AGM Chats: 2003 ALCS Hero Aaron Boone

Al Bello

Through the efforts of Subway and the Challenger Division of Little League Baseball, I recently had the opportunity to talk with former Yankee third baseman Aaron Boone. Although he only played half a season in the Bronx, Boone is an integral part of Yankees history, as he famously hit the home run against Tim Wakefield that beat the Boston Red Sox in the 2003 ALCS, then played a pickup game of basketball in January 2004 that ended in a torn ACL, which led to the Yankees' acquisition of Alex Rodriguez. Boone was a third-generation big-leaguer (following in the footsteps of grandfather Ray, father Bob, and brother Bret), and he had a fine 12-year career from 1997-2009 with the Reds, Yankees, Indians, Marlins, Nationals, and Astros. Highlights of his career include 1,017 hits, 126 homers, and an All-Star appearance in '03. Boone also recovered from open-heart surgery in March 2009 to fix a lifelong heart condition to play in the big leagues later that year. Since his career ended, he has been been an analyst for ESPN, working on "Baseball Tonight." Watching his homer sail into the New York night was easily one of my top fan moments since getting into baseball, so it was awesome to chat with him about that night and his entire baseball career.

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Can you tell me a little bit about growing up in a baseball family? You're in the third generation of Boones to play in Major League Baseball. What was that like growing up?

Well, I tell people all the time that I had the greatest childhood ever (laughs). My dad was in the big leagues from the time I was born through my senior year in high school. I grew up--big league clubhouses and fields were my playground. My dad played on a ton of great teams with the Phillies, Angels, and Royals. My brother and I shared our own locker in Veterans Stadium. My dad always took us along, and we grew up taking batting practice and shagging balls in major league stadiums. It was a fun way to grow up and at the time, it was all we knew so I didn't realize it, but looking back, it was the best.

Did you ever make any trips to the Yankee Stadium clubhouse when you were a kid?

I did. We lived in south Jersey outside of Philadelphia for all the years my dad played with the Phillies. When he went to the Angels, we still lived in our house in Jersey for a couple years, so when the Angels would come out to play the Yankees, that was my first time actually going there. I remember them being very strict about not letting kids out on the field once batting practice started. We weren't used to that--we usually even had our uniforms out with the team and everything, but the Yankees were very strict about having kids on the field.

What was your reaction when you were traded from the Reds to the Yankees in 2003? Were you expecting a trade and did you expect to go to the Yankees of all teams?

It was very bittersweet in that Cincinnati had been all I'd known. I was drafted by them, came up through their system, and spent six, seven years there. It was a place I loved and had a lot of great times, but at the same time, we had fallen out of the pennant race that year, and I was going to the Yankees and first place to have the opportunity to really chase a title. It was an exciting time. Leading up to it, the Reds had traded a few people and initially, they had come out and said they wouldn't trade me. Then, a couple of days before the deadline, they decided I might be available. I actually remember my agent being in contact--the night before, I went to bed and it had come down to the Dodgers, the Mariners, and the Yankees. So I was then thinking that I would be traded to one of those teams the very next day. I woke up that morning, and my agent called me and said, "Brian Cashman will be calling here pretty soon." Brian called me and said, "You're coming to the Yankees. Can you meet us in Oakland tomorrow?" I was like, "Yeah!" and off I was to Oakland.

So you're playing with the Yankees and you make the playoffs for the first time in your career, and you struggled for a little while before Game 7 against the Red Sox. Then, you were able to come up late in the game and you hit the home run that won the pennant. What was that whole experience like?

Just great. To be involved in that intense of a series and rivalry was amazing. I remember when I found out that I had been traded, Tim Naehring, the director of player development with the Reds who had played with the Red Sox for a long time, said, "Wait until you go to Boston to see that rivalry." I had always considered myself a fan of the game and had a good knowledge and understanding of that rivalry, but I remember my first trip to Boston as a Yankee in August, just a regular season game--he was right. I had no idea about the intensity of that rivalry. Then, to see it ratcheted up come the postseason when you're playing with a trip to the World Series on the line--that was pretty awesome to be a part of, and to have a small place in the history of that rivalry is pretty cool.

After you hit the home run, you went on to play the Marlins in the World Series. It unfortunately was not a Series victory for the Yankees, but it was definitely very competitive with a lot of great games. What was that like for you?

Disappointing (laughs), just because we lost. My lasting memory, for the longest time, of the whole postseason was the Marlins celebrating on our field. It was kind of a surreal moment, hearing their voices off in the distance looking out from the dugout. It really kind of stuck with me for a long time and was my lasting memory of that season. So, it was frustrating not to complete what we came so close to having happen, but at the same time, to get a chance to play in a World Series was very special.

Yeah, a lot of players never even made it that far. It must have been a tremendous atmosphere there.

