Yankees fans are getting used to the Aaron Judge Show. During 2017 All-Star Week in Miami, the rest of the world got on board.
By Jon Schwartz
Yankees Magazine |
In places such as Kansas City or Cincinnati, All-Star Week is blissfully all-encompassing. There is local buy-in that turns the events at and around the stadium into unmatched showcases, with both league bragging rights and civic pride on the line. In Miami (and, it should be said, in New York City), the struggle to break through can be a bit more intense. Where there's more to see, it can feel harder to be seen.
Marlins Park itself seems built into that paradox. Look to the field if you choose, or perhaps you'd prefer to gawk agog toward the epic dancing water creature sculpture, to tap in rhythm with the brass band and drum line, to feel the body-rattling decibels originating from the in-stadium DJ. An evening at Miami's baseball home will overload your senses. Oh, and there's baseball.
It was into this landing zone that the Aaron Judge spaceship descended for a few days in July, an ostensible All-Star break that instead foisted Judge's Baseball Spectacular upon an until-recently unready baseball world. In New York, this is becoming old news; we see it every day. But in Miami, amid all the excess, the distractions and the parties, something remarkable happened.
Aaron Judge broke through.
The Marlins' Giancarlo Stanton was one of MLB's All-Star Ambassadors for the event, his face and likeness in ads and signage throughout the city, but Judge came to visit and left with the fancy silver. It was almost as though the big Yankees slugger was fighting muscle memory; he seems to prefer to share stages, the better to hide his gigantic 6-foot-7, 282-pound frame in plain sight.
It's not that he avoids the spotlight, rather, it's the way that he doesn't let his size and accomplishments dull the bond that young fans want to form with him. He'll sign autographs between rounds of batting practice. He throws enough balls to kids that eventually the Yankees might have to invoice him for the expense. Even during timeouts in the crucible of the Home Run Derby, when a young boy brought him a towel and Gatorade, he could be seen chatting with the kid instead of taking deep, calming breaths. When it comes to talking about himself, though, to describing his incredible first half and the dramatics in Miami, his answers take on a "who, me?" quality that makes it seem as though he's trying to shrink down in size.
"I just try to have fun with everything," Judge said. "I'm getting paid to play a kids' game; it's pretty awesome what I get to do every day. So if I'm out in the outfield, if I'm on deck and I'm hitting, I just try to go out there and have some fun.
"I want to win, I want to compete. No matter what comes first, it's just about having fun for me. So that's talking to some fans, saying hello to some kids, tossing a kid a ball or something. Just trying to have fun out there."
It must be noted, then, that in what might have been the first fan-unfriendly move of his entire career, Judge's own dominance worked against the masses watching in Marlins Park. One of the recent changes to the Home Run Derby format is the addition of 30 seconds of bonus time if a batter hits two shots equal to or more than 440 feet in the round. For Judge, that kind of distance is no problem (over the course of the night, he averaged 435 feet per homer). In the extra time, the batters hit magenta balls, and each "bonus" home run results in prizes for fans and sections.
But in the second round and the finals, Judge didn't hit any magenta balls out -- he didn't need to. He won each round in regulation.
That's tongue-in-cheek, of course. But so many baseball figures around Miami during All-Star Week wanted to focus on the kind of person that Judge is beyond the box score, only it's not that easy to talk about when his on-field feats keep defying imagination. In the final round, going against Minnesota's Miguel Sano's mark of 10 longballs, Judge needed just 2:02 to earn the trophy. The dramatics came in the totality of the performance, the distances, the locations.
"Nothing surprises me anymore with Judge," said his Yankees and All-Star teammate Dellin Betances. "The guy's unbelievable."
Throughout this season, as he has rocketed up in prominence and Q rating, Judge has met every challenge on and off the field. You might say that he is as perfectly crafted an idol as league execs could ever want, a squeaky clean minister at the megachurch of baseball.
"I think that what he's done on the field is absolutely incredible," said Indians All-Star pitcher Andrew Miller, who got to know Judge a bit during spring training in 2016, when Miller was with the Yankees. "But the biggest thing is how he's handled that spotlight in New York, the media. He can't walk around here in Miami without hearing that sound of clicking cameras behind him. Just a great guy, great kid. I'm not surprised in the least bit that he's having the success on or off the field, just because it seemed like when it all came together, that was who he was going to be."
