NEW YORK — The New York Yankees’ season was crumbling again, like it had every year since Aaron Judge first arrived in the Bronx, bounding too fast towards another failure. From April through September, Judge had lived what looked like the idealized baseball life, full of acclaim and records, so prolific that his name and a special number in baseball lore became intertwined to the point of indistinguishability. Judge, all the while, never paid it any attention. While the world trained its collective eye on him, on his achievements, he was looking at this moment, October in Yankee Stadium. And it was playing out so much differently in reality than it did in his mind’s eye.
Nothing about his behavior changed, not as the outs left in the season whittled away, as the truth of his disappointing postseason contributed to the funeral atmosphere of the ballpark, as the specter of his future and whether he’d ever again wear a Yankees uniform sharpened into focus. Judge could have pirouetted in the outfield to catch glances of all the familiar sights of his triumph, done something to acknowledge the emotion, the pure sort of love that only the most super of stars feels with the city that deifies his rise. But no. That would have been a betrayal of himself.
Judge ascended to the top of his sport through rigor and exactitude, convinced in his belief that a blinkered, perfectly straightforward existence, as crisp as the pinstripes on his jersey, would deliver him the championship that mattered to him far more than the obsession of others . The ninth inning arrived, just like 170 other ninth innings had this year, and the context of it, the urgency, did nothing to alter his ingrained habits. He jogged to the right field. Warmed up his arm. Threw the ball into the bleachers for a fan to cherish. Watched the Yankees record three outs. Loped back into the dugout. Stepped into the on-deck circle. Took a few swings. Moved into the batter’s box. Inhaled a deep breath. Swing and miss. Stared at strike two. And topped a slider back to the pitcher to record the final out of the Yankees’ 2022 season, the year that was his until it wasn’t.
Before Judge made it back to the dugout, “New York, New York” had started to play on the stadium’s loudspeakers. If he could make it here, he could make it anywhere, and no longer was that a hypothetical. His season was over. Free agency beckons. Judge is the best homegrown Yankee since Derek Jeter — “He’s the planet,” said CC Sabathia, a mentor and former Yankees teammate, “around which everything orbits” — and this offseason, he will choose where he plays next. For someone as disciplined as Judge, someone who says the same prayer of thankfulness and grace every time he goes to right field to start a game, who venerates stability and sameness, this winter, and the manifold unknowns it holds, will tilt that planet off – axis more than anything to this point in his career.
Judge has spent his entire professional baseball life as a Yankee. In May of his rookie year, the famously traditional guardians of Yankee Stadium built a special section, the Judge’s Chambers, replete with wood paneling, in the right-field stands. This season, his pursuit of the American League home run record that had stood for six decades — and before that was held by Babe Ruth — earned the attention of millions and a multiplicative number of dollars. In six years, Judge and the Yankees have become a pairing that feels as perfectly suited as any in baseball.
“He exemplifies what being a New York Yankee is all about,” Yankees first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “His demeanor, the way he handles himself on the field, the way he handles himself off the field.”
Until Judge’s successful chase of a record-setting 62nd home run, the Yankees’ brand had not been so closely associated with present-day excellence since their 2009 championship, a fact that should theoretically make his return a matter of when rather than if. And yet there is nothing linear about the winter ahead. Los Angeles offers sunshine and winning, San Francisco an easy car ride for his dutiful parents to make from the small central California town where he grew up, a borough-hop to Queens to play for the Mets an option if Judge enjoys the trappings of New York without the trappings of being a Yankee. It is a mess of curves and twists, of sales pitches and posturing, of fantastical amounts of money and the duties that dollars connote. Judge, the son of two educators, is already a richer man than he could ever have imagined. He was making $19 million this year and, over the course of the season, played himself into a deal that should exceed $300 million.
That’s still true, even after Judge went 5-for-36 in seven postseason games. That final out capped a 1-for-16 showing in a humiliating American League Championship Series sweep by Houston. Two terrible weeks won’t stop any owner from remembering what Judge did this season to get the Yankees there in the first place. In the second-unfriendliest hitting environment of the past 30 years by OPS — only 2014’s .700 was lower than this season’s .706, and it has been a half-century since a worse batting average and on-base percentage — Judge was as head and shoulders above his peers in hitting as he is in stature.
But as scattered boos rained down from Yankee Stadium, as they did once on Jeter, they were a stark reminder that being a Yankee is byzantine, obtuse — antithetical to Judge’s simple, Point A-to-Point B approach. It’s what complicates his return, which across the industry is seen — perhaps fallaciously — as a fait accompli: Even if he is built for New York, is New York built for him?
Amid the chase this fall, the 30-year-old Judge made it clear, whenever he spoke, that wins mattered more to him than home runs, that he’d happily eschew the aesthetics for something more substantive. He operated on a fixed ideology: The more wins, the better the team. The better the team, the more likely to end a World Series drought that had reached a dozen years. However much the home runs captivated and enthralled, they were only a means to an end that goes beyond 62 and centers on 28, the number of the next championship for the Yankees.
As the home runs piled up, excellence metamorphosed into a quest and history became actuality, Judge addressed individual achievement in plural — us, we, our. His allergy to speaking in the first person endured as he led baseball with 131 RBIs, 133 runs, a .425 on-base percentage, a .686 slugging percentage, 391 total bases and 11.5 FanGraphs wins above replacement. All the while, as he built this monolith of a season, he harkened back to his days in college, where his coach fined players $1 every time they said “I” or “me” or “my.”
It’s one reason the Yankees are perfect for Judge, who sees himself as a piece of a machine, a cog that might as well go nameless, fit for the only team whose jerseys identify players only by number. Throughout ballparks this summer and fall, jerseys with his No. 99 on the back filled the stands.
But this winter, Judge faces a decision he’ll have to own. There is no “we” in free agency. It is him, alone, in complete control of his own actions, which is not necessarily an unfamiliar position. He authored one of the most remarkable regular seasons in the history of a century-and-a-half-old game against the backdrop of rejecting the Yankees’ seven-year, $213.5 million contract extension offer during spring training. Even then, Judge revealed a glimpse of the self-assuredness that will carry him through this winter.
On that April day, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman went public with details of the offer, peeing Judge. Rizzo, with whom he has grown close in a short time, inquired about it soon thereafter. Judge’s response still sticks with him today.
“You don’t think I’m worth more?”