As you’re likely aware, today is the 18th anniversary of Aaron Boone’s walk-off home run against the Red Sox — a wild ending to one of the wildest playoff series ever seen. In doing so, Boone inserted himself into Yankee lore forever, long before he would take over the reins as their manager 15 years later.
However, Yankee players coming up huge in clutch situations with championship implications, and then going on to manage the team after their playing careers ended is nothing new with this franchise. Boone wasn’t the first, and (hopefully) won’t be the last. Let’s take a look at other Yankees who became heroes on the field with clutch October performances prior to becoming Yankees managers.*
*Note: Yogi Berra had two separate short stints as Yankees skipper, but his Hall of Fame career behind the plate had plenty of incredible October moments en route to 10 championship rings. So with a tip of the hat to Yogi, we’ll only focus on the managers with less prestigious playing careers.
In chronological order:
Billy Martin, best known for being combative as a manager (literally in some cases) had plenty of success as a manager with the Yankees. In five stints over eight seasons, Martin posted a career 556-385 record with the team, winning the 1977 World Series.
As a player, Martin wasn’t quite that good, posting an 81 OPS+ and grand total of 3.0 WAR over 11 seasons. Yet he made a game-saving catch in the 1952 World Series, and in Game 6 of the following Fall Classic, he was presented with a monumental opportunity.
The Yankees were leading the Series 3-2, and with Game 6 tied at three in the bottom of the ninth, Martin stepped to the plate. With one out and with Hank Bauer on second base and Mickey Mantle on first, Billy singled up the middle off Brooklyn’s Clem Labine, scoring Bauer for a World Series-winning walk-off hit. The hit gave the Yankees their fifth consecutive championship and is the only walk-off hit to win a World Series in Yankees history.
In two stints as Yankees manager, Lou Piniella posted a 224-193 record in what was a transitional time for the team (i.e., they were transitioning from good to bad). As a player, “Sweet Lou” was dissimilar to the other heroes we’re discussing today, in that Lou could rake. Piniella posted a 129 OPS+ in 513 PA as a corner outfielder and DH for the very memorable 1978 Yankees.
In Game 4 of the 1978 Series, which the Yankees were trailing 2-1 to the Dodgers, Piniella came to the plate in the bottom of the 10th with a chance to end it. Tied at three, with two-out, two on and facing Yankee nemesis Bob Welch, end it he did. A line-drive single to center field scored Roy White, won the game, and tied the Series for the Yankees — a Series they would go on to win in six.
Bucky Dent had a forgettable and — fortunately for him — short stint overseeing pretty bad Yankee teams over 1989 and 1990. As a player, Dent was a three-time All-Star as a glove-first shortstop (well, with a career 74 OPS+ he was a glove-only shortstop.) Of course, he became a Yankees hero by hitting one of the most memorable home runs in team history and earning himself a new nickname among Boston fans in the process. With the Yankees trailing 2-0 in the 1978 AL East division tie-breaker game, Dent came to the plate in the seventh inning with two on, two out, and the Yankees trailing 2-0. After fouling a ball off of his foot and breaking his bat on the previous pitch, he did this:
Ironically, even though the other great moments we’re discussing came in World Series games, Dent’s was the only one besides Boone’s in a “win-or-go-home” elimination game, so we’re including it!
Despite his many critics when he was managing the Yankees (I certainly was one), Joe Girardi had a lot of success as the Yankees’ skipper from 2008-17. Yet most of us remember Joe for coming through as an unlikely hero with one of the biggest hits for the Yankees in the 1996 World Series.
Girardi, like the aforementioned Martin and Dent, wasn’t a particularly good hitter. With a career OPS+ of 72, his 82 OPS+ in 1996 was his best in four seasons as a Yankee. In Game 6 of the 1996 Series, with the Yankees leading the Series 3-2, Girardi stepped to the plate to face Greg Maddux in the bottom of the third inning in a scoreless game. In case you’ve forgotten, not only was Maddux one of the best pitchers of all time in his prime at the time, he had spent his time on the mound in the Series embarrassing Yankees batters. Between his start in Game 2 and the first two innings of Game 6 Maddux had pitched 10 innings without allowing a run, yielding only six hits and no walks.
Paul O’Neill got to Maddux first, starting the third inning with a double, then advanced to third on a Mariano Duncan ground ball out. In stepped the light-hitting Girardi, who did this:
Although of all the hits we’re discussing today, Girardi’s hit had the lowest championship Win Probability Added, it’s etched in the mind of Yankees fans as much, if not more than the others. The mindset of Yankees fans went from “we might win the World Series” to “We’re going to win the World Series!!!” while watching Joe run around the bases. The triple gave the Yankees a lead that they wouldn’t relinquish on their way to their 23rd Championship.
Despite there being no Yankee baseball for a while, and despite all of our opinions about Aaron Boone and his current status with the Yankees, today’s a good day to relive some great moments. (I’m not too proud to admit that watching the clip of Girardi above still gives me goosebumps.) Fingers crossed we see another moment like one of those above next October.