Judge's captaincy the dawn of a new era ... or is it?

February 18th, 2023

TAMPA, Fla. -- Like everyone else in the Yankees’ universe, Gerrit Cole entered the offseason hoping that  had not played his final game in pinstripes.

But free agency can be an uncertain process, and the ace admits to feeling “a bit uneasy,” especially when speculation roared that the slugger appeared headed to the West Coast. Cole had some inside information; he’d been in contact with the Giants’ Brandon Crawford, who also happens to be his brother-in-law.

“Obviously, he charmed the Giants. Shocker; he charms everybody,” Cole said. “Brandon said that the meeting went well. I tried to tune out the noise, but that was quite loud. I was sweating it with the rest of us for a second there.”

As the Bombers’ position players prepare to report to George M. Steinbrenner Field on Sunday, there is a relief that Judge does not belong to the Giants, the Padres or anyone else. After signing a nine-year, $360 million contract, Judge is likely a Yankee for life, bound for Monument Park and possibly Cooperstown.

He was also crowned as the 16th captain in franchise history, an era that will begin the second he walks through the clubhouse door.

“He’s here now,” manager Aaron Boone said. “He knows, without a doubt, this is now his home -- and, in a lot of ways, his team. I don’t think you’ll see that big of a change in the person, who he is and how he goes about things, but I do think there’s that incremental step of leadership that he assumes responsibility [for]. He takes a lot of pride in that.”

The reigning American League Most Valuable Player, Judge made history by breaking Roger Maris’ 61-year-old single-season AL home run record, leading the Majors in runs (133), homers (62), RBIs (131), on-base percentage (.425), slugging percentage (.686), OPS (1.111) and total bases (391).

But within the clubhouse walls, Judge’s impact can not be measured by statistics alone.

“There was a lot of attention on him, but it still felt like it was all about the team somehow,” said closer Clay Holmes. “I think it just shows how he’s able to lead guys. There was a sense of, ‘This is us going out there.’ It was fun for everybody. I felt like we were all a part of it, and I think that speaks to how he goes about his business and treats people.”

Added reliever Michael King: "When everyone finds out you’re on the Yankees, their first question is, ‘What’s Aaron Judge like?’ He’s unlike anybody I’ve ever met because he’s such a superstar, but he treats everyone like they’re the star. I remember I got called up in 2019 and didn’t really know anybody. He came up to me in the trainers’ room and said, ‘About damn time you’re here, Kinger!’ It made me feel so good about myself. I absolutely love that about him.”

Judge has spoken with Derek Jeter, the Yanks’ previous captain, about how Jeter approached the captaincy from 2003 through his retirement after the 2014 season. Judge has said that he expects new “responsibilities to my teammates, the fan base, [and] the media,” but no seismic shift in his day-to-day preparation. Boone said he believes Judge is ready for any workload the title could entail.

“He’s been one of the main leaders on our team now for a number of years,” Boone said. “He’s always one of those guys that I talk to, to confide in, when we’re considering different things. I’ll go to him with certain things that I’m thinking about, especially big picture with the team.”

Said pitcher Lou Trivino: “He was already the captain. No one was like, ‘Oh, Judge a captain? Never thought of that.’ In my mind, it was just a formality. He’s a very genuine guy; he cares more about just himself. He’s the guy you want on your team, not only because of his talent but his character.”

Though he is a product of Linden, Calif., Judge makes his offseason home in Tampa and has been working out at the Yankees’ player development facility for weeks, swinging the bat alongside DJ LeMahieu, Gleyber Torres, Isiah Kiner-Falefa and others.

Few players around the league could create an online stir simply by taking a few ground balls at first base, as Judge did earlier this week, but the team’s most recognizable star has reached that level. Yet, by all accounts, Judge remains level-headed, measured and focused -- just as he was in 2017, his first full season in the Majors.

“He won’t change one bit,” said catcher Jose Trevino. “He’s going to be the same guy. He’s going to be our leader. He’s going to be our captain. And we’re looking forward to it.”