Yankees' Aaron Judge gestures as he nears the plate on...

Yankees' Aaron Judge gestures as he nears the plate on a three-run home run against the San Francisco Giants during the third inning of a baseball game in San Francisco, Friday, May 31, 2024. Credit: AP/Jeff Chiu

SAN FRANCISCO — It isn’t about what could have been for Aaron Judge.

It’s about what almost was.

During his free agency two winters ago, Judge and his representation kept their cards — and feelings — close to the vest.

Though never keeping it secret he wanted to be “a Yankee for life” — a phrase Judge started using as far back as his breakout AL Rookie of the Year season in 2017 — once an extension wasn’t reached before the 2022 season, Judge was committed to exploring the free-agent market and all it had to offer.

“I don’t mind going to free agency,” Judge said after the Yankees’ season opener April 8, 2022, against the Red Sox, it becoming official earlier that day he had turned down a seven-year, $213.5 million extension offer.

He added later: “At the end of the year, I’ll talk to 30 teams. The Yankees will be one of those teams.”

And it was during the 2022 winter meetings in San Diego that it seemed a real possibility Judge, fresh off 62 home runs and winning the AL MVP, might be joining a team that was not the Yankees.

Early in the meetings came a report that Judge appeared “headed” to the Giants, the team Judge, a Northern California native, grew up rooting for and an organization that rolled out the red carpet for his visit to the Bay Area.

The report was erroneous — including Judge being called “Arson Judge” — and it was quickly shown as much, but it nonetheless spread like wildfire throughout the meetings. Not to mention the trauma — and that is not too strong of a word — it caused inside the Yankees organization.

“It was pretty close,” Judge said Friday of signing with the Giants.

Not one but two early-morning phone calls with managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner, who at the time was vacationing in Milan, Italy, that took place during those winter meetings sealed the deal between the Yankees and Judge, who would soon agree to a nine-year, $360 million contract.

In an interview with Newsday in spring training 2023, Steinbrenner said he came away from the first phone call feeling not quite right, the reason a day later he sent a text to Judge wanting to talk again.

“I just wasn’t getting exactly what I wanted,” Steinbrenner said. “[The second conversation], I just said, ‘Look, you’ve talked to your wife, parents, family . . . what is important to you? What is important to them? Talk to me.’ ”

Though not the sole difference-maker, the Yankees adding a ninth year to the contract held great significance to the now 32-year-old Judge, who has long believed the way he takes care of his body will allow him to be a productive player into his 40s.

Neither side, obviously, has looked back and Judge is off to one of the best starts, even with a mostly miserable April.

After homering twice Friday night in a 6-2 victory over the Giants, Judge was hitting .277 with a major league-leading 20 homers. He leads the big leagues in slugging percentage (.643), OPS (1.048), extra-base hits (38), walks (45), total bases (137) and go-ahead RBIs (15).

His two homers Friday capped a historic month of May for Judge, who became the first player in franchise history, and the second in MLB history, to hit at least 12 doubles and 14 homers in a single calendar month (Cleveland’s Albert Belle hit 14 homers and 13 doubles in August 1995). Judge’s 26 extra-base hits in May were tied with Babe Ruth (who had 26 in June 1921 and July 1924) for the third most by a Yankee in a single month in franchise history, trailing Joe DiMaggio’s 31 extra-base hits in July 1937 and Lou Gehrig’s 29 in July 1930.

In 28 games in May, Judge slashed .371/.488/.928 with a 1.415 OPS.

“It’s special every day to play with him,” said Anthony Rizzo, one of Judge’s closest friends in the game. “To see him work behind the scenes, as an individual and as a teammate, it’s special. It’s special stuff. You appreciate it because we’re in the middle of greatness. It’s fun to watch . . . he’s our heartbeat.”

One that very nearly transferred coasts two offseasons ago.

“Ultimately, it was all able to work out,” said Aaron Boone, among many in the organization on pins and needles in those uncertain early December days of 2022. “Aaron is, in my opinion, where I think he should be.”

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