Judge grew up in tiny Linden, Calif., some two hours from San Francisco. He was born in 1992; the next year, Barry Bonds joined the aptly named Giants. If ever there could be a perfect union of baseball fan and baseball specimen, it would be a large, young boy in Northern California watching Bonds crush home runs night after night. "Any time he came on TV," Judge said, "I had to sit down with my family and watch his at-bats because teams would pitch around him and still he would find a way to drive a ball out of the park. It was incredible."
Judge was 9 years old when Bonds set the single-season home run record; he was 15 when the Giants' slugger passed Hank Aaron. Perhaps it's an unscientific assessment, but that has to be the ideal age range for a kid to fall in love with a sport, a team or a player. And maybe it's why a kid who starred in all different sports at Linden High School, who would grow into a body that Yankees Manager Joe Girardi likens to a defensive end, chose baseball.
"It's a game within a game," Judge said. "It just really intrigued me. I fell in love with that, the little chess matches here and there … certain counts, what the guys are going to try to throw you, what he's going to do when you come to the plate."
Judge burst onto the stage in August of last year with a long home run in his first at-bat. It was a highlight, one of several in those first two months of Big League experience, but the season's final tally left a sour aftertaste. He struck out way too much, 42 times in 84 at-bats, against just four homers. He went into the offseason with an ugly .179 average. Judge's power was notable and projectable, and it made for a fun story, but lots of big, strong bombers have flamed out, and that was a potential path on which the slugger found himself. As it was, he simply wasn't a good enough hitter. He didn't even have a guaranteed job entering the 2017 season.
So it's notable that during All-Star Week, in the run-up to the Home Run Derby on Monday night and the All-Star Game the next night -- at which Judge, the American League's leading vote-getter, would be the starting right fielder and No. 3 hitter -- there was as much talk about the player's evolution as a complete hitter as there was about his titanic power. Now here was Judge who, in addition to his 30 homers at the break, was walking in 20 percent of his plate appearances in June and July, his strikeouts down dramatically from 2016. Teams are pitching around him, and he's still finding a way to drive the ball out of the park. Sound familiar?
"That tells you a lot," said Marlins Manager and iconic Yankees first baseman Don Mattingly. "When a guy really changes his strike zone discipline like that, oh it's huge."
Judge is a 25-year-old rookie, so any Bonds comps are playful and premature. They're certainly not meaningful at this stage. But the way that he talks about watching Bonds do things that nobody in the history of the game had ever done -- I had never seen anything like that, you know, it was just must-see TV -- sounds an awful lot like the way his contemporaries describe watching his own exploits.
The exploits were there for all to see in the second round of the Derby, when Judge matched up against another of the game's brightest young stars, Cody Bellinger of the Dodgers. Bellinger -- who tabbed his father, former Yankees utilityman Clay Bellinger, as his pitcher in the Derby -- would be the largest person in most rooms, measuring in at 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds. Next to Judge, as he is quick to point out, he's Lilliputian. "I'm not a big dude," he said. "I don't have much muscle. I'm just putting everything I have into it." He squeaked past Colorado's Charlie Blackmon in the opening round, earning extra time in the final seconds of regulation, then rocketing the winning shot into the second deck in right field as time expired.
Against Judge, Bellinger put up a pretty good number -- 12 homers. To normal humans, that should be a hard tally to match. Judge did it with a minute to spare. And among the 13 that Judge hit in the round, three traveled more than 500 feet.
"He's the real deal -- he's got strength that I've never seen," Bellinger said the next afternoon. "He was hitting oppo bombs as far as I was pulling them. It was awesome."
Judge's first three homers of the semis went to center or right field. His 10th homer went 504 feet to left. His 11th, at 513 feet, rattled off the glass beyond the left-field concourse. And the final blast of the round, the one that moved him to the championship round: 507 feet, high off the glass in left-center. "It doesn't even look hard for him," Blackmon said.
