WASHINGTON -- The Yankees are expecting Anthony Volpe's MLB debut to provide Opening Day with even more electricity than normal this year, given the top prospect’s hotly anticipated arrival in the Bronx. And if Tuesday’s 3-0 exhibition loss to the Nationals is any indication, Volpe is ready to dazzle, having highlighted the chilly afternoon at Nationals Park with a pair of impressive defensive plays.
But the team is also looking forward to its Thursday afternoon opener against the Giants at Yankee Stadium for another historic reason: It will mark Aaron Judge's first regular-season game as the 16th captain in Yankees history.
If that storyline has lost any steam since Judge’s free agency dominated the Hot Stove this past offseason, it’s because of the way Volpe’s emergence monopolized much of the chatter around the club this spring. But the significance of Judge’s captaincy is far from lost on Judge or the team, which has not played with a designated captain since Derek Jeter’s retirement in 2014.
“This is going to be special,” Judge said. “Get a chance to play my first Opening Day as the captain, and getting a chance to play against a great organization. We're going to have some fun.”
Judge earned the distinction in December, after returning to the Yankees on a nine-year, $360 million free-agent contract that will keep the record-setting slugger in New York into the next decade. The appointment put Judge in a select club of dignitaries to earn the role, including Lou Gehrig, Ron Guidry, Don Mattingly and Willie Randolph. Judge reiterated Tuesday that he will not wear a “C” patch on his jersey, as Jeter, Mattingly or any of the previous Bronx Bombers captains didn’t.
“We don’t need all that,” Judge said, shaking his head.
Nonetheless, few have assumed the role coming off a better year than Judge, who smashed an American League-record 62 home runs and ran away with the AL MVP honors in 2022, in what was maybe the greatest “walk year” of all time. On the cusp of free agency for the first time, Judge hit .311 and led the Majors in just about everything else, including RBIs (131), OBP (.425), slugging (.686), OPS (1.111), OPS+ (211), total bases (391) and runs scored (133).
Judge, of course, didn’t go anywhere, returning with “unfinished business” to the Yankees after brief free-agent flirtations with the San Francisco Giants and San Diego Padres. That his first game as captain will come against the Giants -- who Judge grew up rooting for as a kid in Linden, Calif. -- adds another layer of intrigue to an already notable Opening Day matchup between two of baseball’s most storied franchises. Judge said he was aware of the scheduling wrinkle during the decision-making process in the offseason.
“I thought, ‘Someone is messing with me,’” Judge quipped. “Yankee fans do a great job every Opening Day. We're all excited to get back to the city and get back to the fans. We’ve got a great team here.”
Asked on Tuesday if he worried that he’d be pitching against Judge on Opening Day, Yankees ace Gerrit Cole shook his head and smirked.
“I almost got close to thinking maybe that could happen,” Cole said. “But I pulled myself back off the edge.”
Cole need not worry about any of that now. He’s signed through 2028, Judge through 2032. Thursday will mark their fourth Opening Day together, and both seem more than ready coming off strong springs. Though he went hitless in two at-bats Tuesday, Judge hit .350 (14-for-40) with two homers in 16 games this spring.
“He’s so impactful, you’re just excited to anticipate what he’s going to do,” Cole said. “He might hit four homers, ya know?”
Said left-hander Nestor Cortes: “Yankee Stadium is going to be rockin’. Everybody's going to be excited. I feel like the fans are eager to watch us play, and obviously, excited to see Volpe and Judge. It’s going to be a fun time.”