Chapter 1: “OK, Can I Go Out and Play?” 1 “OK, CAN I GO OUT AND PLAY?”
The fastball hovered over the heart of home plate, spinning at a comfortable 65 mph, and Aaron Judge’s body responded just as he’d trained it for most of the previous twenty-nine years. The ball kissed the barrel of the slugger’s wood bat, producing a loud echo throughout the grandstands and dispatching an impressive rocket out toward left-center field, where a gaggle of onlookers peered through a chain-link fence.
One shouted to alert the others of the incoming missile, and the ball came to rest near a row of cabbage palms that lined a quiet two-lane roadway, prompting a foot race to pocket a souvenir. This intimate gathering was burning an hour or two of midweek daylight with free looks at big-league ballplayers dressed in nondescript mesh apparel, moving through the paces of a February 2022 workout behind the shuttered gates of Red McEwen Field, home of the University of South Florida Bulls.
The calendar indicated that Judge, nine years removed from his most recent collegiate at-bat with the Fresno State Bulldogs, should have been taking these hacks some ten miles away. A pristine diamond was waiting for him at George M. Steinbrenner Field, the chilly and formidable battleship of concrete and steel that had served as the Yankees’ spring home since Derek Jeter’s rookie campaign in 1996.
Yet Judge, arguably the most recognizable player on the present-day New York Yankees roster, bizarrely found himself persona non grata at Steinbrenner Field. A contentious and increasingly ugly Major League Baseball lockout was bleeding on, with owners and players unable to finalize a collective bargaining agreement to open spring camps on time. The owners had voted to lock out all active Major League Baseball Players Association members, effectively confirming the sport’s third consecutive spring of tumult.
Judge and his teammates had been in the thick of their preseason preparation on March 12, 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic halted play and scattered players across the country. There had been orders to shelter in place, but a skeleton crew of ballplayers, including Judge, had voted to continue working out at Steinbrenner Field. Soon after, it became evident that the regular season would not be delayed by only two weeks, as league officials had initially suggested. Initial discussions of health and safety protocols between the players and the league devolved into a money grab, producing distasteful optics during a pre-vaccination period when hospitals were overburdened and even routine trips to the grocery store carried an element of danger for many Americans.
Rob Manfred, baseball’s commissioner, eventually imposed an abbreviated sixty-game schedule that green-lit the most bizarre “Made for TV” season imaginable, with players receiving pro-rated salaries to play in empty ballparks and most postseason games scheduled for warm-weather or domed neutral sites. It mattered little where the games were played; there could be no home-field advantage without fans in the seats. Gerrit Cole made the first start of a fresh nine-year, $324 million contract opposite the Washington Nationals’ Max Scherzer on July 23, at an eerily silent Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. One of the few observers not in uniform was Dr. Anthony Fauci, taking a moment from his duties as a lead member of the White House’s coronavirus task force to toss the season’s ceremonial first pitch.
The fans were back in the spring of 2021, albeit in smaller numbers, under orders to maintain social distancing in seating pods roped off by plastic zip ties. Ushers roamed the grandstands, repeatedly barking masking instructions that never seemed enforceable, considering the teams were also trying to make up for the financial fallout of a shuttered season by slinging popcorn, sodas, and beer. The players engaged in their “new normal,” even as President Joe Biden’s administration lobbied the league to delay Opening Day to address safety concerns. The games went on as scheduled, most players received vaccinations, and MLB entered 2022 expecting a much smoother ride from a health and safety perspective.
Now it was just about the money, with the league and union haggling over compensation for young players and limitations on clubs tanking to receive higher selections in the amateur draft. It was baseball’s first work stoppage since the 1994–95 strike that dashed the World Series, and the first player lockout since 1990. With Judge and his teammates barred from communicating with team personnel (the league set up a tip line to report infractions like phone calls or text messages), the players trained independently, as most did during those first dark months of the pandemic. Judge opted to use the University of South Florida’s facilities, a short drive from his apartment on Tampa’s Bayshore Boulevard, part of a workout group that included big leaguers Tim Beckham, Mike Ford, Richie Martin, and Luke Voit.
With each batting practice lick, Judge exorcised lingering angst from an embarrassing defeat in the previous autumn’s American League Wild Card Game. An injured Cole attempted to gut his way through a hamstring injury and recorded just six outs in a 6–2 loss to the Red Sox that never felt within reach for the visitors. Minutes after his club’s season ended, manager Aaron Boone set up shop for his postgame media responsibilities at a laptop in the cramped visiting quarters at Fenway Park. Most teams had moved on from the Zoom era by then, but with clubhouses still closed to reporters, the idea of Boone passing through the exiting Fenway crowd in full uniform to the fourth-floor press conference room made little sense. “The league has closed the gap on us,” Boone spat. “We’ve got to get better in every aspect.”
