Aaron Judge did not deliver an October to remember, but he did nail this November election night with a landslide victory over Shohei Ohtani. Judge should savor his American League MVP Award to the Nth degree, because it is an awfully hard thing to win.
How hard? Derek Jeter never won it, though he found a great source of comfort in his five World Series rings. At this point, the 30-year-old Judge would settle for one or two of those.
But before we get to the press conference in The Bronx in the coming weeks or months to celebrate the slugger’s inevitable monster deal to remain a Yankee for life — and to remind Judge that all pinstriped legacies are ultimately measured by ticker-tape parades — let’s allow him to enjoy a game he can finally play on his terms.
Free agency — a chance for Judge to grab his bat and take a free hack at Hal Steinbrenner’s uninspiring approach to running a $6 billion baseball team.
Thursday night, teammate and former National League MVP Giancarlo Stanton was summoned to make the announcement on the MLB Network, and Judge called the honor “an incredible moment,” and something he dreamed about as a kid but “you never truly think it’s going to happen.”
He made it happen after some pro scouts saw him in high school and dismissed him as something of a stiff. Some stiff, this Aaron James Judge.
So here we go into the silly season of Moneyball. Even factoring in Judge’s disappointing postseason numbers, good luck trying to build a case that the Yankees are better off without him and his nine-figure demands. By hitting his AL-record 62 homers, and by nearly winning the Triple Crown while playing an errorless center field and right field with startling grace, Judge carried his team as much as a player can carry one.
The Yanks missed the playoffs in three of the four seasons before he arrived as a full-timer — failing to win a single postseason game in that stretch — and have now made the tournament six times in six attempts with Judge in the lineup, reaching the ALCS three times and winning 21 playoff games in all. No, that’s not a coincidence.
Nor is the fact that Steinbrenner met face-to-face with Judge in an attempt to persuade him to stay in New York.
“The rest is up to him and his family and where they want to go from here,” Steinbrenner said. “But we’re going to do what we can, I assure you.”
Judge said on a conference call that his talks with his employer have been positive and called Steinbrenner’s direct contact a “good sign.” General manager Brian Cashman revealed at a charity event that the Yankees have made a new offer to Judge, who hasn’t been moved to accept it.
Hal is sweating this one like he’s never sweated anything. He knows that he’s less popular in The Bronx than Jose Altuve, and that in the eyes of the same fans who booed him last season, a failure to keep Judge from signing with his hometown Giants would be impossible to recover from.
Hal needs Judge a whole lot more than Judge needs Hal, and the new AL MVP should make the desperate Steinbrenner the next trophy in his case. One former New York coach of note, Jeff Van Gundy, once told me that he was never a buyer when teams tried to sell themselves as families, because real families don’t fire loved ones, and don’t trade loved ones, and don’t waive loved ones.
Real families also don’t announce rejected contract offers in an attempt to embarrass loved ones.
Cashman threw out the ceremonial first pitch on Opening Day — a rising heater right under Judge’s chin — disclosing that the big man had turned down a seven-year extension worth $213.5 million. “It’s something I felt like was private between my [representatives] and the Yankees,” Judge said then.
But Cashman wanted the fan base to know that the franchise was giving it the ol’ college try, and Steinbrenner notarized the approach. Hal was the one who ordered the Code Red. “Be mad at me,” he said the other day.
Judge admitted Thursday that the lack of a deal meant “you kind of have a chip on your shoulder going into the season.” When Hal felt he had some leverage — an underwhelming contract offer that he knew would seem mind-blowing to the upper-deck fan — he used it at Judge’s expense. Just another reminder that the Steinbrenners are a family, but the Yankees are very much a business.
Hal gambled and lost. Judge gambled, and Cashman called it “the all-time best bet.” So Judge should now use his leverage to siphon every last penny out of Hal’s pockets. If that means a contract in the $350 million range, so be it.
The self-made slugger against the privileged heir to his father’s empire should be a fun blowout to watch. Aaron Judge deserves to keep his job, and Hal Steinbrenner deserves to lose his shirt.