For about as long as Aaron Judge has been doing interviews, he has been singing a now-well-known chorus: I'm just happy to be playing a kid's game.
It was endearing at the start, and repetition hasn't really made it less so. This is a young man living his big league dreams. You believe him because he is genuinely sincere. The smile on his face, the look in his eyes -- Life is wonderful and magical and good, they insist.
Not even 900 at-bats into his career, with trophies and anecdotes and magazine covers aplenty, it's easy to see the rapid rise, the broken records, the history. Even this short, hyper-successful burst, though, has hit a sour note here and there. After he introduced himself to Yankees fans in 2016 with a monster home run in his first career at-bat, he slogged through the final weeks of the season, ending up on the disabled list with a .179 Major League batting average. In the spring of 2017, he didn't even have a guaranteed job on the Major League roster. Then followed the awesome longballs in the first half, the Home Run Derby, the All-Star Game start, but trailing just behind was a similarly historic cooling-off period filled with strikeouts and swirling questions. A pulse-pumping postseason run was joyous and enchanting; the ending, one win shy of a World Series berth, was deflating.
So Judge and his Yankees teammates packed up for the winter months with questions about what evolutions each might discover by the time 2018 rolled around. Judge stared straight ahead, focused on recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and returning to a team that had acquired the reigning National League Most Valuable Player in a blockbuster trade.
There were expectations now to deal with -- big ones, for both Judge and his team. So how did the newly minted American League Rookie of the Year feel? I'm just happy to be playing a kid's game.
He's a power bat in the lineup, a cheerleader in the dugout, and the DJ in the clubhouse. He's a favorite among fans and teammates. But in almost no time -- really in just the 12 months since his worldwide breakout during last year's All-Star Week in Miami -- he has been forced to accept some of the burdens of a sport and a media circus desperate to enthrone him atop baseball's Everest alongside the likes of MVPs Michael Trout and Bryce Harper.
Could it still be true? Could he really be the last to know that he's not just a kid playing a game?
Last season, Judge's pace at the plate during the first few months of play was unbelievable, but ultimately unsustainable. His Zeus-like start took on mere demigod status after the first and second halves were through. But there was no doubt that Judge was pretty good at this game he loves so much. A second-place finish in the AL MVP voting set lofty expectations for his sophomore campaign.
A comparison of Judge's stat line from the first 55 games of 2017 to his output from the same number of games in 2018 reveals numbers that are pretty similar, but a bit of maturation is evident as well. His batting average this season was 40 points lower than the .328 he was boasting in 2017, but the power numbers (16 home runs in 2018 versus 18 last year) and RBI (an identical 41) were evenly matched. His strikeouts were up this season, but so were his walks, which allowed for a .414 on-base percentage - good for fifth in the Majors.
As a power hitter, Judge is expected to strike out plenty, but he's far from a wild swinger. In fact, he's quite disciplined at the plate - another area of improvement. In 2017, the slugger had a 24.7 percent swing rate at pitches outside of the zone. Through early June 2018, Judge had gotten that number down to 21.7 percent. He was also still making pitchers work hard: Judge reached a full count in 109 at-bats in all of 2017. And 57 games into 2018, he had seen 40, on pace for about 113 over a full year.
This is the nitty-gritty of baseball -- the nuts and bolts that can take some of the fun out of the game if you get too bogged down in the facts and figures. But for Judge, growth and consistency are key, and being able to be that same guy boils down to one thing: preparation. Because a prepared Judge is a happy Judge. And a happy Judge feels like he's just out there playing a kid's game.
"In my early work, my time in the batting cage, that's serious, and that's when I feel like I'm really working," he says. "That's where I have to lock in on my approach, make sure my mechanics are right and make sure my mindset is right for the upcoming game. But then when the game comes up, it's a game! You're supposed to have fun when you play games. So I let myself have the confidence and freedom to have fun because I already did all my work. Now it's time for me to let my instincts take over and have fun when the game starts."
Watch Judge play, and the evidence is as plain as the smile on his face -- the guy really is having fun. He's cheering on his teammates from the top step of the dugout, he's zoned in when he's in the field, and he's quick to salute his biggest fans on the bench, turning and pointing to his teammates whenever he produces at the plate with a big hit or a crucial RBI.
"The biggest lesson that I learned, and have been learning over the past couple years, is that it's a long season," Judge says, crediting Carlos Beltran for helping him understand the more nuanced measures of baseball success. "He'd say, 'There's going to come a point where you could start off hot and have the best first month of your career ever. Then all of a sudden you come into May, and you're the worst player in baseball. At the end of the year, though, your numbers and your stats, the type of player you're going to be, will always be there. So don't get caught up in the ups and downs of the season.'
"I've always had that mindset of, OK, I may be hot this month or doing really well this month, but don't get too high, don't get too low - just enjoy it. Don't ride the rollercoaster, basically. I always thought about it like, I'm not going to an amusement park, I'm going to a baseball field. I don't want to ride the highs and lows. Just stay even-keeled and enjoy the moment."