The Yankees had not played a World Series game since 2009, when they bested the Philadelphia Phillies to hoist the franchise’s twenty-seventh championship trophy. That roster aged toward retirement, with icons like Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, and Andy Pettitte finding their way out of the game within the next few seasons. They desperately needed to spark a new era apart from the “Core Four,” a realization that became more evident each passing season. The “championship or bust” mantra once instilled with desk-pounding intensity by the club’s former principal owner, George M. Steinbrenner, needed to pause. In 2016, general manager Brian Cashman swallowed hard and told the Boss’s successor, Hal Steinbrenner, that his $213 million roster was not good enough to win the ultimate prize. Cashman’s recommendation was to dismantle what they’d built, off-loading veterans and big money in hopes of a stronger tomorrow.
That conversation might have prompted a firing or tongue-lashing in Steinbrenner’s hottest heyday of the 1970s and ’80s. Fortunately for Cashman, Hal Steinbrenner favored a cooler, more analytical mindset, his experience as an amateur pilot prompting his cockpit view of the organization from a perspective of thirty thousand feet.
“I think about that a lot; what would my dad do?” Steinbrenner said. “I can be impatient, as much as a pilot should never admit that, because it’s not a good trait. We have differences; there’s no doubt about it. He was very, very hands-on in every intimate part of what goes on, and I’m a little bit more [geared to] delegation of authority, even though I’m very involved. There’s differences, but the passion to win and the understanding of what our fans expect is definitely something we have in common.”
As such, Cashman would be allowed to make moves with an eye toward the future, but “tanking” was a dirty word. They would never follow a model like the Astros, who had put forth an awful product in 2013 and ’14, rolling out a barely competitive team of “Dis-Astros” that generated 0.0 Nielsen television ratings for some games.
That was the fastest way to reload a roster for future success, but in many ways, the Yankees still subscribed to the advice that Broadway producer Jimmy Nederlander once offered the elder Steinbrenner in the 1970s: “Remember, we are a star-vehicle town. New York loves stars, worships stars, so you’ve got to have some stars to draw the people.”
Aaron James Judge was the biggest piece, literally and figuratively, of whatever that future would become. The Yanks first spotted Judge in tiny Linden, California, a pinprick of shady walnut groves, peach orchards, and vineyards about one hundred miles northeast of San Francisco. Linden touted itself as the Cherry Capital of the World, a tight-knit community that boasted an annual jubilee each May, highlighted by a pie-eating competition and a 5K fun run. Patty and Wayne Judge were teachers at various schools across San Joaquin County, where they instructed students in physical education and leadership. The couple adopted Aaron the day after he was born in a Sacramento, California, hospital on April 26, 1992, bringing him home to meet an older brother, John, who had also been adopted.
“My greatest accomplishment and achievement in life has been the love and development of our family,” Patty Judge said.
From Judge’s first pediatric checkups, he ranked near the top percentile of his age group, with doctors taking note of his large hands and feet. The recommended four ounces of formula had not satiated the boy, who only seemed soothed when Patty and Wayne blessedly stumbled upon the solution of mixing oatmeal into his bottles.
“We kind of joked that he looked like the Michelin Tire baby,” Wayne Judge said.
Years later, Judge would reflect upon his bucolic hometown as “a perfect environment to grow up in.” Linden counted a population of 1,784 in the 2010 census; locals could shop at the Rinaldi’s Market grocery store (established 1948), order a cheese pie from Pizza Plus, or sample the rib eye sandwich at Sammy’s Bar & Grill. There were no stoplights along Linden’s portion of State Route 26, but there were two churches, a volunteer fire department, countless fields of blossoming trees, and one imposing up-and-coming athlete.
Judge’s T-ball opponents scattered toward the outfield grass and turned their backs when he came to bat, fearful of being smoked by a hard grounder or line drive. “It was just a small community,” Judge said. “I had a mom in every single house down the street. I had people always looking out for me and people in the community looking out for me. Growing up in something like that was something special. I always had a place to go, and there was a friend on every corner you looked.” He recalled his parents being “tough on me” when it came to his studies; if he wanted to go outside or play video games, Judge could count on being asked if he had completed his homework. “I didn’t really like it as a kid, but looking back on it, I really appreciate what they did for me.”
Said Patty Judge: “Aaron has a pretty good compass. At a young age, he knew the difference between right and wrong.”
Though Judge has had no contact with his biological parents, he knows his biological father is Black and his biological mother is white. He was about ten years old when he came home with a question that his parents had long anticipated. “I think it was like, ‘I don’t look like you, Mom. I don’t look like you, Dad. Like, what’s going on here?’?” Judge said. “They just kind of told me I was adopted. I was like, ‘OK, that’s fine with me.’ You’re still my mom, the only mom I know. You’re still my dad, the only dad I know.’ Nothing really changed. I never really asked any questions after that. There’s no need to.” When his parents asked if he had any questions, Judge replied: “OK, can I go out and play?”
Around that time, Judge experienced an even more life-altering moment. Wayne Judge volunteered as Linden High School’s varsity basketball coach, and young Aaron enjoyed tagging along for the late-afternoon practices. While the team went through its squeaky-sneakered drills in the gymnasium, Judge would usually dribble a basketball off to the side or sit in the bleachers.
