Willie Randolph sees leadership, Yankees pride in Aaron Judge
The snapshot at Steinbrenner Field was timeless: a former Yankees captain passing on wisdom to perhaps a future one.
Standing in the outfield grass, Willie Randolph and Aaron Judge talked for close to an hour Saturday during batting practice, just another conversation between these two in an ongoing series that could help pilot the Yankees through the next generation.
Just as winning those 27 rings took unmatched excellence, maintaining that tradition — nurturing it — doesn’t happen automatically. Randolph took his early cues from teammates who respected what playing for the Yankees meant. But with the franchise in the midst of a 12-year title drought and the last of those 2009 champs gone, a clubhouse turns its lonely eyes to Judge, a pending free agent who may very well represent the Yankees’ last chance at remaining the Yankees.
“When I think about the Yankees’ history, and the lineage, if they sign him, that’s going to be a great signing,” Randolph said. “Not just because he’s a great player, but he gets what his responsibility is. Not only as a ballplayer, but as a teammate. A lot of guys don’t always put the two together. Very rarely do you have that. Thurman Munson had that. Guys like Graig Nettles, Chris Chambliss, Roy White. I learned from those cats.
“They all take the sense of pride very seriously. So when I look forward, past Derek Jeter, then I go ‘Wow,’ the next guy to me is Aaron Judge. I don’t know what’s going on with the [contract] situation, but I just feel like he’s a guy that can lead this team for a lot of years.”
The Yankees need that compass, maybe now more than ever. It’s a franchise that has passed greatness along as a family heirloom, wielding the World Series trophy like a baton, but that process expired last season when Brett Gardner ended (for now) his 14-year run in pinstripes.
This is still viewed as a championship-caliber group. For Judge, he’s soared from high-ceiling prospect to the face of the franchise, and in some ways, feeling like that all happened overnight.
“You just kind of get thrown into that role,” Judge said Monday. “My first couple of years, I’m just trying to stay out of everybody’s way, just do my business, play and go home. But it starts to evolve over the years. We start seeing new faces come in, and then all of a sudden you start looking around like, ‘Well, I don’t see 11 [Gardner] down there.’ You don’t see a lot of guys.”
The position Judge finds himself in, there’s no user’s manual for that, no textbook on Leadership 101. There’s where Randolph can help out as someone who’s navigated through similar territory, and Judge’s relationship with the former captain is something he’s leaned on since getting to the bigs.
“It was a different game when he was playing back in the day,” Judge said. “But I’ve been picking his brain more about stuff going on now as someone who I trust and I’ve known for years. So he’s just been a good sounding board for me over the years. I believe he should be a big-league manager somewhere or at least a coach or assistant.”
Judge added that much of what he’s learned about “how to be a Yankee” came from his interaction with the previous generations, often down at spring training, but that’s largely been missing this year. CC Sabathia did stop by last week, but he was gone by Sunday’s home opener, where the only two Yankee “legends” introduced pregame were Randolph and Nick Swisher.
There seem to be a number of reasons for that. Because of the lockout, teams had to rush their delayed spring preparations, and with only 72 hours to ramp up the camp openings, the Yankees couldn’t make arrangements for many of the usual alumni who show. In 2019, before the pandemic changed everything, the Yankees had a dozen former players as guest instructors, nearly all of them with rings on their resumes.
Their absence was noted by Judge, who isn’t guaranteed any more of these Yankee springs — not until a contract extension, which Hal Steinbrenner has pledged to work on before the team leaves Tampa.
Randolph is confident that the Yankees’ brand couldn’t be in more capable hands.
“I’m just hoping they come up with something because he’s a special kind of cat,” Randolph said. “I just think that he’s ready to lead this team to the next level.”
Those conversations in the outfield grass will continue this spring along with Judge’s education as he absorbs the lessons from Randolph’s decorated past in pinstripes. What we know as the Yankees may depend on it.