That approach -- and, not to put too fine a point on it, but the fact that he was successful last year and has been once again so far in 2018 -- destined him to become a leader, whether he likes it or not. He may deny that it's a big deal, but others in the clubhouse -- including Carsten Sabathia, whom Judge believes is the true leader of the club -- have quietly handed off certain reins to the slugger, knowing that they're safe in his hands. In terms of leadership qualities, "He's got them all," Sabathia says.
"With how good he is, I think he leads by example just by stepping into a room," the 18-year veteran says. "The fact that he's mature and does everything the right way, he's somebody these young guys can follow. It's not hard to want to follow him. He runs the bases hard, he respects his teammates and other players, and when you can do it like that, it's easier to lead. He's just being himself. He's not forcing anything."
Everything Sabathia says is backed up by Judge's own words -- and his constant insistence that the team comes before anything he does.
"I've just always looked at it where I'm trying to be a piece of the whole puzzle," the outfielder says. "We've got a special thing going on here, and I've always thought you have to lead by example. If your team is in the trenches, you've got to be in the trenches with them."
And this team has been in the trenches. Most of the players here now were together throughout last October, fighting the intense postseason battles on the field. And this year, they worked their way through a tough April to become one of the hottest teams in the first half. Through it all, there's been a lightness around the room, a sense that every member of the club is enjoying each moment. They're having fun, and Judge is one of the big reasons why.
In August of 2016, Judge entered the Yankees' clubhouse for the first time as a member of the team's roster. It was exciting and nerve-wracking and … quiet.
There were other Yankees milling about, and reporters seeking answers to their questions. There was chitchat, but the room wasn't exactly hopping.
That all changed one day when Judge walked in and music was playing. Sabathia had long been in charge of the clubhouse sound system, and he had thrown on some tunes. Judge doesn't remember the exact date, but he does remember the team won that day. So when he reported to the Stadium the next day and the locker room was once again silent, Judge wanted to know what was up. He asked the pitcher what happened to the music, and in response, the vet ceded control of the stereo to the rookie.
Cue the dramatic "turning point" song.
Music is big in Judge's life, and he takes his playlists very seriously. Those jams set the tone for his entire day.
"Everything I do, I'm always playing music," he says. "When I wake up in the morning, I'm playing music. When I'm showering, I've got music playing. When I go to the field, music is playing."
On the field, the soundtrack is even more important.
"I always like having a good walk-up song that will pump me up but also gets the crowd into it," he explains. "For the pregame songs, I want things that will get people fired up before we get onto the field. And in the clubhouse, I want something that's going to get people in the right mindset but keep people loose. If you have no music in the clubhouse it's … iffy."
His teammates agree, and they appreciate the thought he puts into his selections.
"The music is his big thing," says Didi Gregorius. "He's got all varieties of music, not just one specific music that everybody has to listen to. He mixes it up; whatever he feels that day for everybody, that's what he'll play, and I think that's big and how he helps get things going."
Indeed, Judge throws on an eclectic mix, and it's different every day, in every room and dependent on who is present. If he knows Gardner will be in the weight room, Judge might throw some country into the mix for him. For the Hispanic players in the clubhouse, some Latin beats will always be in the rotation. And then there's some rock, rap and other popular music, too. When the new album from rapper Pusha T dropped on May 25, Judge was streaming it for his teammates that afternoon. A hard left turn followed a few days later, though, when a playlist of '80s pop hits filled the room and led to some … mixed reviews.
"Is this freaking Toto, man?" an incredulous Austin Romine asked Judge when the band's 1982 hit song, "Africa," began to play.
Judge hasn't had many complaints, though, and he says the big man, Sabathia, has been pleased with the selection. However, there is one particular artist Judge enjoys but is hesitant about playing: Taylor Swift. "I don't know if CC would like that," he says, laughing.
It's about making everyone comfortable, and if one guy is unhappy, there could be a ripple effect. DJ Nine-Nine is always thinking about how the music he's playing and everything he's doing is making people feel -- and he wants it to be good.
"If you're comfortable, you play your best," he says. "So that's the biggest thing. If I can make everybody around me feel comfortable, then they're going to go out there and give 100 percent."
The fun isn't limited to the music, though. Judge reveals that most of the guys on the roster are involved in an ongoing "made-ya-look" prank. One guy will point to nothing in particular and see if he can get his teammate to look at the spot.
"Judge tries hard, but he doesn't get people a lot," says Gregorius, who boasts that he can fool just about anyone on the team every time. "We get him not every time, but a lot of times. CC got him really good."
A bashful Judge admits the story is true -- and happened in a game no less.
"He was pitching here at home a couple weeks ago, and I just got done making a play in the outfield and threw it in," Judge recalls. "He's on the mound, and he's pointing out toward the bullpen, out in the outfield behind me, and I'm like, 'Huh?' I'm turning around, looking around, and he just turns around and starts pitching again. I was like, 'Oh, he got me. He got me.'"