“At one practice, one of the guys said, ‘We’re doing a layup drill. Come warm up with us,’?” Judge said. “I was in the layup line with them. They were passing the ball to me, high-fiving me. That little moment didn’t mean anything to the players, but to me, those three minutes was something I’ll never forget.”
More than a decade later, Judge would look into the seats near his position in the outfield or the on-deck circle, frequently using spare moments to establish a personal connection with younger fans. He recognized the ripple effect that any interaction—a brief game of catch, a souvenir baseball, or even a fist bump—could create.
“That’s what it’s all about,” Judge said. “If I can touch ten kids’ lives or one hundred kids’ lives, if I can inspire them to do something special or chase their dreams, that’s amazing.”
A standout three-sport athlete who played baseball, football, and basketball for the Linden Lions, Judge stood six foot three as a high school sophomore, shooting up another four inches by senior year to fill out his blue, white, and gold uniform.
“Here we are in the Mother Lode League, and there’s a 6-foot-7 tight end matched against a 5-foot-nothing defensive back,” said Mark Miller, a longtime teacher and football and softball coach at Linden High. “It probably should have been illegal. But you never saw Aaron get boastful, despite the difference in talent. He was respectful of teammates and opponents.”
Thick smears of eye black were already part of his game day routine, as were loud batting practice sessions. As a senior first baseman, Judge hit .500 with 7 home runs in 74 at-bats, also compiling an 0.88 ERA in 48 innings pitched. His secret weapon was a splitter; years later, as he recalled his pitching days, Judge remarked: “That’s the one they didn’t know about.” He set a school record for touchdowns, catching 54 passes for 960 yards and 17 touchdowns as a senior, and paced the basketball team by averaging 18 points per game.
“All the way through high school, I was playing three sports and just enjoying it,” Judge said. “I wasn’t too serious about any of them. To be honest, I would get tired of the sports. Once it got near the end of football, I’d say, ‘I can’t wait for basketball season to get here; I’m tired of getting hit every day.’ Then once I got to the end of basketball, it was, ‘I’m tired of running up and down the court; when does baseball start?’?”
There were several games where opponents had refused to pitch to Judge, prompting Coach Joe Piombio to set up the cage so Judge could put on a show for visiting scouts; since the rest of Judge’s teammates had showered and gone home, it would be up to the scouts to slap on gloves and roam the outfield, shagging balls after each echoing ping of his aluminum bat. The Oakland Athletics were the first organization to take a swing at Judge, calling his name in the thirty-first round of the 2010 draft. Jermaine Clark, an Oakland-area scout, filed a report that described Judge as an “untapped monster.”
As a teenager, Judge attended a workout at the Oakland Coliseum; he parked batting-practice balls into the suite level, prompting observers to ask Clark what college he played for. The afternoon experience was thrilling, but Judge had doubts about signing a professional contract straight out of high school. His parents largely left the decision up to him, but they coaxed him to consider the value of continuing his studies.
“Both of them are teachers, and to them, education came first,” Judge said. “It was the right decision. And to be honest with you, I wasn’t ready to go out into the world. I needed to go to college. I needed to mature.”
Despite his gaudy amateur statistics, teams were not convinced that Judge was ready to play professionally, sensing that he had the makings of a big fish in a small pond. When Clark had attempted to file reports on Judge, he was frustrated to learn that Oakland’s database could not even recognize the Mother Lode League, which included Linden and little-known opponents like Calaveras, Summerville, and Bret Harte. Tim McIntosh was then a Yankees scout who lived about ten minutes from Linden, and he came away largely unimpressed after attending five or six of Judge’s games. For McIntosh, a former big-league catcher, writing the organization’s first report on Judge had been a chore.
“I just put him in the system in case something crazy happened,” McIntosh said. “And then something crazy happened.”
So this is not exactly Derek Jeter’s origin story, where Yankees scout Dick Groch stamped his foot about the gangly shortstop at Michigan’s Kalamazoo Central High School, insisting that Jeter was headed for Cooperstown. But McIntosh did play an important role by pestering Kendall Carter, then a Yankees national cross-checker, to park behind home plate for some of Judge’s games at Linden High.
Carter described Judge as a “newborn giraffe” who needed to grow into his body and would benefit greatly from an opportunity to play against higher-level competition. In a brief conversation with Damon Oppenheimer, the Yankees’ director of amateur scouting, Carter remarked that the kid might be someone to look at down the line.
Seemingly every day, the Judges’ mailbox contained another invitation on crisp white collegiate letterhead. Stanford, Michigan State, and Notre Dame were among the programs that envisioned Judge suiting up as a wide receiver or defensive end; a UCLA coach told Judge they would probably ask him to put on thirty to forty pounds and convert him into a tight end.
