Sometimes you have to go all the way back to the late Chuck Daly, one of the great basketball coaches, and something he said to me once when talking about the appeal of Shaquille O’Neal when Shaq was in his basketball prime.
“This country has always loved great, big action heroes,” Daly said.
He was right. And what he said then speaks to the appeal of watching Aaron Judge now. At Judge’s best, when he’s back to hitting baseballs out of sight — he hit another one in Tuesday night’s 9-1 win over the Blue Jays, his ninth of the young season — he’s the closest thing we have to a baseball Shaq.
It is worth reminding everybody that this is the last year of Judge’s Yankees contract, so he can become a free agent when this season ends. He said in the spring that if he signed a contract extension with the Yankees, he wanted to do it before Opening Day. The two sides couldn’t reach an agreement. So he’s decided to play it out. And, man oh man, is he playing it out these days. The big man has been the biggest factor in the Yankees’ 11-game winning streak and in them suddenly being more fun to watch than they have been in years.
“There’s no question [Judge’s] usually squaring up a couple really good every night,” manager Aaron Boone said after the game. “Tonight was no different. It’s just really good to see him get settled in and being the player he is.”
It seems as if he has been hitting home runs for a week. Or maybe a month. And he seems to just be warming up. He entered Wednesday with a .303/.361/.674 slash line and a 1.035 OPS. Just an early sampling, sure. That’s always the qualification in an MLB season, in which the narrative flips every couple of weeks, the way it has with the Yankees right now. Judge would have to stay healthy for the second season in a row, too.
But this is the way Judge looked when he was setting the rookie home run record of 52 in 2017 that Pete Alonso would later break on the other side of New York. This is the way he looked when he became as much of a must-see swing as there is in baseball, and that includes Mike Trout and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and everybody else down the line.
The Yankees were losing 1-0 on Tuesday night when Judge hit his home run. All it did was tie the game. But then the floodgates seem to bust wide open, and before the second-place Blue Jays knew it the first-place Yankees were scoring nine runs in a row on them.
It’s not just Judge for the Yankees, of course. Everything has clicked for them. General manager Brian Cashman set out to improve his team’s defense, and Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Josh Donaldson have helped do that on the left side of the infield when they’re together. The starting pitching has been so much better than than expected. The bullpen ahead of Aroldis Chapman has done the job game after game after game — sometimes in spectacular fashion.
Still, everything the Yankees do on offense — and they have been doing a lot lately — organizes itself around Judge. Anthony Rizzo has been terrific, with nine home runs of his own. Giancarlo Stanton is right there behind Judge and Rizzo. But it is Judge who is, as Reggie Jackson once said famously about himself, the straw that stirs the drink for the Yankees. Now he is even more of a player to watch in baseball this season because he can become a free agent. Yankees fans don’t want to even entertain the thought that he might be something other than a Yankee at Yankee Stadium. But it is at least a possibility.
The contract talks between the Yankees and Judge have been tabled for now. The speculation about Judge’s future will only continue to grow as his numbers do. His homer Tuesday was part of a two-hit, three-RBI night. Judge is providing moments again. He is even providing moments once another ball he has hit leaves the park, the way he did in Toronto when a Blue Jays fan caught the ball Judge had hit off Alek Manoah and handed it to a kid wearing a Judge No. 99 T-shirt, which made the little boy cry tears of joy.
“It doesn’t matter what jersey you wear,” Judge said after the game, when asked about that moment. “Everybody’s a fan; everybody appreciates this game. That’s pretty cool.”
The 6-foot-7 Judge is hitting big flies again, making you think that he will soar past the 39 homers he hit last season if he stays healthy. He is the face of the franchise now the way Derek Jeter once was, and for good reason. He is the Yankee that Yankees fans most want to watch. Great big action hero. The Shaq of baseball.