Yankees Magazine: Aaron Everlasting
Aaron Judge has blossomed into one of baseball’s biggest stars, but those who know him best are most amazed by how little he has changed
It’s only about 65 miles from Fresno State’s baseball diamond to the floor of Yosemite Valley, with its faith-nourishing views. Along the way, as you wind up a mountainside prior to the spectacular descent, the Mariposa Grove with its skyscraping sequoias towers to the east. The trees are both simple and impossible to relate, their scope at once incomprehensible yet also archetypal for all that is massive.
These are testaments in stone and bark, “a temple built by no hand of man,” as President Theodore Roosevelt said in 1903 upon witnessing their singular beauty. Stoic and stunning, their postcard perfection can knock you over, no matter how familiar the vistas.
They stand tall and proud. They demand your attention. They amaze.
“They are monuments in themselves,” Roosevelt said. “I want them preserved.” During his landmark visit, Roosevelt stood before the Grizzly Giant, a tree about 2,700 years old. Yosemite doesn’t play by modern rules, isn’t slave to modern attention spans. Chaos reigns in 2020; the world is on fire, literally and figuratively. Yosemite as yet remains.
Progress is good. Evolution, too. Trees and rocks are nice to look at, and we’ll dedicate resources to make sure that they survive and thrive. But humans, like trees, are supposed to grow. They’re supposed to change. Except in the ways that they’re not.
And it is in this vein, with a nod of appreciation and a refreshing sensation of decency, that you can hear three different people speak these three sentences:
“From day one, he’s been the same person.”
“It seems like he’s the same guy.”
“That’s what I love about watching him now; it’s the same guy.”
For a lot of people, college is about growing up. Unlike the ever-still and unchanging might of Yosemite, you’re supposed to emerge after a few years different from how you arrived. If you’re lucky, you’ll return to tell stories about how stupid you were, look at pictures that you don’t even recognize, wonder how you were ever so naive.
Or maybe, if you’re Aaron Judge, you’ll slip right back in, as comfortable as the day you arrived, when you were mature beyond your years. Maybe you’ll show up for a weekend back at your alma mater, and friends will marvel at how little you’ve changed. Maybe they’ll say, “That’s just the guy I knew,” and an image will emerge of a young kid arriving at Fresno State in California’s San Joaquin Valley and then rooting himself in the center of Yankees Universe, towering mightily with a sequoia-like presence, all the while never changing in any noticeable way.
Let’s stipulate that even if there’s no “right” age for a player to start talking about legacy, Aaron Judge is still on the young side of the issue.
But this is year two for the All Rise Foundation baseball clinic, and to the 250 or so kids ages 7–14 on the Fresno State diamond where Judge played college ball, the here and now is everything. There are going to be fielding drills today and some light hitting, but the instruction will be more educational in nature. They’re going to learn about attitude, about how if you add up the numbers corresponding to each letter in the word (a=1, t=20, etc.) you get 100. They’re going to get an autograph from the man of the hour, and they’re going to get a picture with him, but they’d be wise to hold on to the messages, because that’s what the foundation is all about.
“What the All Rise Foundation is working on is to try to develop individuals into being responsible for what they do,” says Patty Judge, Aaron’s mother and the foundation’s executive director. “It’s not about yourself. I think by instilling those characteristics, it helps people know how to behave.”
Patty and her husband, Wayne, are educators, both in a professional sense and one that’s visible in every way they carry themselves. Their life’s work is evident in their son’s home runs and the adulation, in the magazine and video game covers. But you can also see it just by looking at a young superstar hellbent on doing things the right way. As the voice of Fresno State sports, Paul Loeffler watched stars such as the NBA’s Paul George and Derek Carr of the NFL emerge from the Central Valley and thrive in the spotlight. But what he has seen from Judge, dating back to the outfielder’s first year at Fresno State, is a bit different, the result of remarkable physical advantages that he never once used as a shortcut. “He had to have known, right?” Loeffler says. “He had to have known from the time he was young that he had a special ability and he was destined for greatness. But I’ve never seen Aaron Judge take that for granted. He’s always worked as hard as anyone else.
“The personality hasn’t changed. He hasn’t developed this giant ego. He has stayed so grounded. And I always say that has to go back to his mom and dad, who just did a phenomenal job of giving him that perspective.”
