Will Judge get this huge honor from Yankees?

December 15th, 2022

This story was excerpted from Bryan Hoch’s Yankees Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

It was a few hours before Gerrit Cole was scheduled to deliver the first pitch to Jose Altuve, beginning Game 3 of the American League Championship Series between the Yankees and Astros, and Nestor Cortes was ushered into the press conference room at Yankee Stadium.

The left-hander would be pitching with the Yankees' season on the line about 24 hours later, and as Cortes fielded inquiries from the media, he was asked for his perspective on Aaron Judge's just-completed home run chase and the slugger's impact upon the clubhouse.

"He's meant everything," Cortes said. "I think I'm able to say that if he's back here next year, he's our captain; he's the next captain. We follow everything he does. He leads by example. He's not really a guy that comes out and screams at anybody. But if he has to, that's his job. I think he's earned that right to keep us in check. What allows him to be so great, I feel like, is he's a great baseball player, but he's a better human. He treats everybody the same. He follows up on everybody every day. That's what allows him to be who he is."

Cortes' remarks on that October afternoon, and similar ones made in the Yankees' clubhouse by first baseman Anthony Rizzo, are worth revisiting because Judge is likely completing his career in pinstripes. Judge agreed to a nine-year, $360 million deal during last week's Winter Meetings, a pact that should be officially announced when Judge returns from a celebratory vacation in the Hawaiian islands.

The Yankees have not had a captain since Derek Jeter's last game in 2014; the following spring, general manager Brian Cashman said that he believed the captaincy should be retired with Jeter, calling him "the all-time captain."

"I've never been the one that's made the decision to name a captain," Cashman said. "That doesn't sit at the manager's desk. It doesn't sit at the general manager's desk. It sits at the owner's desk. I certainly shared my feelings out of respect for Derek Jeter and the legacy he left. I felt it was appropriate to state that I wasn't sure if we'd ever need one again, but that doesn't mean someone else worthy wouldn't emerge. Clearly, in Aaron Judge's case, he is spectacular."

Managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner was personally involved in the negotiations to bring Judge back, including at least one one-on-one, face-to-face meeting in Tampa, Fla. According to Steinbrenner, the captaincy was not broached during those chats, though he said that naming Judge as the 16th captain in franchise history would be a topic of future conversation.

“He’s become a better and better leader through the years, like Jeter was,” Steinbrenner said. “He’s just a classic, great, lead-by-example, everything you’d want in a Yankee.”

Added Cashman: "Ultimately, if that's something the Steinbrenner family wants to discuss, that will be coming from their chair -- just like when we retire numbers. They’re not knocking on my door, the manager’s door or whoever else. They have their personal beliefs in who belongs, and they make decisions like that. Retiring uniforms or captain legacies, that comes from ownership.”

That is, of course, how it happened in Jeter’s case. Principal owner George M. Steinbrenner made the call on a June afternoon while the Yankees were preparing to open a three-game series in Cincinnati against the Reds, where Jeter accepted the honor in a hastily scheduled news conference deep inside Great American Ball Park.

“I didn't really look at it as putting pressure on me when he asked me to be captain,” Jeter said recently. “He said, ‘Don't do anything different,’ and so, I didn't change because of that. I think you have a responsibility to the fans, you have a responsibility to your teammates and your organization. But in terms of changing or doing anything different, I didn't do anything different.”

Before Jeter, Thurman Munson (1976-79), Graig Nettles (1982-84), Willie Randolph (1986-88), Ron Guidry (1986-89) and Don Mattingly (1991-95) had been the most recent Yankees captains. So is this the right time for Judge to take a turn? Based upon Steinbrenner’s recent comments regarding their homegrown superstar, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if the answer is yes.

“I was there in the Draft room when they drafted him, and I remember how excited everybody was,” Steinbrenner said. “Just watching him progress through the years, saying no to every team that wanted him at every Trade Deadline and every offseason, along with a few other players. And then seeing him come up and hit a home run that first game, he means a lot.”