Yankees Mag: Bulldog Born, Bulldog Bred

Aaron Judge’s college experience at Fresno State helped lay the foundation for his remarkable career in pinstripes

May 14th, 2024
As one of the first to truly realize how much potential Judge had, Batesole helped mold the outfielder into a big league superstar and Yankees icon. (Photo Credit: New York Yankees)

Anticipation had been building all weekend long. Fresno State alumni, former players and supporters of the Bulldogs baseball team had traveled from near and far to see the 12th and 13th numbers in the program’s storied history retired. The sheet covering up the No. 44 of legendary head coach Mike Batesole on the left-field wall had been removed a few moments earlier to great applause, and it was now time to unveil the No. 29 that had been worn from 2011-2013 by Fresno’s most famous baseball export.

“Every fan who comes here will look up and say, ‘Hey, really did go to Fresno State,’” said longtime Bulldogs play-by-play announcer and ceremony emcee Paul Loeffler, eliciting laughs from hundreds of enthusiastic and cheerful fans as they turned their gaze toward the press box behind home plate.

Lining the façade of the building, they could see the previously retired numbers of players such as Augie Garrido, who went on to become perhaps the greatest coach in college baseball history; hometown hero Tom Goodwin, who played 14 seasons in the big leagues from 1991-2004; Terry Pendleton, who won a batting title and was the National League MVP in 1991 with Atlanta; Jimy Williams, the 1999 AL Manager of the Year with Boston; Bobby Jones, a 15-game winner and an All-Star with the Mets in 1997; and Mark Gardner, who pitched 13 years in the big leagues from 1989-2001.

With Loeffler’s encouragement, the crowd counted to three in unison, and a staffer pulled on the string tethered to the plastic that had been covering up the newest addition to the pantheon of immortal “Diamond Dogs.” But the string snapped without removing anything, drawing another round of laughs mixed with a few uh-oh’s.

Judge, dressed sharply in a dark red suit jacket and sitting on a folding chair in the middle of the diamond alongside his coach, Batesole, smiled as well. Perhaps this was another one of those moments, like so many that he experienced as an undergrad, where things don’t go as smoothly as planned. But then and now, that Bulldog spirit takes over, and somehow, some way, the job gets done.


During his collegiate career, Judge was less known for tape-measure home runs and more for his impressive all-around, balanced skill set. While he flashed the titanic power for which he would become famous from time to time, it wasn’t yet a hallmark of his game. To this day, Judge remains among the Bulldogs’ all-time *stolen base* leaders. (Photo Credit: Peter Lockley/NCAA Photos)

At California’s Linden High School, about two hours north of Fresno, Judge was an excellent student and a superb three-sport athlete. His size and his talents could have taken him nearly anywhere, but in reality, he was always going to end up at Fresno State. He had heard his parents, Wayne and Patty, share so many fond memories of their time there, and seeing Batesole lead the Bulldogs “from underdogs to wonderdogs” during their Cinderella run to the national championship in 2008 only intensified his affection for the cardinal red and blue.

Still, Batesole wasn’t taking any chances.

Hosting a summer showcase for top high school prospects, the head coach watched the 6-foot-7 slugger take all of three swings before springing into action.

“There were other scouts in the stands from other schools, so I was like, ‘That’s enough. Where’s your parents?’” said Batesole, who retired in 2022 after 20 seasons at the helm. “Nobody else was seeing him.”

Judge was still in his cleats as he climbed the stairs at Pete Beiden Field to where his parents were sitting and told them that the coach wanted to meet with the three of them in his office.

“They’re like, ‘Did you just get kicked out of the camp? What’s happening?” Judge recalled. “But that was the first time I really got to spend some time with Bater, and right there on the spot he offered me a scholarship and said, ‘We’d love to have you.’

“That’s a day I never will forget.”

It wasn’t just the impressive facilities or the national championship pedigree or the long list of former Bulldogs in the pros that attracted Judge. In conversations with the coaching staff and several of the players on the team at that time, he began to understand the type of program Batesole had built: a culture of selflessness, of hard work, of always putting the team ahead of any individual accomplishments. One of the players Judge spoke with at length that day was Jordan Ribera, who never at any point mentioned that he had just led the entire nation in home runs.