Mike Batesole, Fresno State’s head baseball coach, wanted desperately to keep Judge off the gridiron. When Judge visited Fresno State’s campus for a baseball workout, Batesole saw about three swings before pegging Judge as a Dave Winfield clone. The comparison was apt; also drafted by the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, the ABA’s Utah Stars, and the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings, Winfield chose baseball, believing the sport would be easier on his body.
Winfield landed in the Hall of Fame, and Judge’s father ensured his son knew Winfield’s story. “My dad has always talked about him,” Judge said.
As Judge toured the campus, Batesole assigned star first baseman Jordan Ribera to accompany the prospective freshman to a football game.
“I’m like, ‘Who is this six-foot-seven donkey? Like, is he going to take my spot?’?” said Ribera, who was then the NCAA’s reigning home run hitter. “The next day, Judge was like, ‘I’m going to Fresno State.’ That’s my claim to fame with Judge.”
Ribera was assured that his grip on the starting first-base job was intact, and Judge learned that his choices would be between playing the outfield or riding the bench. Batesole patiently explained to Judge that if he could run down a football, there was no reason he couldn’t do the same with a baseball. That made sense to Judge, who agreed to lace up his spikes and jog toward the outfield. Judge experienced bouts of homesickness during that first season, but said he adapted to life on campus quickly.
“It was the first time being away,” Judge said. “You’re on your own, learning the things that your parents did for you. Now you’re on your own, and nobody is there for you. You’ve got to grow up and adapt and learn. Otherwise, you’re going to sink and have a miserable time in college.”
Batesole soon recognized that Fresno State was gifted a unique talent in Judge, named a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American and the Western Athletic Conference’s Freshman of the Year. Each fall, Batesole organized a touch football league to help his baseball players maintain conditioning, with the gridiron running from the right-field foul pole across the outfield grass. It was no suburban backyard Turkey Bowl; they had wristbands with plays, kept statistics, and even wore uniform jerseys. Then weighing about 230 pounds, Judge dominated the six-on-six games from the first snap.
“His freshman year, I’m out there running it,” Batesole said, “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.”
Fresno State eventually had to keep Judge out of the flag football games, as Batesole feared someone might blow a knee trying to keep up with Judge. During those drills, Batesole began referring to Judge as “Big Ass Judge,” and still greets his former outfielder as “Big Ass.” In 2019, when big leaguers were allowed to choose nicknames to be stitched on the backs of their alternate Players Weekend jerseys, Judge opted for “BAJ.”
“I was a freshman in college, battling for an outfield spot,” Judge said. “Our first game comes up, and the lineup’s posted. I go and check it; I’m looking and looking, and I don’t see my name. I went down to the clubhouse, and I’m getting ready to hit in the cage. All of a sudden, another outfielder is like, ‘Hey, man, you’d better start getting ready for the game.’ I said, ‘I’m not playing.’ He said, ‘Go check the lineup again. You’re batting seventh.’ I go and check the lineup, and all that was written was ‘BAJ.’?”
Judge played left field and right field as a freshman at Fresno State, then center field in his final two seasons, earning a reputation as a solid defender and hard worker. His power had yet to translate into game action. At one point, Judge believed it was because the thirty-four-inch, thirty-one-ounce metal bats he was using were too light and short for his swing, saying he “felt like I was swinging a toothpick.” He’d sought a bigger and longer customized bat, but could not acquire one. “I feel like I can hit for more power and still be a (high) average guy.”
Though Judge stole twice as many bases (36) as he hit homers (18) in a Bulldogs uniform, there were glimpses of what Judge would become, including a memorable batting-practice session during a Cape Cod League showcase at Fenway Park in July 2012. Standing in the same batter’s box once occupied by fearsome right-handed Red Sox sluggers like Jim Rice and Manny Ramirez, Judge drove pitches to the deepest corners of the park, thwacking the thirty-seven-foot-tall Green Monster with rockets that demanded observers pay attention.
John Altobelli was tossing batting practice that day. The manager of the Cape Cod League’s Brewster Whitecaps, Altobelli was a celebrated coach at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, California, who tragically perished in the January 2020 helicopter crash that also killed basketball star Kobe Bryant and seven others.
Altobelli once recalled that “a lot of guys were going max effort, grunting as they tried to hit them over the Monster so they could have something to talk about. The ease of his swing, the way the [hits] sounded—especially with no fans in the stadium—it was a different sound than everyone else.”
Matt Hyde, a Yankees scout assigned to the New England region and the Cape Cod League, had filed effusive reports on Judge before his junior season at Fresno State. So had Brian Barber, a national scout who had seen Judge in the lineup for the Cape Cod League’s Brewster Whitecaps on at least four occasions that season.
In one game, Judge was playing center field when he hit what Barber described as “an absolute mammoth home run”—the opposing shortstop leaped to try and catch Judge’s drive, which kept soaring past the left-field fence.
“It was like, ‘All right. Wow. That’s how superstars hit them,’?” Barber said.
A pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals and Kansas City Royals in the late 1990s, Barber filed a report that suggested a definite first-round pick. Scouts utilize a scale of 20 to 80, where 20 is the lowest possible grade, and 80 is the highest. Barber had Judge with a future forecast of 55 hitting ability and 70 power, with high grades also affixed to his running and throwing.
“He just did something at the park every day that made you like him more and more,” Barber said. “It wasn’t just the power. He was playing center field. He was a quality defender out there. He knew what he was doing, and he could really throw. The last piece of the puzzle was this guy is six-foot-seven with really long limbs, and he’s able to keep his swing halfway short and get the balls on the inner half. I played ten years before scouting, and when you saw a guy that big, the first thing you’d try to do is exploit him inside. You couldn’t do that with this guy.”
When the Yankees returned to the Fresno campus for a fresh look at Judge, they saw a player who had traveled light-years from Linden High. Judge compiled a monstrous 1.116 OPS and was an All-American as a junior, a season that impressed area scout Troy Afenir. A former first-round pick who appeared in forty-five big-league games for the Houston Astros, Oakland Athletics, and Cincinnati Reds in the late 1980s and early ’90s, Afenir was one of the Yankees’ toughest graders. As he began a new role in 2013, his first year scouting in Southern California, Afenir was awed by Judge’s sheer size and athleticism.
“I don’t know exactly what I’ve got here, because I’m new to this,” Afenir told Oppenheimer. “But people aren’t going to hit it any harder. They’re not going to hit it any farther.”
On Afenir’s recommendation, Oppenheimer trekked through security at San Diego International Airport on a Sunday morning in February 2013, boarding a flight north to see Fresno State against Stanford University. Judge went 5-for-5 with three RBIs, including a long home run to left field leading off the seventh inning. Watching from the seats behind home plate at Stanford’s picturesque Sunken Diamond, Oppenheimer thought: “Wow. What else do I need to see?”
“It’s not just home runs or the batting practice before the game,” Oppenheimer said. “We saw that he was a really good outfielder at Fresno State, that he played hard, that he used the whole field to hit. It was the baserunning. All of that stuff that we looked at and watched him do at Fresno State, you thought, ‘All right, this is what this guy could be.’?”
The questions that remained were ones Judge could not answer himself. Big-league comparisons provide a safety net for scouts, and in Judge’s case, there had not been many successful players with his physique. Dave Winfield had stood six foot six when he’d begun a Hall of Fame career a generation before; Giancarlo Stanton had just broken into the majors with the Marlins, still going by the first name Mike at the time. Could Judge join their ranks? The Yankees intended to find out.
The organization dispatched Chad Bohling, their director of mental conditioning, across the country on a research mission. Bohling spent about an hour with Judge at a restaurant near Fresno State’s campus, probing the prospect’s mindset and background. Of note, Bohling reported, was Judge’s team-first orientation. Judge seemed reluctant to speak about himself, echoing a rule instituted by Batesole at Fresno State, fining players a dollar if they used the words “I,” “me,” “my,” or “myself” during an interview. In three seasons as a Bulldog, Judge had not surrendered a single buck.
“If you listen to Judge talk in his interviews, it’s never about Judge,” Ribera said. “That’s one hundred percent credited to Batesole. It’s never about you. It’s about what your team did, who came in and delivered. If you make it about you, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. And Judge, you see him to this day carry that out. It’s why he’s the face of New York.”
Batesole said, “I love that. That comes from Mom and Dad. That’s already in him. We tried to put him in a place where that kind of character can flourish, but that was all Mom and Dad. And I think fans gravitate to him because he’s one of us.”
The first day of the 2013 MLB Draft took place on June 6, and Judge and other top amateur players were invited to MLB Network’s studios in Secaucus, New Jersey. The Yankees’ decision-makers navigated a cluttered war room of dry-erase boards and binders at Steinbrenner Field, where they had ranked Judge as one of the top collegiate hitters on the board. New York owned the No. 26, No. 32, and No. 33 selections in the draft, having acquired compensatory picks when outfielder Nick Swisher and pitcher Rafael Soriano signed with the Cleveland Indians and the Washington Nationals, respectively.
The Yankees loved Judge, but the sentiment was not universal across baseball. For example, Notre Dame’s Eric Jagielo was a more conventional pick, a left-handed hitter with power who profiled well at the infield corners. Oppenheimer suggested that they take Jagielo at No. 26, believing that Judge would still be there at No. 32. The picks ticked down as the Yanks waited for their next to arrive: outfielder Phillip Ervin went to the Reds, followed by pitcher Rob Kaminsky (Cardinals), pitcher Ryne Stanek (Rays), shortstop Travis Demeritte (Rangers), and pitcher Jason Hursh (Braves).
“I’ve had a lot of guys since that have told me that they really liked him, but there was a split camp with their clubs,” Oppenheimer said. “Some teams had scouts that really liked him, and some that weren’t on him. For us, we were lucky in that we didn’t have a split camp. Guys went and saw him, Aaron was good, and our guys saw what he could be. They saw that future. There was still a long way for him to go, but the big kicker was the makeup. The makeup set him apart as somebody that we thought could reach those lofty projections.”
