There are plenty of people in the seats these days to catch Aaron Judge’s home runs at Yankee Stadium. The baseballs don’t ricochet around vacant rows, sending fans on a footrace to scoop them up, as they did during Don Mattingly’s pinstriped tenure.
Judge provided three more souvenirs Friday night to propel the Yankees to a 7-1 victory over the Diamondbacks, becoming the first player in franchise history to pull off a pair of homer hat tricks in the same season. Despite the impressive statistical feat, however, the impact feels a bit hollow, not unlike the empty old stadium while Mattingly fulfilled his dual roles as team captain and MVP.
Making sure that Judge does more than merely dent someone else's playoff dreams in late September is the challenge now facing the Yankees as he winds down the first season of his nine-year, $360 million contract. We bring up Mattingly because he remains a beloved Yankee as the only beacon of light from one of the team’s darkest periods, a 14-year stretch that featured one playoff appearance, as a wild card in 1995, his final season.
If not for chronic back problems that ultimately sapped Mattingly’s powers and prematurely ended his career at age 34, he’d be a strong candidate for Cooperstown. Judge is quickly building his own Hall of Fame case, but both he and the Yankees have pressing front-burner priorities, and that’s parlaying his freakish offensive abilities into a few titles rather than squandering them as a September sideshow.
It’s the same with Gerrit Cole, a virtual lock to be the Yankees’ sixth Cy Young Award winner — but the only member of that select group who didn't do it for an eventual World Series team. The Yankees soon will be 0-4 in Fall Classic tries since Cole signed his nine-year, $324 million contract, but this will be the first time they failed to make the playoffs with Judge, a sobering reminder that October baseball is no longer a birthright for Baby Bombers.
General manager Brian Cashman does have a convenient excuse. Judge missed 52 games this season while on the injured list, including 42 after crashing into the rightfield wall at Dodger Stadium, a collision that damaged a ligament in his right big toe and sabotaged the Yankees’ chances of staying in contention. But Judge’s 35 homers (in only 100 games) were tied for third in the American League entering Saturday, a year after he hit 62 to break Roger Maris’ AL mark.
And while we’re on the subject of history, Judge’s 33 multi-homer games rank fifth-most for the franchise behind Babe Ruth (68), Mickey Mantle (46), Lou Gehrig (43) and Joe DiMaggio (35). Also, his four seasons with at least six multi-homer games are tied for the most in MLB with Jimmie Foxx, Mark McGwire and David Ortiz.
What makes Judge stand out from that crowd? He’s the only one without a World Series ring. Or even an appearance, for that matter.
That’s not his fault, but the Yankees have deployed the game’s most dangerous slugger since 2017 and failed to cash in on the championship front. As Hal Steinbrenner pledges to fix his team’s myriad problems this offseason, he can’t be surrounding Judge with .200 hitters, as this lineup featured far too often this season.
People will always pay to see Judge. Steinbrenner was banking on that when he forked over the record $360 million. But in baseball, a superhero still requires a supporting cast. Otherwise, what Judge does will amount to little more than a memorable fireworks show when it comes to chasing championships.
“You’re just watching a great player,” manager Aaron Boone said Friday night. “That’s greatness. Special player that lost some time this year, [but] he’s just different than everyone else.”
Judge, at age 31, took that to another level this season, and painfully so in battling back from a debilitating toe injury that some feared might affect him long-term. He skipped the customary rehab assignment to rush back in an effort to salvage the season, but it wasn’t nearly enough. And amid all the questions about shutting himself down as the Yankees faded from the wild-card race, Judge plowed through instead.
Before Friday night’s flex, Judge looked as if he might benefit from calling it quits a little early. In a 13-game span from Sept. 7-20, he was hitting .182 (8-for-44) with 17 strikeouts, one home run and a .250 slugging percentage. Very un-Judge-like numbers, but he had two hits on Thursday and a double and three homers on Friday, driving in six runs and singlehandedly beating the Diamondbacks to get the Yankees two games over .500 (78-76) on a night that “Fire Cashman” signs dotted the stands.
“Lot of missed time, a lot of missed opportunities,” Judge said. “You can look at the numbers, but I look more at the games I missed and the opportunities I missed.”
The Yankees now have another opportunity in the offseason to assemble a roster that will capitalize on Judge’s generational talents for 2024 and beyond. Lighting up the Bronx sky in September helps fuel his unrelenting assault on history, but Judge’s legacy needs more Octobers to avoid any lasting feelings of regret.