It was mid-September of last year, and the Yankees were in need of a jolt. They had just completed a disappointing 4-5 road trip by losing two out of three in Minnesota, leaving them 10 games out of first place in the American League East with 16 games to play.
Returning home to Yankee Stadium after an off-day, with the crisp weather giving the Bronx a postseason feel, the vibe started to change. But there was something else in the air that day.
Aaron Judge had missed the previous 45 games after getting hit by a pitch and suffering a chip fracture on his right wrist. And although he was around the team during that time, the Yankees missed his presence in the lineup and in the field.
The wrist still wasn’t quite 100 percent; Judge hadn’t been cleared to hit. But just having him activated and in uniform, available to pinch run or play the outfield, gave the team an enormous lift.
Leadoff hitter Andrew McCutchen doubled on an 0-2 pitch, and it was on. The Yankees batted around in the first inning, roughing up Blue Jays starter Marco Estrada for five runs on five hits. The Yanks’ lead had grown to 9-0 by the time Judge entered the game as a defensive substitution in the eighth, bringing what was left of the crowd of 40,138 to its feet.
Without picking up a bat, Judge had made a huge impact. That thought stuck with Aaron Boone as he reflected on his first season managing one of the game’s superstars.
“He’s obviously a great player, but as a second-year player essentially in the league, the respect he has of his teammates and the intangible impact that he has on our club became so apparent to me,” Boone said during Spring Training this year. “I knew it existed, but when he was out, and the first game he came back, the noticeable difference I could feel right away in our dugout, and just the different kind of energy, it’s something that he brings to the table.”
Judge brings energy and more to the table; just look at him. But what’s less outwardly apparent is the impact he has begun to make as a team leader and as someone who wants to help improve the lives of children. On the field and off, No. 99 has big goals.
We can all agree that sky-scraping home runs are awesome. Walk-off hits, clutch RBI -- those are pretty swell, too, and Judge delivers with the best of them. So well, in fact, that his prowess at the plate sometimes overshadows just how well-rounded a ballplayer he is. We’re talking about a guy who robbed Francisco Lindor of a home run in a do-or-die 1-0 postseason victory back in 2017.
But as dazzling as his on-field performance may be, a true team leader does more than just get the job done between the lines. A leader understands how to communicate, how to deal with adversity, how to remain humble.
Just over a year ago, Judge arrived in Florida for Spring Training 2018 a newly minted folk hero, a Bunyan-esque homegrown star coming off one of the greatest rookie seasons ever that brought the Yankees within one win of the World Series. Next to him all of a sudden was a new star slugger, Giancarlo Stanton, who --- while the Baby Bombers were crawling their way up from Charleston to Tampa to Trenton to Scranton to the Bronx -- had been busy becoming the Marlins’ all-time leader in home runs and RBI.
Pairing high-wattage sluggers together in the lineup has been a successful formula for the Yankees since the days of Ruth and Gehrig, but there have also been instances where the chemical reaction was more combustible than cohesive. If the grind of a season can cause dust-ups between longtime teammates, it can certainly fray a relationship between two superstars.
If there were any such schisms between Judge and Stanton in 2018, no one ever heard about them. If anything, there was entirely not enough Judge and Stanton. That six-week stretch where Judge was out with the broken wrist? It kind of felt like The Office without Michael Scott. It just wasn’t the same show.
The wrist took longer to heal than expected, and that frustrated Judge. When it comes to answering “How’s it going?” 100 times a day, even folk heroes have their limits. But he kept working. That right wrist would be wrapped up like a newborn baby, and he’d be out on the field hours before the gates opened, sprinting across the outfield grass, hustling around the base paths, working with his coaches to get better at baseball even when he couldn’t pick up a bat.
And therein lies an inkling as to why The Judge and Stanton Show seemed to be a mash-up made in heaven: their approach to the game. At a news conference this past February, Judge recalled facing NL East teams in 2018 and listening with rapt attention as Stanton analyzed some of the best pitchers in that division.
“I really enjoyed watching the way he attacks certain pitchers he’s seen for a long time,” Judge said. “I got a chance facing guys like [Jacob] deGrom ... to go, ‘Hey man, this is one of the best pitchers in the league. How do you do it? What do you think about?’ Just hearing how he breaks pitchers down and what he looks for, it’s impressive. You see why he won an MVP, why he’s an All-Star, why he’s putting up the numbers he does.”
The right approach, Judge said, is what separates the great players from the merely good ones. And the secrets Stanton shared indicated that his approach was on an elite level. The fact that Judge was willing to listen says something about his mindset, as well.
“He’s an elite person,” Boone said. “He commands respect.”
There’s another Yankees tradition going back at least as far as Ruth and Gehrig that Judge has become tied to. Kids have always looked up to the team’s star players, and those players have often, in turn, leveraged their celebrity status to improve the lives of young people.
When Gehrig’s playing career was cut short in 1939, he turned down a lucrative endorsement deal that would have allowed him to spend most of his time relaxing at home. Instead, he accepted an offer to become a New York City juvenile parole officer -- a low-paying job that required him to move within the city limits but one that gave him an opportunity to help wayward young men find the right path. Ruth never stopped thinking of children; while lying on his deathbed in 1948, he would sign baseballs and instruct the nurses to give them to the horde of youngsters congregating outside the hospital.
