Aaron Judge watches warm-ups prior to the game between the...

Aaron Judge watches warm-ups prior to the game between the New Orleans Saints and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium on December 05, 2022 in Tampa, Florida.  Credit: Getty Images/Mike Carlson

SAN DIEGO — For roughly a half hour Tuesday, Yankeeland was ablaze, the flashpoint coming from a reputable tweet that stated Aaron Judge was headed to the Giants. As a baseball nation went berserk, an anxious Aaron Boone stared at his phone, wondering if the unthinkable had indeed become a reality.

It wasn’t until Boone called general manager Brian Cashman that his fears were at least temporarily relieved. The Yankees’ front office hadn’t heard anything from Judge, and Cashman was under the impression no decision was made. Whether or not that meant the Yankees remained in the race was another matter entirely, because Judge’s free agency has been among the most closely guarded baseball secrets in recent memory, the process more leak-proof than the Lincoln Tunnel.

As if Twitter wasn’t enough to ramp up the hysteria, Judge also was rumored to be en route Tuesday to San Diego via a private charter from his Tampa home, hours after hugging it out with Tom Brady on a viral video after the Buccaneers’ victory at Raymond James Stadium.

Aaron Judge talks with Tom Brady #12 of the Tampa...

Aaron Judge talks with Tom Brady #12 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers prior to the game against the New Orleans Saints at Raymond James Stadium on December 05, 2022 in Tampa, Florida.  Credit: Getty Images/Mike Carlson

And what was that all about? Judge just being a fanboy to the GOAT? Or two Bay Area kids showing some solidarity on the eve of The Decision? Hey, if Brady could leave the Patriots for Tampa after six Super Bowl titles, then what was stopping Judge from returning to his roots in San Francisco if the Giants’ offer was impossible to refuse? By now, it was safe to assume that Judge will get a contract well north of $300 million, and all signs were pointing to the Giants being prepared to spend whatever necessary to pry him away from the Bronx.

With each passing day, the odds of that scenario seemed to increase. Hal Steinbrenner launched his own full-court press on Judge as soon as the Yankees were bounced from the playoffs in late October, speaking with him personally several times, and  Cashman admitted to an offer already sitting on the table for a while. But Judge didn’t bite, and the Giants showed up at these winter meetings acting confident about their chances.

Once again, the Yankees seemed unsure of their standing in the baseball universe, suddenly wary of their West Coast challenger. Just like the Astros have exposed them on the field during the past handful of Octobers, the Giants were stripping the Yankees of their trademark winter bravado, showing a Steinbrenner that he could be beat at the game his own father practically invented.

It was only four years ago, the last time MLB’s winter meetings were held here at this same site in San Diego, that Cashman bagged his white whale by giving Gerrit Cole a nine-year, $324 million contract. Judge was proving to be much more elusive after rejecting the Yankees’ $213.5 million offer on Opening Day and then boosting his value by more than $100 million with a 62-homer season, arguably the most authentic power display in baseball history.

To what degree that chip on his shoulder fueled Judge is open to debate. But there is zero doubt he never forgot the questionable strategy used by Cashman last spring, when the Yankees publicly fed that last, best offer to reporters. How much did that still annoy Judge? Enough for Boone to talk with him about it after the season, and Judge to spill his feelings to Time magazine, which unveiled him Tuesday as its 2022 Athlete of the Year.

“We kind of said, Hey, let’s keep this between us,” Judge told Time in recalling those futile contract talks. “I was a little upset that the numbers came out. I understand it’s a negotiation tactic. Put pressure on me. Turn the fans against me, turn the media on me. That part of it I didn’t like.”

Enough for him to bring it up again in an interview seven months later. Also in that Time feature: Judge detailed how his wife, Sam, reminded him of his 10-year plan after high school to marry her and then play for the San Francisco Giants. This was a side of Judge we hadn’t really seen this past year, the one who imagined himself wearing something other than pinstripes. Judge definitely was fully invested during his walk year in the Bronx, as the numbers attest, but maybe the Yankees underestimated the slugger’s willingness to walk away from his Bronx legacy.

Steinbrenner said at the start of free agency that he believed Judge truly wanted to be a Yankee, and Boone echoed that sentiment Tuesday, even as the manager fretted over the alternative.

“I always feel like he certainly belongs in pinstripes,” Boone said. “And a guy of his stature and his greatness hopefully spends his entire career [going] into Monument Park and into the Hall of Fame as a Yankee. That would be the hope.”

It was all very much up in the air as of Tuesday night, with everyone on edge. And when I asked Boone if there was anything else the Yankees could have done in this competition for Judge, he mistook that for a concession.

“That tense you’re talking in, I don’t like, “ Boone said.

But the Judge Derby wasn’t over. Not yet. And neither was the anxiety.