It’s right there, all afternoon. Judge moves about like any other kid. He tosses some Wiffle balls, and he hits some grounders. He poses for pictures and pushes everyone to take one more try, to hit one more ball, to fire one more pitch. This is a clinic, and the kids are supposed to be learning, but there’s still a balance. Judge wants to isolate all that the participants can do well, but he also follows Patty’s lead in insisting that everyone who steps onto the field gets challenged in one way or another.
He runs around. He sweats. He smiles. The free clinic is being run by ProCamps, an organization that supports athletes’ foundations in all sports, and one of the keys, ProCamps president Eric Liebler says, is to make sure that the finished product reflects the individual players at the center, rather than just putting on a color-by-numbers afternoon with a famous face. For Patty and Aaron, the educational component was always going to be primary, and Liebler says that Judge, despite his youth, is one of the best he has ever seen at interacting with kids and delivering the most impactful afternoon possible. And while everyone behind the scenes mentions the ways that friends such as CC Sabathia have helped Aaron craft his philanthropic identity, Judge himself shifts the credit to his parents and the lessons he learned while shadowing them in their classrooms.
“It didn’t matter if it was the best kid in the class who got straight A’s or the kid who was struggling to make grades and struggling to get by, they treated them the exact same,” Judge says after the participants have gone home. “They treated them with respect and tried to uplift them. And that’s something that I always try to do throughout this camp. It doesn’t matter who you are, I’m going to try to bring the best out of you, make you feel comfortable and have some fun.”
Today, it’s limited to the kids on the field and some parents in the stands. But everyone has seen it at some point. During batting practice at Yankee Stadium, ever since he arrived in the bigs, Judge signs autographs for kids in between rounds in the cage. If you blindfolded him and put three kids in front of him, he could probably sense the most timid one with no trouble. It’s a gift. “What you see with Aaron now in the big leagues, you saw then,” Loeffler says. “He would be the first one with that boyish smile on his face to go grab a glove, and that shy kid over in the corner, afraid to say anything to anybody, he finds that kid and plays catch with him.”
“He just does things right,” says Mike Batesole, the head baseball coach at Fresno State who, along with several current Bulldogs players, assisted in staffing the clinic. “It’s great to have somebody around that you can trust. And that didn’t come from us. It’s from two great parents, that’s where that came from.”
Everyone remembers the first time they laid eyes on Aaron Judge. For most Yankees fans, it was a perfect, can’t-get-better-than-this moment, an epic homer in his first big-league at-bat. Batesole has his own are you kidding me? memory.
Every year around Thanksgiving, Batesole would give his guys a break from the months-long slog of conditioning work by organizing a football league. The guys had jerseys and everything, wristbands with plays. It was no joke. “His freshman year,” Batesole says, “I’m out there running it, and the first throw they make is a wide receiver screen, and it was like Barry Sanders. They couldn’t touch him. This is touch football. Division I athletes cannot touch him. That’s how light and agile and freakish of an athlete he is. I saw that in one play, and I said, ‘This kid’s going to play in the big leagues as long as he wants.’ It’s just a different animal.”
Batesole was far from alone. Judge’s stature disarms you. But nothing compares to that first time.
When he was at Fresno State, Judge overlapped with Carr, who has spent the last six NFL seasons as the Raiders’ starting quarterback, earning three Pro Bowl selections. The two shared weight rooms, and Carr recalls his jaw dropping to the ground when he walked in one day. “I knew the baseball team was lifting, but who is this?” he remembers thinking. “Is that Blake Griffin? There’s no way this guy is just playing baseball.
“I remember going up to him and trying to get him to play tight end. I’m like, ‘Who is this dude working out with the baseball team? This guy needs to come catch some fades in the red zone from us.’”
So fine, Aaron Judge was always big. He showed up to Fresno State big, and he left (after only three years, a point that his educator parents not-entirely-jokingly needle him about) big. Batesole couldn’t believe that scouts saw anything other than the No. 1 pick when they watched him play -- the Yankees ended up taking him 32nd overall in 2013 -- but even that wasn’t what impressed the coach most. Batesole is famous for mandating a grueling conditioning regimen, and his former players still cower at the thought of all the running they endured, the weight room work that never ended. That was never a problem for Judge. His impressive strength and size, however, caused some to overlook his natural ability to play baseball. Batesole would watch fans and scouts marvel at his moonshots, but he felt like somehow the rest of Judge’s game -- the remarkable throwing arm, the die-trying willingness to go after any and every fly ball, the discerning eye at the plate -- got shortchanged. And if you couldn’t see it, you sure couldn’t expect to hear Judge talking about it.
