NEW YORK -- During the American League Championship Series three years ago, Aaron Judge spun from his position in right field and glanced into the bleachers behind him. Every possible inch of real estate was packed with fans who were cheering, shouting and tossing their beverages into the October air, prompting the Yankees outfielder to marvel: “That ballpark is alive.”
Contrast that against Judge’s exhibition blast off the Phillies’ Vince Velasquez on Monday evening, ending one of the most bizarre at-bats of the slugger’s career. The ball came to rest in the seating area over the right-field bullpen, where it remained when the Yankee Stadium lights flicked off. We are in a different universe, yet manager Aaron Boone believes his team is built to succeed in this sterile environment.
“Once you get into it, the scoreboard’s going and there's music, I found it pretty easy these first few games for our guys to get locked in and focused,” Boone said. “I believe that it won't have that big of an effect. In fact, I expect us to hopefully use it to our advantage.”
Here’s where we might play a sound effect of a record scratching, accompanying those background audio tracks borrowed from the popular “MLB The Show 20” video game. The Yankees have long counted the inhabitants of the Stadium as part of their home-field advantage, the Bleacher Creatures as deeply ingrained into the Bronx experience as the 314-foot marker painted on the right-field wall.
“I miss ‘em,” Judge said. “I can’t wait to have them back. I know they’ve got the crowd noise that they’re trying to add in there, but it’s not the same as a packed-out Yankee Stadium.”
Prior to one of the intrasquad games last week, left fielder Brett Gardner acknowledged an imaginary "roll call" chant with a wave, then dropped to a knee and flexed his biceps as Gerrit Cole prepared to face his teammates. It was a reminder of what will be missing when home games begin, though the Yankees believe they have the necessary leadership within the clubhouse and dugout to maintain their focus.
“Those couple games against the Mets and the Phillies, it did feel like a game,” said first baseman Luke Voit. “It got us over the nerve factor of playing against somebody else, and I think that got us locked in for Thursday. We’ve got a tough road ahead of us, but I don't see anybody being lackadaisical. If they are, then people are going to call them out for sure, whether that's hitters or pitchers. I believe in us being locked in from the start.”
Part of the message that Boone relayed to his players early in Summer Camp was that the upcoming 60-game journey might not resemble anything they have experienced on a professional diamond. The team that accepts that reality and best blocks out the noise (or lack thereof), Boone said, will likely be the one that finds itself at the top of the standings.
Michael King proved Boone’s point this past weekend. When the right-hander walked to the mound on Saturday at Citi Field, King chuckled, scanning the cardboard faces positioned in the expensive seats behind home plate. Then King tunneled in on his catcher, Kyle Higashioka, and bolstered his bid to make the Opening Day roster by limiting the Mets to one run over four innings.
“There’s going to be teams at times, individuals at times, that it does affect in a negative way,” Boone said. “I feel like that's one of those battles, one of those edges that we need to be able to gain. We need to be able to find that energy every day and not have that be the distraction I feel like it will inevitably be at times for teams and players. We need to take advantage of that.”
With curtain calls shelved for the moment, Giancarlo Stanton expressed confidence that his teammates will tap into motivation by playing for the audience at home.
“In general, it is going to be a different type of edge that you've got to bring to the table,” Stanton said. “Some guys feed off the fans, and to some guys it doesn't matter. You're going to see the difference and you're going to have to lock it in regardless.”