By Mike Vaccaro
BOSTON — The assumption was this would be something of a learning-curve week for Aaron Judge, a little work-study in right field at Fenway Park where the fence resembles the old hockey boards at Boston Garden. Baseballs bounce and ricochet this way and that at the Fens, where the angles and curves have inspired more than one visiting veteran through the years to volunteer for the bench or the DH.
“I’m going to need to get used to that,” Judge had said Tuesday, a few minutes after that game was postponed, a few minutes before he’d walk out there in the rain and have a quick gander at his new quarry.
So this is how Judge decided to acclimate himself: First, he sent a search party out that way Wednesday night in the form of a crushed baseball, finding the bullpen with the first swing he ever took at Fenway in the top of the second inning. That gave the Yankees a 2-0 lead on the way to a 3-1 victory over the Red Sox in the first meeting of 2017 between these ancient rivals.
Then, an inning later, with a man on second and one out, Boston’s Xander Bogaerts lofted a twisting foul ball a few paces shy of the Pesky Pole, right field’s signature monument. Judge could have let the ball fall harmlessly foul in the stands, but what fun is that? Instead, he lunged over the wall, disappeared from sight, then re-emerged with the ball in his hands.
The umpires didn’t believe what they saw and called it out of play. That was overturned on replay. The catch helped preserve Luis Severino’s seven-inning shutout, and it provided one more piece of testimony to just how quick a study the rookie behemoth is. Oh, and for kicks, he worked out a two-out walk in the sixth, and came around to score on Greg Bird’s double off the wall.
Did we mention it was his 25th birthday?
It was his 25th birthday. He is now legally allowed to rent a car. And also to carry his baseball team from time to time.
“He puts the bat on the ball and he gets it in the air,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said, “he’s got a good chance to get it out.”
Girardi admitted to holding his breath the whole way watching the 6-foot-7, 282-pound Judge run a post pattern straight for the ball, speeding along a slick outfield, speeding toward a wall that barely comes up to his thigh, then watching him disappear into the crowd.
“He risked his body,” Girardi said, before adding, wry smile for emphasis: “The wall probably didn’t like it, either.”
To Judge, of course, this was all in a night’s work. The most impressive part about Judge’s April may well be how unimpressed he is with himself — even as the rest of baseball starts to take notice of all the things he does well.
Was he worried about the wall? “No, just trying to make a play to help Seve.”
Was he pleased that with the Green Monster looming in left, his home run went the other way, the opposite way, a much farther destination? “I was just happy to get us a couple of quick runs.”
Was that as good a way to celebrate his 25th birthday as he could think of?
“Maybe 26 will be even better,” he said. “You never know.”
What we do know, what seems more and more evident as the weeks pass and the moments assemble and Judge does more and more things to keep the Yankees winning, is this: There have been hundreds of April heroes, thousands of them, kids who rule the quirky early calendar before being swallowed whole by the grind.
Judge doesn’t look anything like someone who will be swallowed whole by the grind, and he looks even less like someone who would ever think he’d arrived before he really had. He just keeps adding highlights — a 450-foot homer here, a one-handed served single there, and a first career night at Fenway Park when it looked like it had been his corner office for years.
“It’s impressive, what he’s done,” Girardi said.
Aaron Judge might be the only person who’d care to disagree.