A few hours before the season’s first pitch, Aaron Judge hiked his navy socks underneath his pinstriped pants and glanced up to acknowledge a media crowd gathering around his Yankee Stadium locker. The hot topic was a potential contract extension, one that could keep the Yankees superstar belting homers in the Bronx for years to come.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Judge said then, adding a wink and a sly grin.
In truth, Judge already knew that he had placed the bet of his life upon his talent, performance and health -- turning down a seven-year, $213.5 million proposal. Judge told the Yankees he would like to stay in New York, playing for the franchise that developed him into a star. He still can; it will just be on his terms.
As the baseball world focuses on Dodger Stadium for the All-Star Game, Judge is front and center as one of the game’s most recognizable faces, an appropriate setting given Hollywood’s long-standing reputation for glitz and glamour. By nearly any measure, this has been the 30-year-old Judge’s finest season thus far. He makes it clear that the fun has only just begun.
“I wanted those high expectations,” Judge said. “I set high expectations [for] myself. There’s something Gerrit Cole said when we signed him; he always wanted to be a Yankee, and he said, ‘Pressure is a privilege,’ getting this opportunity to be in those big games and those big moments. That’s why I get out of bed every single day. That’s why I train the way I do, to be in that situation.”
Now, the first player in franchise history to hit 30 or more homers before two All-Star breaks, Judge has returned to the stage that introduced him to a national audience in 2017, when he outperformed future teammate Giancarlo Stanton to raise a Home Run Derby crown in a memorable Miami Midsummer Classic.
That 6-foot-7, 282-pound he-man with an easy, aw-shucks demeanor was at the heart of the "Baby Bombers" movement, summoned to the big leagues with an interruption from a midnight meal at a Rochester, N.Y., barbecue joint. There was a bleary-eyed highway sprint to the city, where he announced his arrival with a towering home run off Yankee Stadium’s center-field restaurant.
En route to a unanimous selection as the American League’s Rookie of the Year and a runner-up finish in the AL Most Valuable Player voting that has been debated with hindsight, that raw version of Judge promised must-see value with each at-bat. As entertaining as Judge’s 2017 was, his steely focus on a standout 2022 has provided an even more complete product.
“I don’t know that much is different, other than that he’s just a more refined, complete, experienced, established veteran player,” said manager Aaron Boone. “In Aaron’s case, we’re talking about an elite player. Do you stay stagnant, stand still? Do you have the aptitude that allows you to make adjustments, learn things, learn yourself? I feel like he’s done that really well. ... He’s just got it.”
Judge didn’t listen much, but he was tangentially aware of the talk-radio chatter when the New York stations debated the merits of swelling his bank accounts with Mike Trout-level cash -- picking apart every thread of his choice to turn down that extension. Wouldn’t Judge like to be in Monument Park someday? (Of course he would.)
Adhering to the "don’t-say-much" playbook that served Derek Jeter well over two decades in the world’s largest media market, Judge allowed his 35-inch, 32-ounce black Chandler bat to do most of the talking -- leading the Majors in runs scored (74) and AB/HR ratio (10.24), ranking second in slugging (.618), tied for third in RBIs (70) and third in OPS (.982).
“Betting on himself or not, what he’s doing is really impressive,” said Yankees general manager Brian Cashman. “He’s obviously extremely talented and has been a big performer for years now. This season he’s having has been remarkable. No one wants him to win the MVP more than we do. We’re proud of him for what he’s done thus far and we look forward to him hopefully leading us all the way.”
Observed Yankees pitcher Michael King: “I look at him like he’s the greatest guy in the world and the best baseball player in the world. Every time he’s up in the box, I’m expecting a home run.”
The fans noticed, checking the box next to Judge’s name on more than 3.7 million All-Star ballots, the highest total during Phase 1 of voting. The first Yankee to lead the Majors in All-Star voting since A-Rod in 2008, Judge is now a four-time All-Star, intending to share a private jet with a couple of teammates and their families as they rocket toward the West Coast for some fun in the sun.
It will surely be a quick and dizzying visit, outstretched paws tugging Judge’s sleeves in varying directions for a selfie or an autograph. Judge intends to drink it all in, savoring whatever well-earned respite he can sneak in during the memory-making excursion, before returning to his main objective.
And what is that? One might guess that Judge’s fantastic on-field performance has been fueled by that looming mega-deal, talks that should re-open after the season, but he says that’s not so. Instead, he has spent too many nights standing in the Yankee Stadium outfield, eyeing the pennants affixed to the third deck.
In his lifetime alone, the Yanks hung World Series banners for these seasons: 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2009. Yankees fans would agree that it has been too long, their last championship trophy having been hoisted in a universe that had yet to touch an iPad. The titles are what last forever -- and whatever it takes, Judge intends to have his fingerprints on a championship trophy this autumn.
“What sticks out in my head is, it’s a privilege to be in this position,” Judge said. “Whenever we’re walking through Yankee Stadium, we see the championships up there. We see the old photos of all these guys being in pressure situations. That’s what I want. I want to be in those pictures.”