Once upon a time I was a sportswriter, and most of the time I covered baseball. I wrote this recently for Athlon Sports’ baseball preview issue.
In every sport there are players we must watch. LeBron James. Wayne Gretzky. Jackie Robinson. Odell Beckham Jr. Secretariat. (Big Red’s Belmont remains the most thrilling sporting event I have ever witnessed. Forty-four years later my cheeks still flush whenever I hear Chick Hearn’s stretch call.) It’s not just about skill. Tom Brady may be the best quarterback in NFL history, but his greatness is not about excitement, about that special, indefinable something, about the possibility that the next play may result in something memorable. Why, you might even say he’s relentlessly boring. We are not compelled to watch him. But at some point last year it hit me: I am compelled to watch Aaron Judge. I haven’t felt that way about a baseball player since Reggie Jackson, and before that, Mickey Mantle. You must get my drift: it’s about home runs, power, awe-inspiring power, and the It factor. Jim Thome hit 612 home runs, long home runs, dramatic home runs, maybe even Ruthian home runs. So what! He never had It, whatever It is.
Yeah, yeah, I know, they’re all Yankees. But they are the Bronx Bombers for a reason, and they do play in The House That What’s Her Name Built. Chuck Schilling had it right: Mystique and Aura.
I spent a good chunk of my childhood in New Haven, Connecticut worshipping Mickey, as did so many other postwar baby boomers. This was the routine on school nights: “Please, dad, let me stay up for Mickey’s next at bat. Please! Just one more at-bat! Pleeeease!” Boy, could I whine.
There has never been a baseball player who could match his combination of power and speed. The phrase “tape-measure home run” was literally created for the one he hit out of Griffith Park in D.C. in 1953. Willie Mays, the greatest all-around player of his time, was surrounded by this charged energy field that was almost palpable, as was the joy with which he played the game. But I wouldn’t have stayed up for five extra minutes to see his next at bat. Why? Beats me. So why Mickey? There was no charged energy field surrounding him. There was no sense of joy. But there was this anticipation in every at bat that he might hit the ball 500 feet, that he might hit the first ball out of Yankee Stadium (which he just missed doing on two occasions, which is two occasions more than anyone else). I didn’t want to miss it – I couldn’t miss it! – just because it was 9:15 on a school night.
When I was 12 I realized, sadly, that I was not going to succeed Mickey as the Yankees centerfielder, a heartbreaking realization that came to countless others. But my love of baseball was forever, and lo and behold, 14 years later, I became the Yankees’ beat writer for the New York Post. And three years later, Reggie Jackson became the pinstriped straw that stirred the Yankees’ drink. Talk about an anti-Mantle. Reggie was loud and combative and controversial and dramatic and he could hit 500-foot home runs and he struck out a lot – 2597, the major league record – and one more thing: He was a drama king. He lived for the spotlight and he played with a passion, and the energy field that surrounded him was certainly not about joy. But you missed any at bat – any pitch – at your peril because you never knew what he would do next.
Even when he failed. Reggie vs. Bob Welch, Dodgers up 4-3, two outs, two on, top of the ninth, Game 2 1978 World Series. The duel lasted nine pitches, all blazing fastballs, 5 minutes and 9 seconds of drama, the Dodgers Stadium crowd roaring, Reggie swinging ferociously, the count running to 3 and 2, ending with the most memorable strikeout I’ve ever seen.
(True story: It’s the eighth inning of Game 6 of the 1977 World Series. The Yankees are three outs away from winning the Series as Reggie, with two home runs already, comes to bat. Bob Ryan, the great sportswriter for the Boston Globe and an old friend, calls out, “Henry,” to ask a question. I turn my head just before Charlie Hough throws the ball. I hear the crack of the bat and I hear the crowd roar, but I don’t see the swing!).
Now here is Judge, who is 6-7 and 280 pounds of ripped muscle, and one of the largest players in baseball history. His swing is also ferocious. Yet he seems positively serene at the plate, and everywhere else. He’s the anti-Reggie. But at some point last May, as the home runs piled up, one soaring, majestic shot after another, 450 feet, 475 feet, 500 feet, I realized something: I had to watch. For the first time since Reggie left New York, I was obsessed with a player. And my father had been replaced by my wife:
“Henzy, when are you coming to bed?”
“I’m going to watch Judge’s last at bat.”
“Henzy, It’s late. Come to bed.”
“As soon as Judge bats.”
Well, at least I didn’t whine anymore. But I was definitely not going to miss the next at bat. And if it went to extra innings, and the clock was about to strike 12, and I was starting to fade, I would set the DVR and fast forward to his at bats the next morning. I had to.
Baseball has been overtaken by analytics and exit velocities and spin rates and algorithms and dramatic infield overshifts and an endless parade of relievers throwing 95 mile an hour fastballs. Now don’t get me wrong, I am no baseball Luddite. Teams can’t ignore these numbers or these trends. But Judge is above and beyond numbers. Crowd him with high fastballs and throw breaking balls off the plate. The formula is simple: high and tight, low and away, just like it used to be for Mickey and Reggie, and probably the Babe, too. There is no arcane set of numbers when it comes to defeating Aaron Judge. Just these numbers: 52 home runs, a major league-leading 208 strikeouts. As a rookie at the tail end of 2016 he hit .179 with four homers and 42 strikeouts in 84 at bats. He was this big kid who hit an occasional long home run and struck out a lot, and he didn’t even win the right field job until the last days of spring training. Who knew?
By May, some fans started coming to the game in judge’s robes and white wigs, just about the time I realized he was something very special. By late May the Yankees had reserved three rows in the right field seats, The Judge’s Chambers (One visitor was a real judge, lifelong Yankees fan Sonia Sotomayor). Judge’s national coming out party was the All-Star Game in Houston, where he won the Home Run Derby. I had never watched even one second of the previous 32. I watched every second of this one. I had to. Judge won, of course. He blasted four more than 500 feet, he hit moonshots to every part of the park, he was positively Homeric. The Rockies’ Charlie Blackmon announced, “I don’t know that the game has ever seen power like that.”
What’s next? A lot of soaring home runs, a lot of strikeouts in a batting order that now includes Giancarlo Stanton, who led the majors with 59 home runs last year. Judge had 127 walks last year. Think teams will dare to work around him more with Stanton lurking? I can’t wait to watch. I have to.