Aaron Judge just got bigger than his outsized measurables. He left Toronto and returned to New York as something more than the 6-foot-7, 282-pound slugger who wants a richer long-term contract than the Yankees are willing to give him.
He came back as the lead actor in a passion play that captured everything said to be right about competitive sports in general, and baseball in particular. At its core, baseball is about making kids happy. It’s about getting a little boy in the stands a ball.
The adults in the left-field seats in Rogers Centre the other night had been trying in vain to get 9-year-old Yankees fan Derek Rodriguez a ball during warm-ups, and in between innings. Judge made it happen by launching a full-count four-seamer 427 feet into the arms of a kindly Blue Jays fan, Mike Lanzillotta, whose handoff to the kid in the Judge jersey started a multination lovefest that transcended this early struggle for control of the AL East.
And when Judge was introduced to the two strangers who went viral by way of his blast, he turned Wednesday’s pregame dugout meeting into a case study in how a star athlete should handle such things. “It still gives me goose bumps seeing little kids wearing my number, my jersey,” the right fielder said afterward.
Timing is everything in life and in baseball, and Judge’s was perfect. As the best player on the best team in the sport, he was only doing his job when he hit that home run. But the scene in Toronto was bigger than the game, and a reminder of why the Yankees might win everything this year except their contract standoff with Judge.
The club will lose that one to the right fielder, as long as he stays on the field.
You will recall that on Opening Day, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman threw out the ceremonial first pitch (it was high and tight) by announcing that Judge had rejected an extension offer of seven years and $213.5 million that would have put his eight-year package north of $230 million. The player wasn’t thrilled with the public disclosure, but Cashman needed his paying customers to know that the Yankees weren’t messing around. No problem there.
Judge has said he won’t reopen negotiations during the season, while the GM left open the possibility of doing just that. This is a deal that needs to get done before Judge hits free agency in the fall.
But hey, Cashman has never been afraid of a big-name, big-money fight, losing to Bernie Williams as a rookie GM in 1998 on a last-second knockout long before he pummeled an aging Derek Jeter over 12 rounds in earning the unanimous decision in their 2010 title bout. And though this stare-down with Jeter’s face-of-the-franchise successor lacks the edge and animus that defined Cashman versus The Captain, there is still time for blood to be drawn.
Judge remains the heavy favorite to prevail because of who he is and what he represents. Given that no major leaguer his size has ever been athletic enough to play center field with relative ease, Judge is baseball’s most unique player not named Shohei Ohtani.
Beyond that, as a gentle (if not jolly) giant who swings for the moon, he matches up better with Yankee mythology than anyone else. They don’t call them the Bronx Bombers for nothing, you know. Every Judge at-bat is a drop-everything-and-watch event, and there is value in that. Big value. Just as there is in the way Judge carries himself.
Jeter set the standard for wearing the pinstripes the right way, for dodging controversy and scandal while enjoying the spoils of New York, New York celebrity. Judge has more or less followed suit. If your most conspicuous sin is getting annoyed when YES Network cameras focus on you in the dugout, you’re doing pretty good.
What is that intangible worth? And how much do the Yankees get to deduct from the Judge package because he is 30 years old with a history of injuries?
Though the numbers the Yanks offered sound mind blowing to the average fan — exactly why Cashman entered them into the record — the total value of the deal wouldn’t make baseball’s top dozen. (That list runs from No. 12, Anthony Rendon, at $245 million, all the way up to No. 1, Mike Trout, at $426.5 million, according to Spotrac.com.) Of course, a more relevant list to consult might be Sportico’s recent ranking of franchise valuations, placing the Yankees first at $7.01 billion, ahead of America’s Team, the Dallas Cowboys, at $6.92 billion.
So what is a homegrown box-office asset the likes of Judge worth to a $7 billion company?
With his nine homers and 1.009 OPS, Judge has not allowed his contract situation and pending arbitration hearing (over his 2022 wage) to negatively impact his play. But his case isn’t made only by numbers. Twenty, thirty years from now, kids named after Judge will be in the outfield stands waiting for a home-run ball the way a kid named after Jeter was waiting for one Tuesday night in Toronto.
Just like young Jeffrey Maier remained part of Jeter’s story, young Derek Rodriguez will remain part of Judge’s. The right fielder put that boy in the seats, in his No. 99 jersey, for reasons the Yankees will have to pay for. They can either pay now or later