The hulking right fielder's spray chart from the event is remarkable. The Derby is obviously a power display, so -- naturally -- most hitters are pulling the ball as hard as they can. Only Judge, his Yankees teammate Gary Sanchez and Stanton hit any homers the other way. Sanchez placed five of his 27 bombs right of second base. One of Stanton's 16 shots went there.
Judge sent 23 the other way. Out of 47 homers. Forty-nine percent. Before the event, he insisted that he was going to handle the Derby like a normal batting practice session, during which he peppers all fields. "I'm not going to try to change anything," he said days before the event.
It was an impossible statement, but he stood by it. He would use his regular batting practice pitcher, Danilo Valiente, and then he would try to put his bat on the ball wherever it was pitched and let his power take over. He would stay disciplined.
Then he went out and did it.
"He was hitting some balls opposite field that I couldn't pull that far," said Kansas City's Mike Moustakas, who lost to Sano in the first round. "It was an amazing show."
Yankees fans and teammates are, believe it or not, somewhat used to that show. Luis Severino, another Yankees pitcher who was named to the All-Star team, joked that it's great to shag flies for Judge's batting practice because there's so little to do; all the balls leave the park. "It's must-watch," Betances said of Judge's BP displays. "We take turns in what times we shag. Some guys go out for the first half, some guys go out for the second half, but I try to make sure I'm always out there for Judge because I'm just trying to see where that ball's going to land."
So are plenty of other people. Through the All-Star break, all Yankees programming on the YES Network was up compared to last year at that time, largely a function of a young, exciting team that spent much of the first half leading its division. But while game coverage was up about 50 percent, it was another program that saw the biggest rise: Yankees Batting Practice Today.
Cover your ears, Allen Iverson, but fans have been watching practice in droves, with ratings up 153 percent compared to last year. Early in the year, said YES Network's vice president of communications Eric Handler, the producers realized how crazed fans were for any content related to Judge. In response, YES decided to focus a camera on him throughout batting practice, and that footage of one inexplicable moonshot after another is a huge part of what has built Judge's legend. Videos of the young slugger produced by YES have been viewed more than 6 million times this season across the network's various digital platforms.
"It's one thing to read about his exploits," Handler said of the batting practice spectacular, "but another thing altogether to see them."
Judge has destroyed a TV set at a bar way beyond Yankee Stadium's center-field wall. He regularly reaches places no one else has put balls. But he does it to a mostly empty house; the gates are rarely open when Judge takes batting practice about two-and-a-half hours before first pitch. But on the road, where the visiting team hits second, the fans get to take in the whole show. "They all want to see him hit it out of the ballpark," said hitting coach Alan Cockrell. "If he has a round where he only hits one, you can hear the hecklers. 'Come on! Where are the 500-foot shots?'"
But Cockrell still finds himself in awe of how Judge's routine has remained consistent and disciplined, regardless of all the attention. Judge and Valiente still work to all parts of the field, even as he's joining some of the other power hitters in the second batting practice group -- Sanchez, Matt Holliday and Starlin Castro -- in an unprecedented (and expensive) display of force.
"They lose the most balls of any group I've ever been around in my eight years doing this," Cockrell said. "We were somewhere, I think in Kansas City. We had early BP, and Aaron hit. Then their group, Group 2, they took BP, and when all the balls were assembled after the group, we had to go get more balls for Group 3. There were only like 25 balls left for Group 3."
For a time, it seemed like the most impressive part of the Derby would be something that happened before it even began, when, during batting practice, Judge became the first player ever to hit a ball off the Marlins Park roof. At first blush, it was a fun curiosity, part of the Aaron Judge Experience that fans in Miami were about to witness.
But then he did the same thing during the first round, hitting the roof in a spot about 170 feet -- or 17 stories -- above the field, and it created a stir of uncertainty.
After Sanchez dispatched the defending champ and hometown hero Stanton, local fans turned their hearts toward powerful Marlins first baseman Justin Bour, and the local boy delivered by walloping 22 blasts, all the while egging on the attendees. If Judge had a chance, he'd need to bring the power, and he did just that. Sitting on 14 home runs with just 1:13 remaining, Judge sent Valiente's next offering skyward, and everyone in the ballpark -- from the scoreboard operator to in-stadium announcer Greg Amsinger to Judge, himself -- thought that surely hitting a ball off the roof would count as a home run.
