he’s coming off a historic season in which he slammed 52 home runs. The addition of National League MVP Giancarlo Stanton brings a 59-homer slugger to a lineup that already led the majors in home runs. The bullpen is deep and dominant, with David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle now on board for an entire season.
“If we don’t win [the World Series], it won’t be a great year for us,” Betances said.
Asked about that, Boone smiled. “Well, he’s right about the World Series,” he said. Boone didn’t shy away from those expectations, and that’s exactly what Yankees fans love to hear. Some of that old Steinbrenner-like swagger is back for the first time in a long time. “I think one of the things that’s exciting for me is to hear some of those comments,” Boone added. “A lot of these guys came of age and I think viewed  as a very successful season. But what stands out in that room right now is each guy I’ve spoken to, the hunger is there and there’s no satisfaction with what they were able to accomplish.”
Sanchez didn’t go to the World Series-or-bust route like Betances, but he spoke of how excited he was when he was back home in the Dominican Republic and learned the team had acquired Stanton. He mentioned how exciting the playoffs were with the heightened atmosphere and his desire to get back there.
Sanchez and Judge are the new breed of Yankees, homegrown talent. The last time Boone was with the Yankees as a player — 2003, when he hit his famous home run to win the American League Championship Series — the average age of the position players was over 30. While the starters for 2018 at second base and third base will be determined in spring training — rookies Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar are the favorites heading into camp — the only projected starter older than 28 will be outfielder Brett Gardner.
They may still be young, but don’t call them the Baby Bombers any longer. They’re the Bronx Bombers again. And that means all eyes are pointing to a World Series title.
So good luck, Mr. Boone. The first day is the easiest one.