Judge greeted by roars in Tampa: 'Never gets old'

February 26th, 2023

TAMPA, Fla. -- The cheers spilled out of the grandstands for at George M. Steinbrenner Field once more on Sunday afternoon, the Yankees’ new captain jogging out of the home dugout to join teammates on the first-base line, looking resplendent in a set of crisp white pinstripes.

There was nothing unfamiliar about the scene for Judge, who is opening his ninth spring with the Bombers, and that was the point. After an eventful offseason that demanded Judge consider multiple opportunities to play elsewhere, the reigning American League MVP said it felt meaningful that he had stayed right here.

“Hearing your name get called for the New York Yankees never gets old,” Judge said. “If it’s in Tampa, if it’s in New York, that’s something I didn’t want to stop hearing once I became a free agent. I was hoping to hear those words again. It was an exciting moment, I think.”

Judge legged out an infield single, walked and scored a run in the Yankees’ 7-0 split-squad victory over the Braves; his most challenging moment of the day came once he’d left the playing field, as Judge reported early for a live interview on the YES Network broadcast.

Standing outside the Yankees’ clubhouse, Judge saw the camera’s red light come on and froze,  fumbling to fit an audio transmitter into his left ear while holding the microphone in his right.

“That was a little tougher than I expected,” Judge said. “I don’t know how they do what they do. I blanked.” 

It could have turned out so much differently, of course. Judge and his agent, Page Odle, fielded competitive offers from the Giants (nine years, $360 million) and Padres (14 years, $414 million), which prompted an international phone call between Judge and managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner in December.

From a roadside stop in Italy, Steinbrenner had asked Judge, point-blank: “Do you want to be a Yankee?” And when Judge affirmed he did, Steinbrenner asked what it would take to make that happen. Judge said he wanted the ninth year, effectively matching San Francisco’s offer.

Steinbrenner agreed, then mentioned: “Thurman Munson was my favorite player, and I’d like to make you captain, like he was.”

As Judge begins to formally lead the club, crowned the 16th captain in franchise history, it is a move that has garnered unanimous approval among the Yankees, both current and former.

As Bernie Williams observed of Judge: “His demeanor, he’s not a rah-rah guy. He’s kind of like Don Mattingly and Derek [Jeter] in that kind of school, like, ‘I’m not going to talk too much. I’m just going to let my play do the talking, and then everybody follows suit.’ He’s going to have a chance to write his name in the great history of this club. That’s a big thing.”

So, yes, it meant something on Sunday morning as Judge put the uniform back on -- likely the only one he will wear in his career.

“I sensed that when I was checking with him the other day, like, ‘We’re playing that first game [in Tampa], right?’” said manager Aaron Boone. “He was like: ‘Oh yeah.’ So I know he was [excited]. He loves the game and obviously being back here, to be able to put the uni on and go out, I think it was something he was looking forward to.”

There are some differences, of course, since Judge played his most recent game in October.

There’s a pitch timer (“I like it -- it definitely speeds up the game,” he said), bans on extreme shifting (“I’m looking forward to more hits, more athletic plays; it’s better for the game”) and bigger bases (“I’ll take a couple more inches closer to stealing some bases”).

Yet even if some of the rules have changed, this remained the same: Judge in right field for the Yankees, No. 99 stitched on his back, bathed in love from the fans. Just the way he wanted.

“I felt it with the intros, I felt it on defense, I felt it stepping up to the plate,” Judge said. “It’s things like that you really cherish as a ballplayer.”