Sabathia can't help but laugh when the story is brought up. He's grateful for how much fun he is still having playing the game, and knows that his young teammates deserve much of the credit.
"That's the only reason I'm still playing," Sabathia says. "If I wasn't having fun, I wouldn't be playing -- that's a huge part of this whole thing. This game is hard to play. I'm 37, I'm old, so any kind of extra fun we can have on the field is needed and appreciated for sure."
Judge doesn't mind being the butt of jokes or the clubhouse DJ or the lead organizer in the games of Mario Kart the guys play on long flights -- yet another job he has taken on this year. It's a long season, times will get hard, slumps will happen and tensions will inevitably rise.
"This sport and this job is hard enough, and these guys understand that," Judge says. "The biggest thing is, I'm blessed to be on a team with a lot of great veterans who have been around the league and understand this game, and they try to keep us younger guys loose. I think the biggest thing, too, is these older guys let us be ourselves and have fun.
"I grew up with these guys," Judge continues, listing the names of Luis Severino, Greg Bird, Christopher Austin and others. "With a lot of these guys, I still feel like we're in Low-A Charleston playing together. It's really a tight-knit family."
So Judge is having fun on the field. And he's making sure his teammates are having a ball, too, in between the white lines and away from them.
Which leaves the fans.
Along the Yankee Stadium warning track during batting practice, stanchions separate some lucky on-field guests from the Yankees whose names they scream. For an hour before almost every home game, the eyes of just about everyone present are glued to the cage at home plate and the ballplayers gathering around it. Grown men and kids alike look on with glee - their heroes mere feet away. Now might be their only chance to call out and show some love.
You can probably guess whose name gets yelled most often. Whose jersey is on the most backs. Who draws the most glances.
"Mr. Judge! Will you sign my ball?"
During his round of batting practice, the young superstar remains focused on his work. He's getting in his reps and locking in on his approach. This is his job, and he's serious about doing it properly. But when the last round of swings is over, when all the balls are gathered and deposited back into the ball bag, No. 99 turns his attention to his audience, and he makes a beeline for the younger members of the crowd. He squats to get on their level and looks his admirers in the eye. He smiles for selfies and signs whatever is handed to him. He inquires about the kids' travel teams and Little Leagues, and asks if everyone is having a good time.
He knows people are watching his every move. And he's embracing the fact that this kid's game he has dedicated his life to playing has afforded him the opportunity to make an impact.
So while he's got the chance, he's going to use it. And he's going to make sure every single person he comes into contact with knows how much fun this game is supposed to be. For the hulking star, this opportunity is the best thing that's come from all the success he's had.
"Everybody is a part of this game, and the fans are as much Yankees as we are Yankees," he says. "I'm not going to play this game for a long time -- I've got a short window. The numbers and the stats you put up, they'll always be there, but I feel like the impact that I can have on somebody else to go out and play the game or come out and watch a game at Yankee Stadium, any impact I can have, any positive impact, I want to try to do that because I feel like that's more important than any number you can put up."
Whether that's playing catch with a fan in the stands prior to the game or giving his salute during the Roll Call, Judge knows that those actions make a difference. And the fans aren't the only ones who recognize the effort Judge makes. "It's a priority for us to get this next generation of fans playing baseball," Sabathia says, and everyone in the clubhouse thinks Judge is doing just that.
"Judge is like a real person, and he's a good person," says Gleyber Torres. "I follow Judge because he's huge with the fans. The fans love him, and when I see that, I feel good, too. When the fans come through, if they want me to sign something, I remember how he'd do anything and everything with the fans, and then I do that, too. It's good for the fans and the game, so I always try to follow Judge and try to do good."
"It's so important because when the kids see that, they'll want to be that guy one day so they can do the same thing back," Gregorius says. "You always want to do things for the kids to keep them happy and engaged, so you wave to them during the game or give them a ball - the little things for them mean a lot. Judge is doing it, and he's a great fit for it."
He fits so perfectly because he relates to the kids he connects with inherently. He still feels the same way they might feel before a big game or an important moment. He's just a big kid playing a game, after all.
"In my wildest dreams, I never thought any of this would ever happen," he admits. "I always dreamed about it, about getting the chance to play Major League Baseball and be on a team, but I never thought it'd be like this. You can never write it up. And to see kids wearing 99 or have kids tell me, 'Hey, I'm wearing 99 on my little travel ball team,' stuff like that is just amazing, and it shows me the type of impact I can have. It's a reminder to me that, 'Hey, you may think no one is watching but someone is always watching you, so you've got to do the right thing.'
"I just feel like it's a dream running out there on the field. Every time before we warm up, I go out to center and I just take a look around the Stadium and think, 'I'm really wearing pinstripes for the New York Yankees in Yankee Stadium.' I still don't believe it. I don't think I'll really believe it until my career is over and I look back and say, 'Wow, I had a chance to be a part of all that.'"