After 24 hours of believing that nothing was impossible for Aaron Judge, we finally reached the limit before Tuesday night’s All-Star Game at Marlins Park. There was Clayton Kershaw, standing at his locker, holding the stop sign.
With the images of those roof-scraping rockets still dancing in our spinning heads, someone pushed the Dodgers’ ace too far and played the Barry Bonds card. Could Kershaw see Judge matching the almighty Home Run King?
“What’s he got, 30 home runs?” Kershaw asked. “And he’s played 90 games? Do the math. So no, I don’t think anybody’s going to catch Barry’s record.”
In reality, it’s 84 games, but he had a point. That single-season total of 73 bombs still feels like the unreachable star, even for Judge, who threatened to poke holes in the retractable dome Monday night and break windows beyond the leftfield bleachers.
But how’s this for a consolation prize? With everyone clamoring for the next Face of Baseball, the sport’s very own LeBron James or Tom Brady, the readymade candidate may very well wear No. 99 for the Yankees.
While the concept was flipped around during these All-Star festivities, and Judge helped his cause with a thunderous homer display Monday night on national television, it was commissioner Rob Manfred who added some gravitas to the discussion in Tuesday’s meeting with the Baseball Writers Association of America. Manfred knows how heavy that crown would be, especially for a 25-year-old rookie like Judge, but the commissioner tossed it atop his 6-7 frame anyway.
“Aaron Judge has been absolutely phenomenal,” Manfred said. “There is no other word to describe it. He is a tremendous talent on the field, a really appealing off-the-field personality, the kind of player that can become the face of the game.”
And just like that, Manfred swiped left on Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Mookie Betts, Buster Posey, Manny Machado and whomever else you might want to add to the debate. No offense intended, of course. But there are probably a few reasons why the commissioner instantly latched onto Judge and left the others in his dust, chief among them the Derby high both he and the rest of the nation still was coming down from.
There’s no equal for a Ruthian figure in a Yankees’ uniform, booming 500-foot blasts with a contagious grin. Judge set the stage by hitting 30 homers in the first half, but the Derby was the springboard that launched him even further into the stratosphere. Something about that mano-a-mano competition had Manfred fantasizing of Judge hawking pizza chains or SUVs.
“We sort of take the Home Run Derby for granted because we’ve done it for a long time,” Manfred said. “But it’s a unique event in baseball. You talk about marketing the game and players becoming the face of the game — our game’s a team sport, right? That creates inherent limitations in terms of how big a star any individual player can become and actually creates reluctance among players sometimes to market themselves.
“The great thing about the Home Run Derby, when you think about it, it’s the one thing that we do on a national scale where you go out there and it’s about you as an individual player. And he certainly stepped up (Monday) night.”
Alas, even Judge is human, and he came up empty Tuesday night in three at-bats in the AL’s 2-1, 10-inning win. In the first inning, after patiently fighting back from an 0-and-2 hole to work the count full, Judge whiffed on a nasty slider from Max Scherzer. He grounded out against Carlos Martinez in the third, then generated one last fleeting thrill with a deep flyout off Jason Vargas in the fifth.
All Judge has to do is put the ball in the air and the crowd collectively gasps, hoping to see something spectacular. That’s special. It may happen with regularity in the Bronx, but Judge conquered new territory this week in Miami, through every camera lens, microphone and notebook dispatched to document his incredible feats.
“I just think of myself as a little kid from Linden, California,” Judge said Tuesday afternoon before taking the stage again. “Living my dream right now.”
Not to mention the dreams of everyone else associated with Major League Baseball.