Aaron Judge makes Yankees permanent home, but only after ‘tough’ free agency

NEW YORK — “Welcome Home Aaron Judge.”

That phrase, tattooed on Yankee Stadium’s center field Jumbotron on a chilly New York City morning, felt like a timely and intentional choice of words. That this crowded, messy, beautiful mess of a city, and not the green and yellow hills of Northern California, could be considered Judge’s “home” must have felt impossible to the 31-year-old slugger when he debuted here in 2016. .

All winter long, Judge’s hometown San Francisco Giants had become a worthy destination for the 2022 AL MVP. Familiarity was his biggest draw, his best selling point. They hoped the chance to play for the team he grew up loving, just two hours from his small hometown of Linden, Calif., might be enticing enough to turn Judge into a Giant. It didn’t have to be.

And here were the Yankees, the morning of Judge’s big introductory press conference to announce his new nine-year, $360 million deal, reminding everyone where home really was.

But for all that typical Yankee pomp and circumstance, from the surprise appearance of former captain Derek Jeter to the bouquet of flowers presented to Judge’s wife, Samantha, and his parents, Wayne and Patty, the morning was most remarkable for what it revealed. the pragmatic reality of Judge’s free agent experience. His return to the Bronx was neither fate nor loyalty. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion. This ceremony was a reminder of how close Judge was to leaving and how hard cash, a willingness to compromise and a timely transatlantic phone call ensured that it never happened.

After some introductory remarks from manager Aaron Boone, general manager Brian Cashman and owner Hal Steinbrenner, Judge put on his 99 jersey and walked to the podium. On that stage, he rose above the norm among the crowd who had braved the wintry weather to report this moment. At 6-foot-8, Judge has been an eye magnet in every room he’s ever entered. This was no different.

As he prepared to speak, the packed press conference room in the bowels of the stadium fell completely silent, as it had done above all year during his baptisms, the only sound coming from the noise of subway cars passing overhead.

It was the coronation of a captain, the next forever player of a franchise with an entire monument dedicated to them.

Related: How Aaron Judge Became the Next Captain of the Yankees

But baseball and the truth are rarely that simple.

Several times, both at the podium and in a subsequent session with the media, the 2022 AL MVP was asked, in so many words, if his return home to the Yankees was inevitable, if all that shenanigans of the free agency were just a trap.

The fake TMZ-style video of him in San Francisco? His spectacular 11th hour flight to San Diego for his winter meeting with the Parents? Those quotes in Time Magazine about feeling slighted by Brian Cashman that revealed what Judge believed were private contract negotiations in April? They were all just bargaining tactics designed to increase their price, right? right?

Every time Judge was questioned about the predestination of this reunion, he had a chance to stretch the truth with sentimentality, a simple chance to write his own storybook ending baseball love story. He could have easily said it was the Yankees, it was always the Yankees. That he never had eyes for any team other than the one that drafted him in 2013, that his free agent journey would always lead him back to the Bronx.

Did Judge, a reporter asked, ever imagine not being a New York Yankee?

Instead of an immediate yes, Judge paused, collected his thoughts, flashed his typical shy smile, and then gave a diplomatic but incredibly revealing answer.

“It was tough.” said the judge. “That’s why this whole free agency process was a different situation. I think it was valuable to see some other places and hear some opinions.”

Although Judge shared that he and his wife came to the conclusion that they “belong in New York,” he refused to portray the situation as preordained. Rather than craft a convenient narrative of his free agent experience, Judge readily admitted that, yes, indeed, at times this winter, he had envisioned himself in another team’s uniform. The interest in suiting up for the hometown Giants was genuine. The Padres’ huge late-game offer convinced Judge to rework his travel plans en route to a Hawaiian getaway.

Boone echoed that sentiment. The Yankees skipper acknowledged there were times during Judge’s free agency when he was concerned his most important player might not return. In particular, the famous “Arson Judge to the Giants” moment sent the New York skipper into panic mode.

“It was like losing your cell phone, your keys, your wallet and your iPad all at once,” Boone joked.

And in the end, the Yankees pulled off this historic deal, not because the gravity of a pencil-lined life had an irresistible hold, and not because Judge felt a deep sense of loyalty to the only team he’s ever known. Aaron Judge is a Yankee, and will be for the next nine seasons, because Steinbrenner was willing to make the necessary financial commitment.

This is how this (capitalist) world works. Loyalty is as strong as next payday. Steinbrenner, like his late father, knows this. So does the judge. That may be an unromantic reading of the situation, but it’s as true as a well-hit baseball and shouldn’t dampen the excitement for Judge’s return one bit.

Linden’s tall boy is a Yankee and will be a Yankee for life because Steinbrenner did the necessary thing: tagging the outfielder personally, mid-vacation, from a roadside rest stop in eastern Italy as if was from an episode of Succession, to reach the agreement. done He knew the Yankees couldn’t afford a future without Judge, so he asked him what it would take. When the big man admitted he needed a ninth year, Steinbrenner gave it to him.

“I actually told him,” Steinbrenner revealed from the podium Wednesday, “that as far as I’m concerned, you’re not a free agent. As far as I’m concerned, you’re a Yankee and we’ve got to do it. we can to ensure that it remains the same.”

That’s exactly what Steinbrenner and the Yankees did. And now, Judge has had a new home for quite some time.

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Jake Mintz, the stronger half @CespedesBBQ is a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He’s an Orioles fan who lives in New York City and therefore leads a lonely existence most Octobers. If he’s not watching baseball, he’s almost certainly riding his bike. Follow him on Twitter at @Jake_Mintz.

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