There’s a paradox in the way Batesole discusses Judge’s undervalued assets. The coach would fine players a dollar if they talked about their own accomplishments in interviews. They weren’t supposed to say “I,” “me,” “my,” “myself” (and that sound you hear is the entire collection of Yankees beat writers preparing to storm the Fresno State baseball office with torches and pitchforks). So Batesole watches with pride as his former player addresses reporters’ questions about home runs and doubles by pointing out that the pitcher had to throw a strike because Brett Gardner was on base and Giancarlo Stanton was in the on-deck circle. But the coach takes barely any credit. “He didn’t have to learn that,” Batesole says.
It’s on display at the clinic, as well. Kids ask questions, and Judge demurs. That home run he hit onto Cedar Avenue, well beyond the stadium wall in Fresno? “I think the wind was blowing out that day.” That highlight from Game 1 of the 2019 ALCS, when he made a running catch of a Yordan Alvarez liner, then threw behind Alex Bregman to get him out at first base? Remember, Judge points out, DJ LeMahieu made a great scoop to complete the double play. “Listen to his interviews,” says Fresno State teammate Jordan Ribera. “It’s never about him. Never. That’s just who he is. Any way you slice it, or question him, the answer will be him giving credit elsewhere.”
As Fresno State’s football team takes on Nevada, Judge stands on the sideline supporting the Bulldogs. He is introduced during a break in the action, then a highlight video of his college and Yankees days is shown. Judge endures an endless ovation from the crowd. He’s clearly uncomfortable, rubbing his chin, pacing, smirking. He eventually gives the throat-slash, cut-it-out signal.
On a football field, especially from high up in the stands, Judge’s size is less notable. What stands out, though, is that he’s not wearing a Yankees jersey. He’s not wearing a Fresno State baseball jersey. He’s not wearing No. 99. He’s wearing a No. 4 Derek Carr Bulldogs jersey. Carr speaks fondly of the family nature at Fresno, not just in the school or in the athletic dorms, but throughout the entire community. He talks about how Fresno State takes the place of professional sports in the Central Valley, how friends and family and elementary school teachers come cheer you on at every game. And that’s what he sees in a gesture like Judge’s. “That just shows that he’s still that guy who came out of Fresno.”
That same mentality was front and center two nights earlier, during the All Rise Foundation’s “All-Star Evening” at Enzo Olive Oil Mill, about 10 miles from the Fresno State campus. This is a work event, fulfilling the indispensable need to fundraise so that the foundation’s goals can become reality. But it’s also a celebration of family. Enzo makes a fine olive oil, and the space is spectacular, but the facility’s owner, Vincent Ricchiuti, is both a Fresno State alum and a Yankees fan. The catering is by Pardini’s, a local Fresno institution. There are silent auctions, passed hors d’oeuvres, good times and excellent music. Something about it feels very local; it feels like celebration of and for Fresno, California. That’s by design.
In 2018, the foundation held its inaugural event in Judge’s hometown of Linden, California, a couple hours’ drive northwest of Fresno. After this baseball season, they want to move the celebration to New York, the culmination of a three-year cycle that will restart the year after that.
The stars in attendance aren’t big leaguers, though you imagine any number of Yankees would have shown up if Judge asked them to. There’s no paparazzi outside, no step-and-repeat line of quick-hit interviews. The celebs here are local dignitaries, such as a member of the municipal government who will read a proclamation declaring Aaron Judge Day in the City of Fresno. But there are also Bulldogs, Judge’s former teammates, the guys he starred with back in the day, who are now earning their livings teaching or selling real estate. They chat and laugh with their old buddy, and there’s somehow no distance between Judge -- the two-time All-Star, the 2017 AL Rookie of the Year, the Home Run Derby champ -- and a bunch of guys a decade removed from any on-field glory. The night might as well be a college formal, that’s how little seems to have changed.
“You see social media, you turn on the TV, he’s on SportsCenter, you see the Judge’s Chambers. You see everyone obsessed with him,” Ribera says. “But he gets in here, and he’s Aaron Judge, just the ex-Fresno State baseball player. The teammate that would come over and play Call of Duty until 2 in the morning.” Another former teammate, Jake Alvarez, marvels at how comfortably Judge seems to fit in any setting, his height notwithstanding. “He lights up a room. And you can see that instantly in his smile. It’s just so genuine. That’s just the Aaron I know.”