“Coach Batesole, with his philosophy about hard work, determination -- along with Aaron’s personality -- it was a natural fit,” said Jacob Alvarez, a teammate of Judge’s during all three of his seasons at Fresno State.

“I just instantly knew this is a special place to be and where I wanted to be,” Judge said.

That’s not to say the “natural fit” was without its challenges. Judge had barely learned his way around campus when he got a taste of what life would be like under Batesole. During fall ball his freshman year, the future American League MVP was hitting around .200, “just getting my butt kicked,” while watching teammates such as Ribera, Brennan Gowens and Dusty Robinson go off, “making the game look easy.” After taking an 0-fer, Judge slammed his helmet to the ground and plopped himself down at the far end of the bench near the water coolers, where he could pout in peace.

Or so he thought.

“Hey, Judgey!” he heard his coach bellow. “You’d better get real comfortable right there. You keep this up, you’re going to be sitting there alllll spring.”

Thinking Batesole had been locked in on the game action, Judge couldn’t believe what he was hearing. How is he seeing me down here moping, sulking in my 0-for-4 and my terrible fall? he wondered. But in that moment, Batesole was instilling an important lesson.

“He was teaching me that if you don’t like where you’re at or how things are going, sitting on the end of the bench not doing anything about it, that ain’t going to change your situation,” Judge said. “You’ve got to step up, you’ve got to make a change, you’ve got to work harder, you’ve got to ask your teammates questions. It really inspired me.

“It was a lesson that I take into now, not only in my professional career trying to get better, but also my family life and my personal life.”


Few places in the world remain as close to Judge’s heart as Pete Beiden Field at Bob Bennett Stadium on the campus of Fresno State. This past offseason, Judge returned for a memorable ceremony during which the school retired the number of the player who would go on to rewrite baseball’s record books and become captain of the New York Yankees. (Photo Credit: New York Yankees)

By the time the spring of 2011 rolled around, Judge had earned a spot as the team’s starting center fielder and would help the Bulldogs go 40-16, winning the Western Athletic Conference regular season and conference tournament titles. The team’s NCAA run was short-lived, though: A 12-6 loss to UC Irvine and a 3-1 loss to Gerrit Cole’s UCLA Bruins in the UCLA Regional sent the Bulldogs packing. Judge played in all but one of his team’s games, collecting 30 RBIs and 11 steals in 12 attempts. He scored 38 runs on 67 hits, including 12 doubles, two homers and one triple, and his .358 average was highest on the team among regulars; only fellow freshman Alvarez (.381) had a higher figure, albeit in just 21 at-bats.

Louisville Slugger placed Judge on its Freshman All-American team, and he was named WAC Freshman of the Year, earning an invite to play summer ball in the prestigious Alaska Baseball League, just as one of his favorite San Francisco Giants, Barry Bonds, had done in 1983 following his freshman year at Arizona State. Judge’s tantalizing size prompted the Alaska folks to organize the league’s inaugural home run derby, which he did not win, nor did he homer that summer for the Anchorage Glacier Pilots. The rising sophomore was more interested in driving balls into the gap and honing his skills in the outfield.

“He was well balanced, and he worked on every aspect of it behind closed doors,” Alvarez said. “Stealing bases; defensively, working hard there. It was all over.”

The power for which the AL’s future single-season home run record holder is so well known hadn’t fully emerged yet, but there were certainly glimpses of it.

Just 10 games into Judge’s sophomore season, the Bulldogs hosted the No. 1 team in the country, Stanford. On the mound for the first game was one of the nation’s top pitching prospects, Mark Appel, who would turn down a reported $6 million signing bonus from the Pirates that summer after being drafted with the eighth pick, then go first overall to the Astros in the 2013 MLB Draft. After retiring the Bulldogs in order in the first inning, Appel issued a leadoff walk in the second, then saw Judge crush the first pitch of the at-bat deep over the wall in left-center. The next time up, Judge did the same thing, launching a mammoth solo shot out toward North Cedar Avenue.

