At 6-7, 280 pounds, the Yanks’ Aaron Judge is becoming the biggest thing in baseball. Wochit
On any given afternoon during a Yankees homestand, there’s a good chance you’ll find a young, handsome, 6-7 athlete walking the streets of midtown Manhattan. The international tourists might not recognize him (yet) but most everyone else in the neighborhood certainly does by now. “Look, it’s him,” is a familiar whisper Aaron Judge hears more and more these days.
But the Yankees slugger doesn’t hide behind a security detail. He doesn’t hide, period, smiling and enjoying a burgeoning urban life in New York. Judge lives in an Art Deco Hotel near Times Square and, for a kid who grew in a small town in northern California, is making a seamless transition to the big city.
“It’s exciting, I love this,” Judge was saying the other day. “It’s definitely different from what I knew back home, but here you can get any food you want at any hour. I love the city.”
The feeling goes both ways, particularly among Yankees fans who see Judge as the franchise’s next superstar. He’s leading major leagues in home runs, is already a can’t-miss for the American League’s Rookie of the Year award and possibly its Most Valuable Player too. Modell’s can’t keep his replica jersey in stock.
The instant celebrity hasn’t overwhelmed him however. Even though Judge could easily plunge into the city’s bottomless nightlife, he doesn’t go out after Yankees games. He avoids bars and clubs and keeps his Twitter account G-rated. Judge has no interest in taking over the town the way, say Doc Gooden and Darryl Strawberry did back in the day, or as Matt Harvey tried – and failed – four years ago.
No, Judge is a sweet, bi-racial homebody who was adopted at birth by two middle-aged educators in Linden, California. To this day, he remains loyal to those roots. He calls his parents, Wayne and Patty, every day. He sent flowers on Mother’s Day. And at the conclusion of the Yankees’ last road trip to the west coast, Judge got a care package from his mom to take back to New York: a batch of chocolate chip cookies.
Throughout his upbringing, Judge was taught to respect those around him. Those traits are still with the slugger today. Judge offers a handshake upon first meeting, looks you in the eye, sprinkles his conversation with “please” and “thank you.” He’s made it a point of remembering reporters’ names and addresses them individually, by name, during interviews.
Bob Amerman, Judge’s high school coach, said, “the kind of person Aaron is now, that’s exactly who he was in high school. He hasn’t changed.” When the Yankees were in Oakland last week, Amerman was part of a large contingent that made the drive to see the hometown supernova.
But Amerman went one step further, spending time with Joe Girardi. The two men were joined by their leadership roles in Judge’s life, comparing notes about a kid who was – and is – as innocent as a dove.
Amerman told Girardi, “Aaron is never going to create problems for you. I can promise you that. He’s special.”
Indeed, as long as he could remember, Judge has always been larger than life, if not larger than his uniform. He towered over the other kids, especially in sports. As a wide receiver on the football team, Judge set a school record for touchdowns. On the basketball court, Judge led the team in points. And in baseball, he was 9-3 with a 0.65 ERA as a pitcher and batted .500 as a first baseman.
Football could’ve been an option for Judge, as Notre Dame, UCLA and Stanford all recruited him heavily. The door to professional baseball was open, too, as the A’s selected Judge in the 31st round of the 2010 draft. But Judge opted for college, allowing his parents to steer him to Fresno State.
“Both of them are teachers and to them education came first. It was the right decision,” Judge said. “And to be honest with you, I wasn’t ready to go out in to the world. I needed to go to college. I needed to mature.”
By his late teens Judge had already begun to appreciate his many blessings on and off the field, including his striking appearance. Judge’s parents waited until he was 10 to confirm his hunch that he’d been adopted – “I knew I didn’t look like them.”
“I finally said, “okay, what’s going on?” and that’s when they told me,” Judge said. “I was fine with that, they were the only parents I ever knew. It actually wasn’t a big deal.”
“We’re more blessed than he is,” Patty Judge told the New York Post in 2015.
Added Wayne Judge: “Words can’t describe how proud of him we are. If it happens to end tomorrow, (Aaron) is the type of kid who will say, ‘It was meant to be’ and move on.’’
But no one expects a slowdown in Judge’s rapid ascent, nor is anyone from back home worried about celebrity’s long tentacles sabotaging his career. Judge has already appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated and participated in a hilarious skit on the Tonight show that went viral.
Yet Judge remains thoroughly unimpressed with himself.
“You have to remember that Aaron comes from a small town where everyone knows everyone,” said Joe Piombo Sr., another of Judge’s high school baseball coaches. “He has the work ethic of a small-town kid. Aaron could’ve stayed in New York last (winter), but he came home and helped his parents around the yard. He went to our basketball and football games. He gives our kids hope that they can get noticed, too, even from a small community.”
Every year the Yankees conduct media training workshops for their younger players, including those who’d been recently drafted. It didn’t take long for the organization to realize Judge wasn’t just any ordinary prospect: he was as big as an NFL tight end, yet as personable and trusting as he was talented.
That’s the combination managers dream about, but they’re the ingredients for potential disaster in a big market, especially when the media-machine starts to rev. With every home run Judge hits, the public’s curiosity about him grows.
“It’s been a relentless assault of asks from all different forms of the media,” said Jason Zillo, the Yankees director of media relations, citing the morning shows, GQ and other men’s magazines, ESPN and Newsweek.
Judge’s teammates adore him and are protective of their young slugger. Not that a guy that big needs back-up but they marvel at how well Judge has handled the media crush.
“Nothing seems to faze Aaron, which is pretty amazing since it happened so quickly,” said Brett Gardner. “Everyone wants to talk to him but you can tell he knows how to treat people.”
Lately, though, Judge and the Yankees have started politely declining requests, as he says, “my focus in on playing ball and helping the team.” Zillo has advised Judge to instead think about “the small bites” in dealing with the press – notably the beat reporters who cover him on a daily basis.
“You have a responsibility and you have to do it well,” Zillo tells Judge. “If you go 4-for-4 with two home runs, you talk (to the press). If you go 0-for-4 with two strikeouts, you talk.”
Judge invariably complies; he’s at his locker every day, although he jokes, “I always give the same answers.” But the Yankees aren’t worried about reading Judge’s name in Page Six, which loves to bold-face the names of athletes seen pounding drinks in after-hours club.
“That is definitely not Aaron,” said Girardi. “He’s a big kid who can’t hide – he’s noticed everywhere – yet all he cares about is playing ball. That’s what makes him so remarkable.”
Aaron Judge has his own signature spot at Yankee Stadium: Judge’s Chambers.