On the dais, Judge talks about legacy and he talks about honor, and he demonstrates it in his actions. On top of all the other money raised, the live auction brings in some $50,000, with the attendees paying for experiences that they can share with Judge himself. A game of catch, a chance to hang out during BP, a private event. An artist named Tony Burns is painting on a canvas all night, and Judge adds one touch to the image before it, too, gets auctioned: 2 Corinthians 5:7 -- “For we live by faith, not by sight.”
Judge, though, seems to live by both. He is deeply religious, with a morality shaped by that belief, but he also believes in being present. In making time for his fans. In being seen. His foundation strives to turn kids into leaders, to make adults realize the role that they can play in fostering their children’s future possibilities. “I believe the best gift you can ever give or receive is time,” he says, and, because he’s Aaron Judge, he thanks all of his old college teammates for making the time for him. It’s charming, wholesome and honest; a big-league superstar who refuses to carry himself like a big man on campus.
As you complete your two-hour drive from the Fresno area to Yosemite Valley, one of the first life-changing sights that hits you is El Capitan, a 3,000-foot vertical slab of granite. Imposing and magnificent, El Cap has been formed over more than 200 million years, and whatever the future holds, it looks perfect today. What more could your eyes want?
Around the Bronx, the name has other connotations. Jeter, Munson, Gehrig. Yankees history is filthy with los capitanes. And despite the remarkable start, it’s early to start thinking about Judge in those terms.
Sometimes, though, he unwittingly forces the issue. Take his statement following the 2019 ALCS loss, when he said that the season was a failure. Is it wrong, you ask him, to find some positives in a largely successful eight-month endeavor?
“I try to keep it black and white,” he says. “Plain and simple. You win or you lose, and we came up short. But I use that failure. That’s one thing I tried to tell my teammates after that last game. It was kind of tough to come up with some words. But one thing I said was, ‘Don’t forget this feeling of what it feels like to be so close and come up short.’”
Judge has long been the player who, no matter what he does in a game, faces a crush of reporters with microphones afterward. But notice that he wasn’t just talking about speaking to the media. He was talking about addressing his teammates. A clubhouse with veterans such as Sabathia, Gardner and others turned to a guy who wasn’t yet arbitration eligible. Judge has been a leader for a while, in a lot of different ways, and he’s so polite and kind (even when turning down an interview request), that it can be easy to miss some of the other characteristics. He’s popular. He’s funny, sometimes cocky, sometimes both -- remember the boom box blasting “New York, New York” through the bowels of Fenway Park? “People don’t get to see that side a lot,” Batesole says, “but they see the beautiful smile; the way he conducts himself off the field makes everybody proud.
“But it’s burning in there. Like a tiger. He’s one of the best competitors I’ve ever coached.”
Loeffler has watched as Fresno State, far from the big coastal cities, produced all-stars in the NFL, NBA and MLB in 2017, the only school that could say that. He has been a fly on the wall for all of it. It’s the rare player you hope to see comport himself in the pros the same way he did as a freshman in college, but Loeffler knows who Judge was as an 18-year-old, and he knows what it means to say that Judge is the same person today. “He’s not afraid to be the example,” Loeffler says. “That stage is not too big for him. He knows who he is. He knows he’s going to give everything he has all the time. He knows he’s going to deal with failure, and he’s willing to deal with that.
“There are some guys that have great ability, but don’t want everyone watching them. They don’t want other people taking their cues from them. And I think growing up in a small town, and the family he grew up in, where they said, ‘You’re going to be an example. These other people are watching you. You’re always going to stand out in a room. You have to show them the way.’ I think that’s just part of who he is.”
Aaron Judge is a leader. It’s how Patty and Wayne raised him, how Batesole and the Fresno State community shaped him, and how he continues to carry himself now that he holds the reins. Sabathia has moved on, and someday Gardner will, too. Slowly but surely, Judge’s service time will start to catch up to his stature in the game, a reverse of the normal model, but business as usual for Judge. As the fans in the Judge’s Chambers rise for every at-bat, Judge’s All Rise Foundation will continue spreading the message of a small-town boy content to bring that family mentality to the big city. He won’t ever change, and if it’s not already clear, that’s more than OK.