It was the hot and sweaty summer of 2017. While Aaron Judge was standing in a narrow room adjacent to the Marlins Park visitors clubhouse, the young man Yankees slugger had officially arrived at the scene of the MLB.
His chest was still heaving from an astonishing performance in the Home Runs Derby in which he hit 47 home runs, 3.9 miles of them, enough to reach Miami’s Biscayne Bay if combined from the plate. Judge grinned widely and displayed the “aw shucks” persona that would win over a national audience.
“I had no pressure to do it. I’m a rookie,” Judge said that night. “For me, I have no expectations. I’m just going to come in and have fun and see what we can do tonight. It was a blast. I enjoyed every minute.”
The sky seemed to be the limit for Judge and the rest of the “Baby Bombers,” who would make the postseason ahead of schedule, only for their year to end in Game 7 heartbreak in Houston. That exit from the playoffs and those that followed deeply affected Judge, changing the course of his career and that of his teammates.
He’s still one of the game’s brightest stars, as commissioner Rob Manfred predicted he would become that during the sun-drenched week in Miami, Judge no longer exudes the “just happy to be here” vibe that he had in 2017. These days, Judge seems to be singularly focused on celebrating a Yankees World Series championship with the current group.
“Every year, I put my heart and soul in this game, in my teammates, in this city and in this organization,” Judge said. “That’s why every year it hurts when we lose. I feel like I let the city down. I feel like I disappointed my teammates. Those cuts are deep, but they’re just scars. I have scars everywhere: losses and past experiences. But all it’s doing is making us stronger. “
Ace Gerrit Cole will represent the Yankees in Denver this week, along with Judge and closer Aroldis Chapman. Having faced Judge numerous times over the years, Cole said that outside the lines, the hulking He-Man turned out to be precisely what he expected.
“It’s one thing to listen and another to see him on a daily basis, always trying to reach out to the other guys,” Cole said. “He’s making sure of everything he can to help us be more prepared, to help us be more confident, to help us play more together. He’s going through a lot with his preparation and his own routine to get ready to play at the level he’s hoping for. It was a huge expectation to measure up, and it certainly fits the bill. “
Somehow, Judge continues to chase the magic of his rookie season, a year that began with such anonymity that he was able to visit New York’s Bryant Park and interview Yankees fans about himself for a sketch that aired on the NBC’s “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” dressed up as just a couple of Clark Kent frames.
By that October, Judge couldn’t walk a city block without being stopped for an autograph or a selfie. Judge, unanimously named AL Rookie of the Year, finished second to the Astros’ José Altuve in the AL MVP voting. Judge set the American League pace in runs (128), home runs (52), walks (127) and strikeouts (208) that year, winning a Silver Slugger Award. The secret was in sight.
When healthy, Judge has moved closer to that otherworldly performance, building a solid 150 OPS + during his first five seasons in the majors. But injuries limited Judge to 242 out of 384 possible regular-season games (63%) from 2018-20, which has made his performance in 2021 so special.
Judge earned his ticket to Denver based on his reliability, ranking as the Yankees’ most productive hitter in a season that has been marked by general inconsistency. Judge is the first Yankee to hit 20 home runs with 46 or more RBIs and an OPS of .900 or more in the first half since… well, Aaron Judge, who hit those milestones in 2017 and 18.
As the fun of the 2021 All-Star Game begins in Denver, it’s easy to imagine Judge flashing his megawatt smile with new friends on the American League bench, patrolling the outfield with poise and perhaps delighting the crowd with a bang. of a mile or two. But make no mistake, for Judge, this All-Star Game is just a respite before a second-half push toward unfinished business.
“Everything is going to make everything sweeter in the end,” Judge said. “It is a journey; It is a process of going through ups and downs. That is what I love to do. And that’s what will make the ultimate prize of bringing back a championship that much sweeter. “
Bryan Hoch / MLB.com