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Before he finally broke through in 2009, Alex Rodriguez once explained to me why it was unfair for sluggers like him to be held to the same championship-or-else standard that applies to small forwards and two-guards. He pointed out that it is easier for offensive juggernauts to carry their teams in the NBA, where the best players touch the ball on almost every meaningful possession.
“If Barry Bonds played basketball,” A-Rod said, “he’d have six or seven championships.”
I didn’t argue with the man, because he was right. But Bonds and A-Rod were the ones who chose to play baseball, and so did Aaron Judge. Their decision, their burden to bear. Baseball’s stars are confined by the egalitarian process that offers nearly the same number of swings to the weak as to the strong. The superstars who still win titles and ride in ticker-tape parades are the ones tough enough, and opportunistic enough, to maximize their limited opportunities and drive their teams through October.
Aaron Judge, No. 99, needs to be that player if the Yankees are to win championship No. 28.
Saturday was just another day in The Bronx when it was hard to take your eyes off the 6-foot-7, 282-pound Judge, even before he started slapping balls around the yard, in the chilled sunshine, during the Yankees’ 6-4 victory over Tigers. He still looks too big for the NFL draft, never mind for a storied baseball franchise defined by an ultimate larger-than-life figure, Babe Ruth, who was 5 inches shorter and 67 pounds lighter than his distant right-field heir.
Judge’s foul balls back to the screen produce oohs and aahs from the fans who realize he might’ve been a fraction of an inch away from a titanic blast. His home runs? They produce a more thrilling sound, and a greater chance at a favorable outcome. The Yankees are 83-31 when Judge has hit at least one ball over the wall, and 11-2 since the start of last season. And yet he doesn’t need to deliver the long ball, or even to play the field, to help his team win a game. He proved that Saturday with his legs (beating out a slow hopper to third), his patience as the designated hitter and, a day after a two-homer night that included a grand slam, a shorter-ball approach that was good for three hits and three RBI, helping Jameson Taillon secure his first victory in two years.
With two outs and the bases loaded in the sixth, Judge followed DJ LeMahieu’s strikeout with his final, and most critical, hit — a two-run laser to right off Jose Cisnero to give the Yanks a 4-1 cushion, and to frame the following question:
Are we now in the early hours of a blistering Judge hot streak?
“I don’t know about a hot streak,” he said. “Just trying to be consistent for my team.”
His manager sounded more hopeful than that.
“He’s getting airtight with his mechanics and his swing,” Aaron Boone said. “He’s in a good spot. … For the last week, ten days, he’s really locked in. And if you make a mistake, he’s going to do some damage with it.”
For all their monuments and mythology, the Yankees have never had a player quite like Judge, an outsized video-game figure in the box. They are a much better team when he isn’t sitting with mystery lower-leg ailments, no deep explanation required.
“He’s almost won an MVP, he’s been Rookie of the Year,” Boone said. “I think that’s what his ceiling is — to be one of, if not the best player in the league. He’s a guy that is a real MVP candidate. Obviously a great two-way player and tremendous outfielder as well. He’s one of the faces of the sport for a reason.
“I would never want to put a cap on what Aaron’s capable of doing in a full season at this point in his career.”
But two members of the Yankees dynasty of the ’90s, Paul O’Neill and David Cone, recently described Judge as a “rising” superstar. In his 2017 Rookie of the Year season, when his 52 homers and 114 RBIs were good enough for a runner-up MVP finish, Judge looked prepared to overwhelm the sport for 10 or more years. It hasn’t worked out that way. Though the slugger walked into the Stadium on Saturday with 126 career homers, the second-most through 447 game in big league history (Ryan Howard, 135), injuries have derailed him some. He has not been the terminator many expected him to be.
Aaron Judge is 29 years old. All the rising now should be done by his fans in the right-field seats. If anyone can carry this team through October, it’s going to be him.
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