It has become increasingly difficult to imagine a 2023 baseball season with Aaron Judge playing for a team other than the Yankees. As he proved Wednesday night in Toronto, Judge is a sucker for tradition and for connections with titans of the past.
Of course, no franchise packages and sells that brand of tradition and those cross-generational bridges like the one that currently employs the incomparable No. 99.
“That’s one thing so special about the Yankees organization,” Judge said, “is all the guys that came before us and kind of paved the way and played the game the right way.”
Look at how Judge interacted with Roger Maris Jr. after the historic 8-3 victory, and listen to how he spoke of Roger Maris Sr. and the fulfilled quest “to be enshrined with him forever” after tying his American League single-season record with homer No. 61. The slugger and the Yankees are so much better together than they would be apart, and it seems inconceivable that Hal Steinbrenner, the steward of a $7 billion empire, wouldn’t pay whatever it took in free agency to keep the game’s best player in The Bronx.
But Judge didn’t grow up in Linden, Calif., dreaming of playing for the Yankees, the way the New Jersey-born and Michigan-raised Derek Jeter did. And if Tom Brady can leave the Patriots — once an unfathomable scenario — then any superstar can leave any team in any sport.
So if the improbable does happen and Judge signs a long-term deal for north of $300 million with the Giants or another big-game hunter, he would have earned a free pass to that next phase of his career. He would have left behind a parting gift valuable enough to millions on the receiving end to ensure that his passage to the next club is absent any real fan-base animus.
The 2022 season is that gift. When factoring in the bigger, stronger, faster realities of the modern athlete, it can be argued that Judge played baseball at a higher level this year than any Yankee ever has. If you lined up Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle next to the big man, they’d all look like Phil Rizzuto. At 6-foot-7 and 282 pounds, Judge is Wilt Chamberlain scoring 100 points against the 1962 Knicks — night after night after night.
He has made a brutally difficult game look relatively easy. Nobody has ever won the Triple Crown by hitting more than 52 home runs, and now Judge has a chance to win it by hitting more than 62, while batting at least 70 points higher than the league average, .243, the lowest it’s been in more than 50 years.
Comparing eras is always a tough proposition, especially when measuring teams and players from before and after the game’s integration. Ruth and Gehrig regularly put up ridiculous numbers in their primes. The Babe is the only player to ever post a single-season WAR of more than 12.5, and he did it three times, including a 14.2; and the Iron Horse won the 1934 Triple Crown (.363, 49 HRs, 166 RBIs).
DiMaggio delivered his epic 56-game hitting streak in 1941, and Mantle won the Triple Crown 15 years later (.353, 52 HRs, 130 RBIs). The 30-year-old Judge might not match their feats over the long haul, but this franchise has always separated the men from the boys with one stat — the home run — and Judge has more of them in a year than any Yankee other than the late Roger Maris, who could lose his share of the record before the season ends.
Maris wasn’t nearly as dominant in 1961, when he finished the season 92 points behind batting champ Norm Cash and didn’t land in the top 10 in WAR. Maris showed a lion’s heart when toppling the Babe that year against the wishes of nearly everyone involved, but he wasn’t the 2022 Aaron Judge, who has 23 more homers than the next guy on the American League list (Mike Trout) and leads the sport in just about everything — WAR, OBP, OPS, runs, extra-base hits, total bases, you name it.
Everything to know about Aaron Judge and his chase for the home run record:
And soon, Judge will be paid accordingly. Before the season, the Yankees made him a contract offer (seven years, $213.5 million) best described as reasonable, but underwhelming. For a guy who insists he wasn’t betting on himself, Judge took a helluva bet on himself, and ran the table for the better part of six months.
It was a staggering performance at a time when seemingly half the league is batting .229, so you almost felt as if you were defacing Judge’s work of art when bringing up his pending free agency. But given that the situation isn’t going away until the slugger calls his shot, this much needs to be said:
World Series title or no World Series title, Judge has given Yankees fans a magical ride and eternal memories. That shouldn’t be forgotten if he makes a different kind of history this offseason — the contractual kind — and decides to go swing his heavy lumber for someone else.
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