After every game at Yankee Stadium—win or lose—they play the Frank Sinatra classic “New York, New York,” a song about a small-town guy deciding to go to New York to see what he’s made of, because the city is the ultimate proving ground. This story is at the heart of Yankee mythology. And it sounds a lot like the story of the team’s new superstar Aaron Judge, the 25-year-old rookie drafted out of Fresno State University.
I love the Yankees for the same reason non–New Yorkers (and Mets fans) curse their name: because they’re the damn Yankees, the winningest team of all time. Only they weren’t supposed to be any good last season—it was supposed to be their year to rebuild with younger, cheaper players. Judge made just north of $500,000 during the season, which is a bargain for a six-foot-seven-inch, right-fielding prolific home run basher—let alone a player who’s given even non–Yankee fans something to love in the team everyone loves to hate. Judge is so much bigger than the other players, he looks like a man among boys. Conventional wisdom says that tall guys will struggle at the plate because their size makes their strike zone larger, which is advantageous for the pitcher. But Judge has learned how to corral his long arms into an astounding swing speed of 80 miles per hour. So he’s got huge arms and a textbook motion working together to create a superfast swing with a bat that’s heavier than most players can handle. When all of that is working right, he’s as good a power hitter as they come.
He hit a home run in his first Major League at bat, another in his second game, then continued to knock out monstrous shots, reaching the upper deck of a stadium, then the ceiling of a dome, then over the Yankee Stadium bleachers—the sort of moon shots you might expect from Mighty Casey or Roy Hobbs. That is at the macho center of baseball. That is what Judge can provide.
Judge is a shot in the arm for the Yanks and for baseball itself, both of which need a crossover star to captivate fans. Judge could be that because he hits long balls like the historic stars of Yankee lore—Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Reggie Jackson, etc.—but he’s humble in a way that recalls some of the Yankees’ quieter stars, like Joe DiMaggio, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera. There’s no swagger to this kid. He’s more “Aw, shucks.” With that combination, he’s got the potential to be loved by people who don’t really care about baseball. That’s what it takes to be a big star.
What’s more, he’s leading a new generation of Yanks who, for the first time, aren’t a collection of tired, overpaid stars like the squads that the late George Steinbrenner loved to create. Yes, they’re still near the very top in payroll, but this simply doesn’t feel like the “evil empire” of old. After fielding the oldest team in baseball earlier in the decade, the Yankees are now among the youngest. The 2017 team was a particularly fun group to watch, with characters from all over—there was the fireballing reliever Aroldis Chapman; the smooth shortstop Didi Gregorius, from the Netherlands; and the longest-tenured current Yankee, who’s been with the team since 2008, the overachieving Brett Gardner. This isn’t a Yankees team that people are scared or resentful of. It’s not a team that people think of as trying to buy a World Series. For once, it’s not a team you have to apologize for loving, not that I ever have. I no longer feel like I’m rooting for a dynasty. I’m rooting for a hardworking bunch of guys trying to make it in the most demanding baseball town. Last season was just the beginning. Start spreading the news.