“Everybody was wondering, ‘Hey, can Judgey hit Friday night pitching? Can he hit the best pitchers?’” Batesole recalled. “So, that was for me, like, ‘See, I’ve been telling you guys! This guy’s 1-1!’ They got to see it off the best pitcher in the country that year -- two balls disappeared over that scoreboard.”

The Bulldogs won that game, 7-4, and afterward, as Yankees fans might not be surprised to hear, Judge talked not about his two moonshots, but about the batter who drew a walk ahead of him in his first plate appearance, about the Bulldogs pitcher who told him what to look for if Appel threw a first-pitch breaking ball in his next at-bat, about the freshman whose bases-loaded double in the sixth proved to be the difference in the game.

“When we would do interviews as a baseball team, you didn’t say ‘me’ or ‘I.’ You didn’t talk about yourself,” Judge said. “It was about the team. It was about putting the other 40 guys before yourself because in baseball, in life, it’s a team game. It’s always a team game.

“Learning those lessons here has allowed me to take that into New York and with the Yankees, and the cultures just align perfectly. What the Yankees are all about -- they’re about winning, about the team, about tradition -- that’s everything that I learned here at Fresno State and the culture that Coach Batesole and the administrative staff and everyone really honed in on. So, it just fit hand in hand, and it was a great stepping stone in my life and career.”

Judge hit just two other home runs as a sophomore, as the Bulldogs fell to fifth place in the WAC. But they went on a late-season run, winning their seventh straight conference tournament -- Fresno State’s final WAC crown before joining the Mountain West. It ended with a 1-2 showing in the Stanford Regional, as the Bulldogs ultimately fell to Pepperdine, 8-5, in a game in which they allowed six runs in the ninth. Judge started in 58 of 59 games, batting .309 with the four homers and 27 RBIs. He stole 13 out of 15 bases but was charged with five outfield errors (a .959 fielding percentage).

That summer, he was thrilled to accept an invitation to play for the Brewster Whitecaps in the Cape Cod Baseball League. And although Fresno State had fallen short of the College World Series, Judge did travel to Omaha, Neb., that July to compete in the 2012 College Baseball Home Run Derby. Two years earlier, in the final event at historic Rosenblatt Stadium, Ribera had lost in the finals. Judge had every intention of going one step further.

Ryan Overland had been a senior catcher on the Bulldogs’ 2008 national championship team and was then a volunteer assistant on Batesole’s staff. He met Judge halfway between Fresno and Cape Cod to serve as his derby pitcher in front of more than 22,000 people at TD Ameritrade Park.

“Neither of us had ever really experienced something like that,” Overland said. “Earlier in the day, they brought all the contestants down for batting practice, but it’s just kind of normal BP; there’s nobody in the stands or any kind of adrenaline going.

“But then when it started going, you could see there was a look in his eye: ‘Hey, we’re here to win this thing.’”

Win it he did, a feat Judge would replicate five years later at the 2017 MLB All-Star Game in Miami -- the first rookie to win a Home Run Derby outright.

After earning three first-team All-Conference selections and winning the 2012 College Baseball Home Run Derby during his collegiate career, Judge somehow lasted until the Yankees took him 32nd overall in the 2013 MLB Draft. His time in a Bulldogs uniform prepared him well for the pinstripes. “What the Yankees are all about -- they’re about winning, about the team, about tradition -- that’s everything that I learned here at Fresno State,” Judge said. “It was a great steppingstone in my life and career.” (Photo Credit: Steve Woltmann)


The lessons that Judge had absorbed as an underclassman both on and off the field were on full display as the junior produced his finest season yet in 2013. He led the Bulldogs in every major offensive category, slashing .369/.462/.655 to earn third-team All-America honors. The power he displayed in Omaha began to show up in the spring, as he clubbed 12 home runs, 15 doubles and four triples. He posted double-digit steals for a third straight year -- few would guess that Judge’s name appears on Fresno State’s all-time top 10 list for stolen bases but not for home runs -- and he earned first-team All-Conference honors for the third time. And although the Bulldogs missed the postseason, going 23-33 in their first year in the Mountain West and losing to San Diego State in the conference tournament final, the 21-year-old Judge deftly handled an increasing amount of attention in the weeks and months leading up to the Draft.

