On the subject of great Yankee expectations, and the burden they represent, you could argue that Aaron Judge signed up for this. Only he didn’t sign up for it. He was drafted by the world’s most famous ballclub in 2013, then ultimately charged to add to Yankee mythology.
He is a mountain of a man at 6-foot-7 and 282 pounds, measurements that do nothing to temper those expectations. And for the most part, at least when healthy, Judge has honored his end of the bargain. He is a power hitter for a power franchise forever defined by the long ball, and at the plate, when quietly preparing to engage, he looks like the perfect pinstriped weapon.
But four years removed from his Rookie of the Year season in 2017, when he was good for 52 homers and 114 RBIs, Judge has a bit of a problem. He has yet to lead his team to the World Series, never mind a World Series title, and he knows the ring is always the thing in The Bronx. If he doesn’t win one as the chiseled face of his Yankee generation, Judge will be judged a certain way by people who chronicle such things.
He can still be a great player and a Hall of Famer and a Monument Parker, and someone who earns rousing cheers on Old-Timers’ Day for carrying himself with dignity, something that goes a long way with the fans. But with certain pro and college teams, star players are effectively divided into two categories — those who won rings, and those who did not. The Boston Celtics, the Los Angeles Lakers, the New England Patriots, the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Duke Blue Devils are among those teams.
The New York Yankees and their 27 titles are the undisputed heavyweight champs of that list.
Aaron Judge is a smart guy, and very well aware of his terms of employment. That’s why in spring training, after his Yankees fell short of the World Series for a fourth straight October, he said the following:
“Every year, I put my heart and soul into this game, into my teammates, into the city, into the organization. That’s why every year it hurts when we lose. Those cuts are deep, but those are just scars. I’ve got scars all over me. I just try to build off those experiences and it’s gonna make it sweeter in the end.”
Tuesday night at Fenway Park, Judge will either add to those scars, or take a meaningful step toward the only sweet ending found in the Yankees’ playbook — a ticker-tape parade. His fellow Twin Tower, Giancarlo Stanton, all but sent a wrecking ball crashing through Fenway when the Yanks swept their most recent series with the Red Sox. Combined, Judge and Stanton are 18-for-53 with seven extra-base hits against Boston’s starter in the wild-card game, Nathan Eovaldi. They are the two visiting monsters most likely to slay the Green Monster in left.
But despite everything he’s done for this Yankees team, and for last year’s team in the postseason, Stanton is not Judge. He’s not quite as big, and he’s not quite as good, and he’s not homegrown either. Judge is the closest player these Yanks have to a Derek Jeter successor. It’s conceivable that the franchise’s postwar chain of position-player command will someday read like this:
DiMaggio to Yogi to Mantle to Thurman/Reggie to Mattingly to Jeter to Judge.
The right fielder is the most impressive physical specimen and athlete the Yankees have ever dressed. Judge finally remained healthy this year, playing 148 games and delivering 39 homers, 98 RBIs and a .916 OPS, and proving himself worthy of one of those lavish long-term contracts.
He really has only one box left to check off. Though Judge struggled in the postseason last fall, he has some strong October performances on his résumé, including his three-homer, seven-RBI ALCS against the 2017 Astros, later found to be cheats. Maybe if those Astros were playing fair-and-square baseball, Judge would already have his title. Maybe not.
This much is clear: Given the nature of the game, it’s harder for the superstar offensive player to lead a team to a championship in baseball than it is in the other major sports. Just ask Mike Trout, an all-timer who has appeared in three postseason games his entire career.
After sending his team back to the playoffs for a fifth straight time with his first career walk-off hit Sunday, Judge said of the anything-goes tournament, “All you’ve got to do is just get in.”
You’ve got to do more than that in The Bronx. Fair or not, Aaron Judge knows that Yankee mythology isn’t built around infield singles that win final regular-season games. The postseason belongs to him, even if he didn’t sign up for it.