Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees celebrates his...

Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees celebrates his third inning home run against the New York Mets at Yankee Stadium on Monday, Aug. 22, 2022 in the Bronx borough of New York City. Credit: Jim McIsaac


It isn’t often you see the Yankees sweat in December, but the anxiety over retaining Aaron Judge, from owner Hal Steinbrenner down to the team’s youngest fan, was very real this winter.

The apprehension was justified. Judge meant more to the Bronx at this particular moment in time than anyone could have possibly imagined, his pinstriped stature growing far beyond his 6-7 frame. And the idea of Judge going anywhere else, be it his hometown Giants or the 11th-hour suitor Padres, was a nightmare scenario that obviously rattled Steinbrenner & Co. to their core.

So the Yankees finally behaved like we expect the Yankees to in these desperate situations: Do whatever it takes to get what they want, and in Judge’s case, it was a nine-year, $360 million deal that exceeded their Opening Day offer by nearly $150 million, a dizzying raise engineered by Judge’s now legendary bet on himself for the 2022 season.

And make no mistake: this was a desperate spot for the Yankees. You could hear it in Steinbrenner’s voice when Judge’s free agency kicked off a month ago, the owner all too willing to admit his star’s unrivaled importance to the franchise. That was a stunning admission for a player whose price had yet to be established and it’s evident now that Judge may have sensed the Yankees’ fear. He pushed them to the brink early Wednesday morning before Steinbrenner’s clinching phone call — from Italy — sealed the deal.

“[Hal Steinbrenner] stated he would do everything in his power to try to make sure that we could retain Aaron Judge,” GM Brian Cashman said Wednesday. “Rest assured that he is putting his money where his mouth is in those efforts.”

The Yankees needed Judge, maybe to a degree we haven’t seen in the Bronx in recent memory. Yes, Derek Jeter grew a Hall of Fame legacy over two decades in pinstripes, but he had esteemed company on those rosters, other players with selling power, too.

As this past year proved, however, Judge was head-and-shoulders above everyone else. And not just his Bronx colleagues — the rest of baseball, too. To break a fabled record by smashing 62 home runs, the most by anyone in pinstripes, elevated Judge to the Mount Olympus of single-season performances. Then calculate in the fact that Judge essentially carried the Yankees to the playoffs with his MVP campaign, and it became crystal clear that losing him was not an option.

There was no replacement for Judge. No Plan B for this offseason. It was either pony up to deliver Judge back to a restless, anxious fan base or deal with the unprecedented fallout. No one seemed to understand that better than Steinbrenner, who ultimately signed off on a $360 million deal that surely only Judge thought possible back when he rejected the team’s eight-year, $213.5 million offer on Opening Day.

It’s the job of Cashman to be the gatekeeper for Steinbrenner, to frame the proposals, to crunch the data, to give his opinion on what should work best for the franchise. But the Yankees’ spectacular failure with Judge at the onset of this season, made worse by the antagonistic strategy to release the details of their offer, suggested that Steinbrenner had to make good with Judge, raising the stakes to well above a mere baseball decision.

“Clearly I’ve never had to negotiate and try to retain somebody that just broke Roger Maris’ American League home run record,” Cashman said.

Judge didn’t make it easy for them, that’s for sure. The Yankees had their turn to pressure him through March, but Judge’s six-month counter was merciless, as each of those 62 homers further dented the team’s negotiating stance, weakening their leverage with every swing. The crack of his bat might as well have been the cha-ching of a cash register.

And if those stats weren’t enough, Judge had another big trump card to play — the rabid interest of the deep-pocketed Giants. He grew up just close enough to San Francisco to consider that franchise his hometown team, and the Giants quickly identified him as their No. 1 target from the jump. While the Yankees had the early advantage, with Steinbrenner himself taking an active role in stressing to Judge how much they wanted him to finish his career in pinstripes, the Giants seemed to push the latter pace of these negotiations, first by bumping the price up to $360 million, the place the Yankees were forced to match (the Padres reportedly offered Judge roughly $400 million late Tuesday night before he chose to stay put).

The deal is waiting on Judge’s physical, so it’s likely we won’t hear his side until the Yankees welcome him back with a Bronx news conference in the coming days. Bottom line? He easily could have been rich somewhere else. But Judge is staying a Yankee because he wants to, it means something to him. This whole process was about determining the right salary, and Judge — as he always does — played it like an MVP throughout the entire journey, from Opening Day through mid-December.

Knowing Judge, and what we watched this past year, did anyone expect otherwise? Steinbrenner will happily write those checks now, and the rest of the Yankees Universe can now exhale. If it’s any consolation, adding that figurative ‘C’ to his uniform won’t cost an extra cent, and Judge likely won’t be wearing anything but pinstripes for the rest of his baseball life.

Newsday LogoSUBSCRIBEUnlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months