Realizing the impact that he could have off the field after rocketing to stardom in 2017, Judge began to think of ways to make a difference in the lives of young people, beginning with the #ICanHelp campaign. Aimed at deleting negativity online, #ICanHelp supports educators and empowers students to make smart choices regarding what they post on social media.
Judge, who was born in 1992, understands that young people weren’t given a handbook on how to properly use social media. Parents and teachers struggle to keep up with the latest gadgets and apps, let alone monitor every message their teen sends.
“We weren’t really educated on this, man,” Judge said. “All this technology came out, and there it was.”
And so, he figured, Let me see what I can do to make a difference. By putting his considerable weight behind #ICanHelp, Judge hoped that some of those young people following his career on the field would follow his lead by keeping things positive online.
“It’s something that I thought everybody in the U.S. needed; everybody in the world needed -- help with trying to delete negativity on social media,” Judge said. “It’s a killer right now in our day and age with how often kids and people are on their phones. It’s crazy. They’re constantly seeing [negative] stuff, there’s constantly stuff going out, so if we can make a change there, it will make the world a better place.”
That sentiment helped give rise to the All Rise Foundation. Long before most people had heard of Aaron Judge, he noticed the efforts of star players such as Derek Jeter, who parlayed his status as a fan favorite into the Turn 2 Foundation, an organization that has helped steer thousands of young people in New York, Florida and Michigan in the right direction through leadership development, mentoring programs and college visits.
For Judge, his idea of success wasn’t just getting to the big leagues or becoming an All-Star. He wanted to be someone who created a legacy off the field, as well.
“At a young age, I saw a lot of guys -- a lot of big names in the game -- do it,” Judge said. “Jeter has his; Dave Winfield has one. They all had a foundation, and I had seen the reach they had, how they could just connect and touch different people’s lives and change lives. That was probably the coolest thing for me; it’s not only all the stuff they did on the field to connect with fans and people, but having that foundation, that just grew with me. So, that was always one of my goals as a kid.”
He started with a free baseball clinic for about 200 Little Leaguers last November at his old high school in Linden, California. Over four hours, Judge shared tips and wisdom with the youngsters, stressing the importance of keeping a positive attitude in whatever you do.
The All Rise Foundation’s first event was a success, no doubt due in part to the other Yankees who paved the way for Judge.
“We talk about that stuff all the time,” said CC Sabathia, a three-time Roberto Clemente Award nominee who established the PitCCh In Foundation in 2008. “He has always attended things that we do for PitCCh In, and I’m grateful for that. I think that’s his motivation, just wanting to do things off the field for kids. For him to be able to start that so young in his career, it’s only going to make it that much better. I’m proud of him for it. It’s just leading by example and doing good things on the field, obviously, because he’s a great athlete,but doing even better things in the community.”
This past January, Judge made it official. With the help of his mom, Patty Judge, a former educator who will serve as executive director, he held a dinner banquet in California formally announcing the All Rise Foundation. The foundation will coordinate camps and programs for kids, and while many of those plans are still being ironed out, the mission is pretty clear.
“My passion is the youth; just trying to give them a better future, give them a better opportunity,” Judge said. “A lot of kids aren’t blessed with the best home, aren’t blessed with the best school, aren’t blessed with the best situations in life. So, any way that our foundation can kind of inspire them, help them out to put them in a better position to be more successful in their lives, that’s the ultimate goal.”
On the field, there’s a different kind of ultimate goal to chase. Judge aches to be a champion. And not just any champion -- a world champion with the New York Yankees. To accomplish that, he knows that he needs to be more than an all-world baseball player. He needs to be a leader. But in the eyes of his teammates, he already is.
“I think a lot of the younger guys -- and even the older guys -- look up to the way he handles himself on and off the field,” says veteran reliever Dellin Betances. “He’s a great role model for a lot of people. For him to start his foundation at such a young age shows that he definitely has his head in the right place because he has a lot of people that look up to him.”
The leadership qualities that Judge exhibits aren’t just a byproduct of his upbringing. They are a result of a watchful, attentive young man who has been as mindful of his surroundings as he is of his legacy. He says he tries to lead by example, but if he sees something he doesn’t like, he’ll speak up when the time is right. If that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s how guys from Jeter to Sabathia to Mark Teixeira to Brett Gardner have led. Judge closely observed their actions and incorporated them into his own leadership style.
“The biggest thing for me is just learning how my teammates respond to certain things,” Judge says. “I can go out and yell at somebody, but another person, you’ve got to handle the situation a little differently. I pick those things up from watching guys like CC and Gardy, how they’ve handled things over the years. Even when Teixeira was here, how they talk to certain players, how they handle certain situations. CC, he’ll get into you when he needs to. I’ve seen him do that with the pitching staff, and the same thing with Gardy. He doesn’t hold back, and he’ll let you know when things aren’t going right, and he picks you up at the same time.
“It’s just being that constant presence, that’s what I want to try to do. Just be a constant presence with this team and try to support each and every guy as best I can. Because if I can bring up the guys around me, then that’s going to be the most important thing. I never want to be that guy that’s in the spotlight doing this and that, but if I can go behind the scenes and do certain things to make the whole team better, then that’s always my ultimate goal.”
If Judge does that, the Yankees should reap the benefits for a long time, perhaps adding to their trophy case as a result. And if that happens, maybe someday the team will feel compelled to thank Judge by adding something else to his legacy, a title even more elusive than “world champion.”
Nathan Maciborski is the executive editor of of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the April 2019 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.