The captaincy doesn’t weigh heavily on Aaron Judge — or at least not in the way most would expect.
He didn’t have to take special care to talk to Anthony Volpe. He didn’t have to worry about proving that he is worth the $360 million the Yankees invested in him in the offseason. He didn’t even have to think too hard about trying to homer against San Francisco Giants righthander Logan Webb, who had one of the lowest home run-to-nine innings ratios in all of baseball last year.
Because just like everything else Judge does on or around a baseball diamond, it all seemed to come naturally, even on his first Opening Day as the Yankees’ captain.
“I’m just another player,” said Judge, who is most assuredly anything but that. “I’ve got the captain’s seat, which is a big responsibility that I’ll never take lightly, but for me, I’ve got to focus on what I’ve got to do for this team to help us win.”
And on Thursday, and the days leading up to it, that meant a few things. He naturally took Volpe under his wing, even telling the rookie shortstop to make sure he had a good response for his first roll call (Volpe adopted one of Judge’s old moves and kissed the NY on his jersey). He easily navigated his new contract, and the responsibility that comes with it, in the offseason and into spring training.
Naturally, he homered in his very first at-bat — picking up where he left off in 2022, when he claimed the AL home run record in his final game of the regular season. He added an RBI single in the seventh inning of the Yankees’ 5-0 victory.
“It was awesome,” Volpe said. “Everything about it — the way he got welcomed from the fans coming back and being the new captain, and then announcing his presence like that.”
Volpe added that he and Judge talked about the roll call the day before. It apparently was part of an overall discussion about enjoying your first major-league Opening Day. Advice ranged from getting out onto the field early to get the jitters out, so you don’t tense up and get hurt, to remembering to take it all in.
Told about Volpe’s tribute, Judge smiled. Being a captain hasn’t changed the way he deals with rookies, he said — he’s always tried to help them out — but it was clear Volpe’s callback was a welcome acknowledgment.
“I was kind of ragging him a little bit,” Judge said. “I know you’re a Yankees fan, but you’ve got to have something special for the Bleacher Creatures out there. You’re the shortstop of the New York Yankees — you’ve got to have something. He was throwing out a couple of ideas, but I didn’t know which one he would go with. I think the fans — he got a pretty good roar out of that one.”
And though it may seem like a small thing, it’s not. Volpe already has engendered plenty of good will on his own — he walked in his first at-bat and stole a base, and he and Judge got equally loud ovations during baseline introductions — but New York is a notoriously fickle town. Learning how to navigate that from its literal captain is priceless.
It helps, too, that said captain has stared down some intimidating situations of his own and handled them with aplomb. It was this time last year that Judge was, at times, being criticized for not signing a contract extension. And it was amid that uncertainty, and the pressure of impending free agency, that he had a year for the ages.
“He likes the stage,” manager Aaron Boone said. “He loves this organization and what it means. He’s the central figure within this organization now and I think he takes a lot of pride in that. And I do think he thrives — I think he loves the competition . . . He loves competing with and against the best in the world. That’s, I think, fun for him. The more you can find fun in what you’re doing, the more your talent comes out.”