Dressed in a charcoal suit with a gray shirt and purple tie, Judge fidgeted in his assigned seat, occasionally whispering to his parents. As Hursh’s selection was announced by Bud Selig, baseball’s commissioner at the time, Judge considered excusing himself for a bathroom break. He decided better of it, waiting to see if the Yankees would call his name. It was no lock, in Judge’s mind. The trip had marked his first visit to the New York City tristate area, including an opportunity to tour Yankee Stadium; Judge had peered out at the field from the first-base dugout, later recalling that he had thought, “This would be an amazing place to play at some point.”
Yet, at that moment, the fantasy did not include pinstripes. Judge’s initial read of the Big Apple was that it had been “too busy; seems hectic.” Overstimulated by a stroll past the M&M’S store and scruffy knockoff Elmos of a Disney-fied Times Square, he had told a Fresno Bee reporter the day before the draft that he was “not sure if I could ever live here.” He later recalled: “Coming here from a small town in California, there’s no one on the sidewalks back home. Here, it’s crowded, and you’re shoulder to shoulder with people. That was probably the first thing I noticed.”
The Yankees believed Judge would fit in fine. Selig announced the selection, identifying Judge as a center fielder from Fresno State. The pick took Judge by surprise, and he embraced his mother in a bear hug. As Judge tried on a Yankees uniform top for the first time, MLB commentator Harold Reynolds said, “I don’t think that jersey fits. This kid is big.” On the air, Reynolds added: “The only thing that’ll be interesting in New York is, do the [NFL’s] Jets or Giants want him? That’s how big this kid is.”
Said Oppenheimer: “The size was never a concern for us because there was a grace to the way he did things. There was fluidity. It wasn’t like where you were talking about somebody who was gawky and struggling. He was playing center field in college, and that gives you confidence in the athleticism.”
Agreeing swiftly to a $1.8 million signing bonus, Judge intended to begin his Yankees career with the Charleston RiverDogs of the South Atlantic League, but a torn right quadriceps muscle kept him off the field. Instead, the team assigned him to a training facility in Tampa, Florida. It was not the start he’d envisioned, but one that allowed for an auspicious meeting. Judge recalled sitting at his locker one day, when Derek Jeter walked through the clubhouse, having just completed an on-field workout.
That year was a nightmare for Jeter, who was grinding to return after fracturing his left ankle in the previous year’s American League Division Series. Jeter sized up the youngster in his line of sight, extended his right hand, and said, “Hey, Aaron, good to meet you.” Judge was stunned; he could not believe that Jeter knew his name.
“I’ve always remembered that, because he could have just walked by me, and he didn’t,” Judge said. “I’ve tried to learn from that and treat teammates the same way.”
The quadriceps healed over the off-season, and Judge was back on the field at the beginning of the 2014 season. He made his professional debut with Charleston and was soon promoted to the Tampa Yankees of the Florida State League. James Rowson was the organizational hitting instructor at the time and recalled that Judge seemed inquisitive about the art of hitting, even at age twenty-two.
“He always wanted to know ‘Why?,’ which I think is the most important question a young hitter can ask,” Rowson said.
Tyler Wade became one of Judge’s closest friends during their time together in Charleston, referring to Judge and teammate Michael O’Neill as his “big brothers.” Wade was nineteen then, not far removed from clutching his diploma on graduation day at Murrieta Valley High School in Murrieta, California. Wade said that even at that early stage, players in the RiverDogs clubhouse recognized that Judge appeared to be headed for more impressive things.
“That was my first time playing with someone like that,” Wade said. “The way he carried himself, there was that stardom. He gave off a presence. You always felt like he was going to be something special. The way his mind works, saying how he wants to get better and how his vision is. You know how some guys say things just to say things? When he says things, he firmly believes it, and that’s what he’s going to do. I was like, ‘Damn, man, this guy has got big things coming.’?”
Judge earned selection to the Arizona Fall League, a showcase for top minor leaguers, then split his 2015 season between Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Those summers of highway travel, greasy bags of fast food, and stays in budget hotels taught Judge how to play the game the right way and not take his opportunities for granted.
“Even when I was in Charleston, Trenton, Scranton, I was preparing myself as if I was in Yankee Stadium,” Judge said. “When you’re in the minor leagues, and you’ve just got done traveling for twelve hours on a bus, it’s pretty tough to get motivated. But then when you think, ‘Hey, I’m not in Charleston, South Carolina, I’m in the Bronx in Yankee Stadium, playing in front of 50,000 people,’ that gets you going.”
Aaron Hicks recalled his first encounter with Judge in 2015, when they were both playing at the Triple-A level. Then a member of the Minnesota Twins organization, the switch-hitting Hicks already had some big-league service under his belt and was rehabbing an injury with the Rochester Red Wings.