But when, into his extra time, Judge finally went ahead with his 23rd blast, the umpire corrected him. The roof shot apparently hadn't counted. With just 5 seconds left on the clock, Judge jumped back into the batter's box and hit one more home run to advance.
Afterward, the players had no idea what had happened. No one had thought to ask what would happen if a ball somehow hit the roof, which rises 216 feet at its highest point. "No, why would you have to talk about hitting the roof," Blackmon laughed the next day. "But apparently, that might now be in play."
"That's man strength right there," Bellinger added.
The confusion only added to the new format's drama, and even in defeating the hometown player, it turned the night into a lovefest for the Yankees star. After loud boos greeted him during introductions before the Derby (he was, after all, thought to be the biggest threat to Stanton), he won over the fans the rest of the night. By the end, with confetti flying after the championship and with Judge mobbed by his teammates and competitors, everyone seemed in agreement: This smiling, friendly, colossal young man is as good a story as any baseball has produced in a long time. And that might be underselling him.
"I've never seen anything like it," said Betances, who usually leaves the Home Run Derby after the first round, but this year lost his voice as he cheered on his buddy all night. "Obviously I've played with a lot of guys, but what he's doing now, I've never seen, I've never witnessed anything like it. He's having a tremendous year so far and, you know, I think he's caught everybody by surprise, but he's a guy that believes in his talent and he's putting it to use."
The day after the Derby, in his annual midsummer meeting with the baseball writers' union, Commissioner Rob Manfred joined the chorus of baseball figures celebrating the newest breakthrough star. He acknowledged an issue that baseball has long had in finding ways to celebrate individual achievements while still abiding by the mores of the "team game" concept, and celebrated what he had seen emerge the night before. In Judge, he saw a rare figure that could satisfy both sides' urges.
"Aaron Judge has been absolutely phenomenal," he said. "There is no other word to describe it. He is a tremendous talent on the field, a really appealing off-field personality; the kind of player that can become the face of the game."
Indeed on a night built for spectacle, fun and hopefully high ratings, Judge delivered all three. The Derby was watched by 8.689 million viewers, up 55 percent from a year ago and, when including streaming, the highest figure since 2008. And after the next night's All-Star pitching duel gave fans little of note to discuss, the national conversation remained focused on Judge. Meanwhile, fans flocked to the stores at Marlins Park and MLB.com's online shop to pick up any item they could find bearing Judge's name and No. 99. The blue BP jersey he wore for the Derby became the top-selling All-Star jersey of the last 10 years, with sales numbers doubling after he won the event. And sales of his regular Yankees jersey outpaced those of every other All-Star.
You want crossover appeal? You've got it. The day after last year's presidential election, University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban suggested that he didn't even know what had happened over the previous 24 hours. But two days after the Home Run Derby, while speaking at SEC Media Days, the legendarily razor-focused coach used Judge to make a point about football's lack of a development system at the professional level.
Is Judge ready for this? Is it even possible that anyone could be? Judge keeps a note on his phone with the entry ".179," a reference to how things went wrong last year. The point: It can all go south again.
He demurs whenever he is asked to consider his accomplishments, to compare them to the legends who came before him. I'm just having fun, he insists, deflecting all praise to the support system that nurtured him over the years. He made his BP pitcher Valiente join him in hoisting the Home Run Derby trophy on the field, and the two sat together at the press conference afterward. "He finds a way to hit my barrel," Judge said of Valiente. "That's why he's here." Don't talk to me, talk to him, he seems to be implying.
That's fine, Aaron, but it's you that we're trying to get to know.
Could it be that this story is so inexplicable that even the man at the center is at a loss to explain what's happening? Judge came to Miami an All-Star, probably the best story in baseball this year, an MVP candidate as a rookie. He left as something else entirely.
Just don't ask him what it all means.
"I just think of myself as a little kid from Linden, California," Judge said the day after the moonshots seen 'round the world. "I'm getting to live a dream right now."
Jon Schwartz is the deputy editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the August 2017 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.