Aaron Judge can fill Yankee Stadium on his own. He has the unique ability to silence more than 40,000 people as they breathlessly await his swing, then spur them into a frenzied roar upon contact, as we’ve all witnessed this past week in the Bronx.
There’s not another person on the Yankees’ roster, or in the pipeline, capable of doing anything remotely close to that. And as Judge attempts to reel in Roger Maris for the American League single-season home run record, an already untouchable star has launched himself into a universe we weren’t sure even existed until now: that of the truly irreplaceable free agent.
As of this moment, Judge is the Yankees — in a way only a few of the team’s legendary figures have approached. He remained stuck with Babe Ruth on 60 homers for a third straight game Friday night in going 1-for-4 with a single and two strikeouts in a 5-4 victory over the Red Sox.
But Judge is used to hanging out among all the greats during this stellar season — Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle. The difference with him, and what separates Judge from the team’s most recent Hall of Famer, Derek Jeter, is that he’s been tasked to do all this practically by himself.
Take Jeter, for example. The charismatic shortstop for five World Series champs, Jeter always was surrounded by a high-caliber lineup, stacked with some of the game’s most productive hitters. He was a member of a wildly popular Core Four that also included the pillars of Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte (along with the oft-mentioned fifth, Bernie Williams). Throughout his Cooperstown career, Jeter was the captain but never a one-man show.
While Judge unfailingly credits his teammates for the Yankees’ success — you may not have noticed that they clinched a playoff berth with Thursday’s walk-off win over the Red Sox — he’s the only person talking about the other guys in pinstripes. And that’s astonishing for a first-place team that has a magic number of four.
Judge’s 404-foot flyout, which fell just short of tying Maris, was all anyone really wanted to discuss after Thursday’s victory. Well, other than his bullet throw that cut down Tommy Pham leading off the ninth inning.
It didn’t take Judge chasing down Maris to gain this level of pinstriped god-like status among the Yankee fandom, but it’s certainly upgraded his Triple Crown pursuit from an extraordinary MVP-level season to historic greatness.
And by doing so, Judge has stamped himself as the indelible face of the franchise, racing to iconic status after just seven years of service in the Bronx and despite not having the swag of a World Series ring.
Too soon? Those who’ve observed it happening don’t believe so. When you mention the Yankees, Judge is the first thing that comes to mind. And there’s a long pause before No. 2 on the list.
“Yeah, I think so,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. “You see the difference the last few weeks. When guys are watching games, they make sure they don’t miss the at-bats. That’s when you know — you are the guy. It seems like he doesn’t live like that. He doesn’t like the attention in that sense. He’s a very team-oriented player.”
But Judge is the team, not only as the offensive engine but for selling merchandise, advertising minutes and tickets, too. What’s all that worth?
We know that Judge’s 10.4 WAR can propel a team to the playoffs — the next closest player is the Cardinals’ Paul Goldschmidt with 7.1 — but how will the Yankees calculate the appropriate dollar amount to reflect the totality of his value to the franchise?
The only thing general manager Brian Cashman knows for sure is that the Yankees’ Opening Day offer of $213.5 million over seven years seems absurdly insufficient now.
Will other teams feel the same way at season’s end? One club that’s been linked to Judge is his hometown Giants, and they’ve floated some not-so-subtle hints about their interest through different channels. One of those is Barry Bonds, now a Giants consultant, whose 73 homers in 2001 appears to be the only thing out of reach for Judge as he approaches free agency.
“I hope he signs here,” Bonds told Sportico. “Can it happen? I don’t know. It depends on what the Yankee payroll is. But we would love to have him, I’ll tell you that.”
Truth is, Judge means more to the Yankees than he would to any other club. Not only for his pinstriped pedigree as a homegrown megastar, but the fact that they have no Judge equivalent to showcase for their paying customers in the Bronx.
What would the 2022 Yankees be without Judge? Or for that matter, try to imagine Judge showing up in the Bronx on Opening Day next year wearing a Giants uniform.
“He’s a great player, and I think he’s a great ambassador of the game, too,” Cora said. “They’ve got other things to do this season, their goals and all that, but obviously his future is going to be bright — and very green.”
The Yankees desperately need it to be navy blue as well.