Oh yeah, unbelievable. I remember actually the first game there in Yankee Stadium; it was less than 48 hours after we beat Boston. It was a little bit of a letdown. You just couldn't match the intensity of that Red Sox-Yankees series. That first game, I felt like (I'm not sure what the term would be) we had a little bit of a hangover from the Red Sox series. I think it kind of took us a game to really get in the flow. We kind of had a lethargic first game, and fell behind.

One of the moments that turned that series around for the Yankees was Game 2, when Andy Pettitte threw 8.2 scoreless innings against the Marlins. What kind of a teammate was Pettitte like, and how has it amazed you with his turnaround this year?

He was great, and a lot of fun to play behind, as was that entire staff, whether it was Mussina, Clemens, or Boomer. As a third baseman, when that cutter and slider were working, there was always a lot of action. I think my first game, when I went to Oakland, I played behind Andy and I had like eight or nine chances at third base. He was just a great teammate. I remember he actually should have had a shutout in Game 2 but I made an error in the ninth inning that got him out of the game. I felt so bad, and he could not have been more awesome. He was just like, "Hey, don't even worry about it. We're about to get a victory here."

He was great, and what he's doing now--when I heard he was coming back, I didn't doubt that he might have some success or that he would be viable. But to see him still be this good is pretty amazing and a tribute to him, the shape he's kept himself in, and the kind of competitor he is. Since he's come back, I think not only has he pitched great, but I think he's also had a tremendous effect on that pitching staff by just stabilizing it and having an influence since he's been there. The whole staff started pitching better, and I think that's a tribute to not only to his physical ability, but to the kind of person he is and the kind of presence he has on the team with that staff.

Did you have a favorite teammate at all when you were with the Yankees in 2003?

Oh, man. Not really. Honestly, they all met or surpassed my expectations. I really had a good experience, and they were all really good guys. I don't think I could single out one.

So, after the 2003 season, you got the basketball injury that led to the Yankees acquiring Alex Rodriguez almost out of nowhere. Did that move surprise you?

I don't know if it necessarily surprised me because once I had the injury and the Yankees released me, I was in the mindset of getting better--having my surgery, getting my rehab process started. So, I had kind of turned the page. I don't think anything the Yankees do ever really surprises me, I guess. It didn't surprise me to see them go after probably the best player in the sport at the time.

Later in your career, you had heart surgery to fix a heart condition that you had for a long time, and you actually made it back to major games that September. What was that recovery process like for you?

It was, in a way, awesome. Having that surgery initially, it was the real deal. It's a tough, tough road back, but to see yourself improve all the time and to get the opportunity to make it back by September was a special time in my life. I had so many awesome people, from ex-teammates to people I'd never met, reach out to me in a positive way. Not that I had lost faith in humanity or anything, but to see the outpouring of people that reached out to me and cared was really special. It turned out to be a real blessing for me.

Who is the toughest pitcher that you ever had to face during your career?

Let's see... I'll give you a few. Ben Sheets was very tough on me, Johan Santana was very tough on me, Al Leiter, and Freddy Garcia. Those are usually my go-to answers of guys that were tough for me to hit.

What was it about their pitches? Were they just hard to read for you as a batter?

Well, maybe. I think all those guys I just named were very good pitchers. Ben Sheets was the ace of the Brewers for a long time and had a really good fastball/curveball combination. Freddy Garcia--people sometimes forget how good he was in Seattle and then Chicago--obviously a big guy and just a great 94 mph sinker with that slider and split-finger. That downward plane he pitched on was tough. I faced Johan a ton when he was in his heyday in Minnesota--just a great fastball/changeup combination. Al Leiter, I just felt like was always really tough. I feel like I faced him a bunch of times when I was really feeling good at the plate, and he would never make mistakes to me. He'd get that cutter in on that corner or in off the plate. He was a tough matchup for me.

The old stadium's gone now, but have you made any trips to the new Yankee Stadium yet since it was built in 2009?

I have. We were just there for the ESPN broadcast on Monday night. We've probably broadcast 10 games from there over the last few seasons, and I've been back for different events and things. So I've been there quite a bit over the last three seasons.

So the Yankees are having Old Timer's Day coming up this weekend. Have they sent any invitations to you to come back at all yet, or are you just not ready to declare yourself an "Old Timer"?

Actually, it's funny you say that. The day I retired, we tied it in with me signing with ESPN. We did a press release and the whole thing. Literally, probably 30 minutes after I made the retirement announcement, I had a call from the Yankees inviting me to Old Timer's Day. I was like, "Geez, you had me on speed-dial didn't you?" (laughs). So I haven't made it back yet, but I plan on it one of these years. It's a little hard with my schedule because we do Monday night games, and I have to be in the city we're doing the game in on Sunday for meetings and things like that, so it's been hard. I'm 39 now and I'll be 40 in March--I feel like I'll wait until I'm at least 40 before doing the Old Timer's Day (laughs). I do plan on doing it one of these years, hopefully sooner rather than later.

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Many thanks again to Aaron Boone, Subway, and the Challenger Division of Little League Baseball for helping Pinstripe Alley organize this interview. You can follow Aaron on Twitter at @AaronBoone_ESPN.

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