By Michael Battista
This season the MLB’s biggest story has not been political protests, nor has it been tragedies off the field or overblown news that the sport is dying. No, the biggest story this year has been a 25-year-old from Linden, California, whose presence in the Bronx has caused everyone to rise.
Aaron Judge has become baseball’s shining star and he can go even farther.
He is a freak of nature in the best possible way and I’m beyond joyed to see him wearing pinstripes this season with the New York Yankees. In his first full season, he’s won the Home Run Derby, earned a spot on the American League All-Star team and broke the rookie home run record. He recorded 50 home runs last week against the Kansas City Royals, all while helping his team reach the playoffs.
I heard fan discussion about him possibly becoming the next Yankee captain. I can’t support the argument after only one season of full play. Still, I do believe Judge can become the next great quintessential baseball player. It’s a term that I’ve made up but it’s an idea that is far from revolutionary. Every baseball fan, young and old, has a player that they idolize. One player that they save their baseball card, buy their poster, imitate their batting stance and so on.
Bob Costas touched on this subject during his eulogy at the funeral of Mickey Mantle, a player that was hero to more than anyone could count.
“Every boy builds a shine to some baseball hero,” Costas said. “And before that shrine, a candle always burns. For a huge portion of my generation, Mickey Mantle was that baseball hero. And for reasons that no statistics, no dry recitation of the facts can possibly capture, he was the most compelling baseball hero of our lifetime. And he was our symbol of baseball at a time when the game meant something to us that perhaps it no longer does.”
Judge has a lot going for him in this regard. He’s fantastic at the plate, he’s solid in the field and he’s a likable guy in an era where many fans are finding out their heroes may have been taking performance enhancing drugs. He hits home runs for what seems like miles and still can be interviewed after the game and not seem full of himself.
My 98-year-old grandfather has seen over 20 World Series winning Yankees teams during his lifetime. But to him, the sun rises and sets on Joe DiMaggio. He was a graceful outfielder who, in my grandpa’s words, “never lost his hat” when chasing down a fly ball. The impact Dimaggio had on him is something he’ll never forget or replace.
My father has two players that fit the category. When he was younger, my Dad idolized the charismatic and gifted Yogi Berra. His way with words and his famous “yogiisms” were enough to make him memorable, but his play on the field was something else. As my Dad got older, he began to appreciate and admire Don Mattingly during his tenure with the Yankees. He likes him so much that even when Mattingly was managing the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2015 and rumors surfaced Yasiel Puig was avoiding him, my Dad immediately turned on Puig. You don’t mess with Donny Baseball.
Then there’s me. Growing up as a Yankees fan in the late ’90s and early 2000s, many people would say I was spoiled with success and talented players. They may be right, but no one shinned more in my eyes than Derek Jeter. He was the guy. I had Jeter shirts, I attended yearly baseball clinics in the city which were run by Jeter’s Turn 2 Foundation and I treasure my signed Derek Jeter memorabilia. It takes a lot to make me cry at a sport, but seeing him leave the field after helping his team win in his final game at Yankee Stadium is one of my favorite moments in all of sports.
It doesn’t have to just be Yankees though. There’s Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Ernie Banks, Mike Trout and the list just goes on. Kids and adults find that one player they will always love and who symbolizes the game to them.
Judge will decide the verdict on his own hero status over the next few years. If he keeps up the amazing play and stays the same likable and humble person, people will be more drawn to him. Baseball isn’t as popular as it used to be, and not much can change that. But if a father can still take his son to a game and pass on the enjoyment to him, and help him find that one player to latch onto, baseball will always be America’s game.