“I was playing center field and he hit a ball to me. It got to me so quick,” Hicks said. “I was thinking, ‘This kid has some serious power if the ball is getting to me this fast.’ Once he learned to properly hit the ball in the air, he was going to be scary. I think it was the first time I ever said this to somebody; I was like, ‘Damn, bro, why are you hitting the ball so hard?’ He was just like, ‘Trying to do my job, man.’?”
By spring 2016, Judge drew attention at Yankees camp, ticketed to begin the year at Double-A Trenton. Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, then a special advisor with the team, watched Judge strike the top of the scoreboard in left field during batting practice and remarked that the youngster had “power like [Willie] Stargell.” Judge’s measured demeanor also impressed.
“I remember doing a long one-on-one interview with him in spring training of 2016,” said Pete Caldera, a veteran reporter for the Bergen (NJ) Record. “There was attention around him, but we were led to believe that Greg Bird and Gary Sánchez would have better careers than Judge at that point. He was so unique because of his size. He had the body of an NFL tight end, but he really wanted baseball. He loved the cerebral part of the game; I remember him saying that he loved the chess match of batter versus pitcher, which drew him to baseball.”
Promoted to Triple-A that summer, Judge found Nick Swisher giving his career one last shot. The boisterous, switch-hitting outfielder spent over a decade in the big leagues, including a career highlight as a key cog of the 2009 Yankees club that notched the franchise’s twenty-seventh World Series championship. Swisher had been released by the Atlanta Braves in the spring of 2016, wobbling on a pair of surgically repaired knees, and his chances of getting back to the Show were not looking great.
Swisher signed a minor-league contract to return to the Yankees, attempting to squeeze a bit more daylight into his career, while offering assistance to the next generation. He had become a regular at the Waffle House restaurant on Davis Street in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where he’d order his hash browns “smothered, covered, and chunked” (onions, cheese, and ham) and invite teammates to put breakfast on his tab. Judge was among those who took Swisher up on his offer.
With the clatter of dishes and the hum of two-lane roadway traffic serving as background ambience, they spoke often, and Swisher sensed then that Judge would succeed.
“He knows the man that he is; he knows what he stands for,” Swisher said. “I think that’s his parents. They built such a good man. As a role model, now that I have kids myself, that’s the kind of guy that I want my children to look up to.” As Swisher entertained future “Baby Bombers” like Judge, Gary Sánchez, and Luis Cessa, the big-league Yankees were sputtering toward a fourth-place finish in the American League East, the third time in four seasons that manager Joe Girardi’s club failed to qualify for postseason play. It was time for a changing of the guard, one that took place on August 12 as the Yankees showed Alex Rodriguez the door, ushering their star-crossed slugger into retirement.
Through gritted smiles, both A-Rod and club officials pretended all was well in their respective universes, though Rodriguez (at age forty-one and four home runs shy of 700) still believed deep within his bones that he could continue playing.
As public address announcer Paul Olden read from a script lauding Rodriguez’s career, a lightning bolt flashed across the sky, accompanied by a loud thunderclap. Rodriguez jumped. The skies opened seconds later, in a delicious metaphor that sent Rodriguez, Steinbrenner, and others dashing toward the first-base dugout. Still, it was a surprisingly gracious exit for A-Rod, considering he’d threatened the club with legal action before being hit a 162-game performance-enhancing drug ban just three years prior.
Around midnight that evening, highlights of Rodriguez’s final game—a 6–3 Yankees win, in which he’d stroked a run-scoring double off the Tampa Bay Rays’ Chris Archer—flickered across a television screen in Rochester, New York. Judge was seated with his parents and then-girlfriend Samantha at a Dinosaur Bar-B-Que restaurant. Their table was surrounded by kitschy restaurant decor, including vintage beer advertisements, a potentially pilfered railroad crossing sign, and a signpost indicating that they sat 362 miles from “NEW YAWK.”
Judge poked at a bacon cheeseburger, complemented by heaping helpings of macaroni and cheese and baked beans, as he clocked Scranton/Wilkes-Barre manager Al Pedrique moving with purpose across the wooden floor. Pedrique had played parts of three seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates in the late 1980s, a light-hitting infielder who entered the coaching ranks in the early 2000s. As a Houston Astros special assistant in 2007, Pedrique had championed a diminutive Venezuelan infielder, voicing his conviction that José Altuve deserved a look.
Now Pedrique was in his first season managing Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, and he told Judge: “Hey, you might want to speed your dinner up a little bit. You’ve got to go play right field in New York tomorrow.”
Judge blinked. “Rochester is in New York, isn’t it?” To that, Pedrique laughed. “Nah, you’re going to be playing right field at Yankee Stadium,” the skipper proudly reported. Judge had gotten the call. Patty and Wayne hugged, tears streaking from Judge’s mother’s eyes. At that moment, Judge’s first thoughts concerned travel logistics. The Yankees had an afternoon game the next day, scheduled for 1:05 p.m. against the Tampa Bay Rays.
