NEW YORK — Every so often this spring, someone tries to offer Aaron Judge a way out. “It’s going to be hard to top last season,” they say, or “You’ll never hit 62 home runs again, but—” That is usually as far as they get before he stops them.
“We’ll see,” he replies. He is frequently smiling. He is never joking.
He broke the American League single-season home run record last year. He came within five points of batting average of the Triple Crown. He won the MVP award. He almost singlehandedly muscled the Yankees through a monthlong summer swoon. He did it all while fans booed him for turning down an extension offer that would have paid him nearly $150 million less than the $360 million over nine years he ultimately commanded. He spent November and part of December flirting with his hometown Giants before returning to New York on the largest contract in franchise history. The team named him captain the minute he agreed to his new deal.
If all this puts pressure on him, he has not shown it to his teammates or his manager or his opponents. And he certainly didn’t show it to the 46,172 who watched him greet Opening Day with an impossible blast to center field. San Francisco ace Logan Webb allowed only two home runs to right-handed batters on sinkers last year, and both came on blazing hot days. It was 39° and blustery in the Bronx on Thursday. The wind turned drives into easy outs. Webb excels at keeping the ball down, making it hard to elevate.
Still, Judge strode to the plate in the bottom of the first planning to get underneath one. He “picked the right one,” he said after the Yankees finished off a 5–0 rout that never felt even that close. Judge added a bloop single in the seventh to score the final run.
But it was that shot in the first that got everyone’s attention. He was just trying to make contact, Judge said with a smile, adding, “I didn’t expect that to happen.”
The details were surprising—“That’s about as tough a guy as you’re gonna do it against, right on right,” said manager Aaron Boone. “Webb is gonna keep you in the ballpark, and to get a ball up like that and to hit it out on a cold day, dead center, is a difficult chore.”—but the performance was not.
“He likes the stage,” said Boone. “I think he loves this organization and what it means. He’s the central figure within this organization now. So I think he takes a lot of pride in that. He loves competition, he loves the big stage, he loves competing with and against the best in the world. And that’s, I think, fun to him.”
Also fun to him is bantering with his teammates. Twenty-one-year-old shortstop Anthony Volpe made his major league debut on Thursday; Judge spent part of yesterday teasing him about how he would respond to the Bleacher Creatures during Roll Call at the beginning of the game. You’re from New Jersey, he reminded Volpe. You better have something good.
Volpe asked if he could choose a gesture honoring his captain: During Game 5 of last year’s American League Division Series against the Guardians, Judge had grabbed his jersey and kissed the NY logo. Judge approved, and when the fans chanted “VOL-PE” during the first inning, the kid recreated the move.
Sometimes Judge, who will be 31 next month, feels like the grade schooler who laid out his uniform on the floor the night before Little League Opening Day and stealthily crept out of bed in the dark to practice his swing. (Perhaps not as stealthily as he thought: His parents “could hear me rustling around” and sent him back to sleep, he said, laughing.) Sometimes he feels like the veteran he has become.
On Thursday, his new teammate was giddy at their proximity. Volpe has watched a lot of Judge home runs on TV. Thursday was the first time he got to see one from the dugout.
“It was awesome,” he said, grinning so hard it seemed his face must hurt. “Just everything about it. The way he got welcomed by the fans coming back and being the new captain and then announcing his presence like that. Something I’ll never forget.”
For his part, Judge, as he usually does, said he was happy the team had won. It will indeed be hard to top last season … but he did not hit his first home run last year until his sixth game.
He does not like the idea that his best days are behind him. He says he believes his finest seasons are still to come. Would you bet against him?