“Coach Batesole, he saw it the whole way,” said Overland, who took over as Fresno State’s head coach in 2023. “There were so many days where he’d come in giddy after practice, like, ‘We have Dave Winfield on our team!’ The scouts would come, and he would always tell them, ‘If he’s not 1-1 in the Draft, then I’ll never know what the first overall pick is.’ Myself, as a young coach, I wasn’t really quite sure, but he saw it the whole way and really believed in him.”

After Appel went first to Houston and Kris Bryant went second to the Cubs, every other team -- including the Yankees, who selected Notre Dame shortstop Eric Jagielo at No. 26 -- passed on Judge initially. It wasn’t until the Yankees picked again at No. 32 -- a compensation pick from Cleveland for having signed away free agent Nick Swisher -- that Judge was able to walk up to the podium at the MLB Network studios, don a Yankees cap and jersey for the first time, and shake hands with then-Commissioner Bud Selig.

A decade later, after a meteoric rise to Major League stardom that has seen Judge etch his name into baseball’s history books and be named Yankees captain, he returned to the school that helped launch his career into orbit. To hear Batesole tell it, though, Judge’s character was forged long before he put on a Bulldogs uniform.

“That comes from Wayne and Patty,” he said. “In our recruiting process, that’s really what we try to bear down on, is the parents. If the parents are solid and they’re teaching these kids solid values and character, that’s the kid we want. And then we try to put them in a culture and atmosphere where that can thrive. That’s exactly what happened. [Judge] didn’t learn any of those lessons at Fresno State. He learned them at home.”

When Overland was prepping for the Nov. 19 retirement ceremony, he thought back to 2008, and the meaningful words of encouragement that Jimy Williams and Tom Goodwin had shared with him and his teammates before their title run at Omaha. “Somebody’s gotta win it,” Williams told them. “Might as well be you.” The coach wondered if Batesole and Judge might provide similar inspiration for his current players.

Then, he realized, they already do. Their legacies are such that future Bulldogs will see their retired numbers, hear the stories and follow the example they set -- just as Judge himself did when he arrived in Fresno. He observed his teammates and asked questions. He didn’t shy away when his coaches were tough on him. He worked his tail off to be the best he could be.

A number retirement is as much a celebration of the school as it is the player. Fittingly for Judge, the No. 29 that will hang forever over Beiden Field took a little extra elbow grease to unveil. “This area, it’s a lot of hardworking, tough, hard-nosed people that have put in hours, and you get what you earn,” said Fresno State head coach Ryan Overland, “and that’s completely Aaron.” (Photo Credit: New York Yankees)

“Being a Bulldog and being from the Valley and representing this area, it’s a lot of hardworking, tough, hard-nosed people that have put in hours, and you get what you earn -- and that’s completely Aaron,” Overland said. “He was the first person here and the last to leave, always putting in the extra work, being in the weight room, getting extra swings. That kind of work ethic truly fit what it means to be a Bulldog, and he carries that today.”

And so, in a fitting cap to a triumphant weekend that felt more like a family reunion than a ceremony, it would take a little extra effort to unveil Judge’s retired number. A man wearing a red T-shirt with the No. 29 on its back was sitting high up in the stands, not far from where Judge’s parents sat during that showcase all those years ago. In true Fresno fashion, the man got up, climbed over the rows of seats behind him, reached up over the short wall in front of the press box and began to tear off the covering by hand.

“Magic moment here at Pete Beiden Field at Bob Bennett Stadium,” Loeffler, the emcee, announced.

A second later, the crowd erupted into cheers as the “Judge 29” sign was revealed for the first time. And for the man being feted, it was as meaningful an honor as nearly any that he has received.

“If you would have told me [when I was] a freshman, getting yelled at sitting by the water coolers, that this would be happening, I would be laughing; I wouldn’t believe it,” Judge said. “Getting this honor and getting to share it with one of the greatest college coaches of all time is something my family and I truly will cherish for the rest of our lives.”