There were no remaining flights from Rochester that evening, and Judge’s parents decided that the quickest route to New York City would be to pack their rental car as quickly as possible, then drive through the night. The road trippers arrived at a Parsippany, New Jersey, hotel around 6:00 a.m.; Judge had unsuccessfully tried to steal some sleep in the back seat, no easy task for a passenger of his size. When the hotel’s fire alarm went off about an hour later, Judge decided to report early for his first day at the new office. It was a good day to arrive ahead of the crowds; on a sweltering afternoon with temperatures in the mid-nineties, the team was honoring its 1996 World Series championship roster, with Jeter, Rivera, Pettitte, Posada, and Bernie Williams all on hand to bask in their glories of yesteryear.
The No. 99 emblazoned across the back of Judge’s size fifty-two jersey ensured that he stood out right from the start. Judge liked No. 44, but it was retired in honor of Hall of Fame outfielder Reggie Jackson, and pitcher Michael Pineda owned his second choice, No. 35. Credit Rob Cucuzza, the team’s clubhouse manager, for selecting the now-iconic No. 99 instead. It took Judge some time to warm up to the number; he’d even briefly considered asking for No. 13, vacated by A-Rod’s departure just hours earlier.
“[Judge] was like, ‘Should I keep 99?’?” CC Sabathia said. “[I said], ‘Fuck yeah, you keep 99. Nobody’s like you, bro.’ Now every Little League team that I see has a No. 99. That didn’t happen before.”
Judge’s first major-league at-bat started with a bang: not one of his own, but a drive off the bat of Tyler Austin, his fellow first-day rookie teammate. Austin had received the call earlier than Judge, but a canceled flight pushed the Yankees to usher the twenty-four-year-old outfielder and first baseman to the Bronx via a five-hour car trip. He hadn’t slept much more than Judge, and adrenaline surged through both players. Facing right-hander Matt Andriese in the second inning, Austin lifted a fly ball down the right-field line that reached the first row of seats, just over the 314-foot marker for a home run. Austin pumped his right fist as he charged around the bases, and as he waited at home plate, Judge thought: “Don’t make a fool of yourself. Put the ball in play and get on to the next one.”
He did more than that. With the crowd still buzzing, Judge made history, unloading on a 1-2 changeup for a mammoth 446-foot drive to deep center field. Those were depths rarely tested since the opening of the new Yankee Stadium seven years earlier. Judge became the third player to hit a ball off or over the glass panels above Monument Park, joining the Seattle Mariners’ Russell Branyan in 2009 and the Houston Astros’ Carlos Correa earlier in the 2016 season.
He and Austin were the first teammates to homer in their first big-league at-bats in the same game; as Austin would proudly recall after Judge had been crowned the AL’s Most Valuable Player. “I went first. I couldn’t believe that it happened for myself, much less when he did it back-to-back,” Austin said. “That was unbelievable, especially because it had never been done before [by rookie teammates]. I was just super excited for him.”
Years later, Judge still recalls that first at-bat as a career favorite.
“I’m losing my mind on deck, high-fiving, and now everyone’s looking at me like, ‘Hey, man, you’ve got to go out there and hit now,’?” Judge said. “Then, getting a chance to hit another back-to-back home run with my friend Tyler Austin, it was a pretty special moment that I’ll never forget. Having my family and friends there in the stands was something that meant so much to me.”
Michael Kay called that afternoon’s game for the YES Network and said that his first thoughts concerned Judge’s size, wondering if any player so large could succeed in the majors. Then Kay introduced himself to Judge, got to know him a bit, and thought: “He gives off a lot of Jeter vibes.”
“I see that with a lot of players that are raised by a strong family,” Kay said. “Buck Showalter told me about Jeter after the first time he came to the stadium and he got drafted. He said: ‘Well, he’s never going to embarrass the Yankees. His parents, they’re strong people, and strong people raise strong children.’ I’ve met [Judge’s] parents and talked with them a lot; they’re impressive people. I got that vibe from him, that he was not going to do stupid things.”
Judge’s debut stint ended earlier than expected due to an oblique injury sustained on September 16 against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Aside from that first-day homer, Judge’s first twenty-seven games in the majors showcased few indications of a future home run king. He ended the season with 4 homers, strikeouts in 42 of his 84 at-bats, and a .179 batting average. There was no sugarcoating it: Judge had been humbled.
As he returned home to Linden, where he’d help his parents around the yard between workouts and visits to high school basketball and football games, Judge clicked on the Notes app on his iPhone. All season, he’d kept a digital log of team meetings, phone calls, batting cage sessions, goals, milestones, and fleeting thoughts. In bold letters, he typed “.179” at the top.
“I’ve still got it there,” Judge said years later. “It’s turned into a baseball notes page, but still at the top is .179, followed by different stuff I like to see; goals I’ve written down or quotes or tidbits I’ve written down to help get me through the year.”
Judge would be better prepared in 2017, and the key to unlocking his potential would come from a most unlikely source.