TAMPA, Fla. -- One of Aaron Judge's favorite between-innings activities involves scanning the bleachers from right field, looking for a young fan wearing a glove. The Yankees star loves to invite the game’s next generation to play catch, an aspect of the ballpark experience that he sorely missed.
Protocols do not yet permit Judge to engage in the full back and forth that has created countless lifelong memories in ballparks across the country, but he did lob a few souvenir practice balls into the seats. After a year in which his "Judge’s Chambers" sat empty, Judge savored the company during Sunday’s 6-4 Grapefruit League loss to the Blue Jays at George M. Steinbrenner Field.
“It felt great,” Judge said. “A couple of fans were yelling to play catch; I’ve missed having those moments. I had to just save it until my one last toss and let them keep the ball. With all of the rules we’ve got going on, I can’t be spreading [anything]. I tried to be smart about that.”
Sunday marked the Yankees’ first game with fans since March 12, 2020, a span of 353 days. The team said that the official paid attendance was 2,637, and within the walls of the home clubhouse, there was increased excitement as the minutes ticked down to the pregame ceremonies and right-hander Michael King’s first pitch.
Judge said that he sensed that much as he went through his pregame cold-tub routine, remarking to DJ LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres: “Man, I kind of have little butterflies, getting back for my first at-bat.”
Torres also referred to that conversation with LeMahieu and Judge, adding, “We felt really great. We’re happy to see fans in the stands right now. I feel like the first day in school, being back. It’s amazing. I think fans in the stands help us to have more motivation and to be more focused on the game.”
Yankees manager Aaron Boone said that the much-welcomed crowd noise was referred to several times among the coaches on the bench, remarking, “It’s been too long.”
Yet even for those in the dugout, there are frequent reminders of the pandemic. Large plexiglass barriers affixed to the tops of the dugouts separate the players and coaches, while face coverings and socially distanced seating are required for fans.
“There was more separation than you’re used to, so there was still not quite the interaction you have when everything’s normal,” Boone said. “In the end, today was a day where a lot of people were just excited to be back at the ballfield, whether you’re a fan or a player.”
That has even more meaning for Judge, considering his most recent spring was marred by injury. Approximately one year ago, Judge was diagnosed with a stress fracture of his first right rib, the underlying cause of soreness that kept him out of on-field activities. He did not play in a Spring Training game before the March 12 shutdown. Judge went 0-for-2 on Sunday.
“It was great to be back here in Florida, playing in front of some fans and feeling that energy,” Judge said. “You run in the outfield for pregame stretch and the crowd goes a little crazy. It was kind of weird for me that first at-bat; I hit a ground ball and I heard the fans spark up. That instant crowd reaction -- that was something that I’m glad that it’s back.”
Judge remained at the Steinbrenner Field complex after baseball paused last year, continuing his rehab in Tampa before traveling north for the July Summer Camp restart. Enjoying the benefit of a healthy winter, Judge is hopeful that it won’t be long before he can safely resume those treasured games of catch -- be it in Tampa, New York or elsewhere. Until then?
“I’ll just let my play be that connection,” Judge said. “In the past, I could play catch with them, kind of get up around the wall and talk with them, ask them questions and sign autographs. We had to make changes, so I guess I’ve got to be old school and just put on a show for the fans.”