Judge's meteoric rise made him toast of town, sparked Yankee revival


Aaron Judge went into spring training trying to prove a point and take a job.

A storybook season for the ages followed, as the 25-year-old rookie slugger became arguably the face of baseball, redefining the Statcast era by hitting balls harder and farther into orbit than any his contemporaries. 

No. 99's at-bats quickly became must-see TV. His home runs — and there were an AL-high and MLB rookie-record 52 of them in all — were often astounding. 

One went into the third deck at Citi Field. Another went 495 feet over the left-field bleachers at Yankee Stadium. A third even traveled so far at Safeco Field — it didn't register on the tracker. And that's not to mention a fourth that exited his bat with a velocity of 121.1 mph. 

"He's judge and jury. And this is judgment day," John Sterling would say on the radio when Judge belted one out of the ballpark. 

All Rise, indeed. 

But the 6-foot-7, 282-pound, larger-than-life Judge was so much more than his titanic blasts. And for that reason he was an easy choice as our NY Sportsperson of the Year for 2017. 

The adopted son of recently retired school teachers Patty and Wayne Judge who grew up in small-town Linden, Calif., played the game the right way, said all the right things, created forever moments for fans in the stands, and even made the Yankees — yes, the "Evil Empire" Yankees — likable again. 

Broken records in the Bronx — like most homers by a Yankee rookie and most homers by a Yankee at home — regularly put him in the same sentences as Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle. How he carried himself both on and off the field and his leadership potential prompted comparisons to Jeter. 

And yet, along the way, Judge appeared unflappable — unfazed by the pressure that comes with playing in New York. 

"If what you did yesterday still seems big today, then you haven't done anything today!" Judge's father used to tell him growing up. 

And the motto has stuck, still featured prominently on his Twitter page. 

"It goes through my head all the time," said the seemingly ego-less Judge, who starred as a three-sport athlete in high school — averaging 18.2 ppg on the basketball court, scoring 17 TDs on the football field and hitting .500 and throwing in the 90s on the diamond — before gravitating toward baseball at Fresno State. 

Sometimes, he'd win games with his bat. Other times, he'd win them with his glove. 

There was a catch and plunge into the crowd at Fenway Park on his birthday. A Superman-like diving grab at Tropicana Field. A couple of home-run robberies in October — one in New York, the other in Houston. 

No moment was ever too great. 

On the biggest stage, in front of a national TV audience, Judge captured the Home Run Derby with four moonshots over 500 feet while turning boos into cheers. He started in his first All-Star Game, and homered in his first playoff game. 

He also treated youngsters to a game of catch or a third-out ball they'd pull right out of his extended glove, easily endearing himself to the fanbase in this sports-crazed city. 

Judge began by trying to beat out Aaron Hicks for the starting job in right field, coming on in the final two weeks of spring training to avoid beginning the year with Triple-A Scranton. 

He ended with his own fan section in the Bronx: "Judge's Chambers." The jersey from his MLB debut a year ago sold for nearly $160,000 at auction. He appeared on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" and the cover of Sports Illustrated. 

He started at the bottom of the lineup and quickly worked his way to the heart of it, never forgetting his batting average from 2016 — .179 — which he had stored at the top of his Notes app in his iPhone. He made the proper adjustments, cutting down on his strikeouts, taking his walks and instilling fear in opposing pitchers. Make a mistake, and he'd gear up with his fine-tuned leg-kick, get into his back hip and make them pay. 

Awards followed. He won AL Rookie of the Year, and could've won AL MVP were it not for Jose Altuve. 

"It's a dream come true — an amazing feeling," Judge said. "I'm blessed to be in this position." 

This was Aaron Judge, 2013 Yankee first-round pick, shattering his ceiling. 

But Judge's historic 2017 campaign was not without its share of turbulence. 

After the All-Star break, Judge couldn't hit. His shoulder was ailing him, and pitchers were supposedly beginning to figure him out. He struck out at least once in 37 straight games, a dubious feat. 

But then September came, and perhaps a cortisone shot did too. 

Regardless, Judge began producing again, putting the Baby Bombers on his back and leading them to October, where they fell one win shy of the World Series. 

"It was the best rookie season I've ever seen," said CC Sabathia, an AL Rookie of the Year winner (2002) himself. 

"Sky's the limit for him," said Joe Girardi, who was replaced as manager by Aaron Boone. 

But Judge, who hit three homers in the American League Championship Series, wasn't ready to reflect on his storybook season just yet. 

That will have to wait. 

"We didn't win the World Series. How are we satisfied with that?" Judge said. "That's what we want. That's why we work, that's why we train, that's why we do everything in the offseason, the cage work. Everything is to get an opportunity to win a World Series. We came up short." 

Since then, the endorsements have begun to pile up. Judge became a spokesperson for Pepsi and the cover athlete for the video game MLB: The Show '18. 

He even received 10 write-in votes for NYC mayor. It's the type of cache that can go a long way in this city, in this sport. 

This offseason, the same player who struck out in half of his at-bats in 2016 was getting asked by his GM, Brian Cashman, for his approval on the Giancarlo Stanton trade. 

Of course, Judge, who always puts the team first, said yes. He was, in Cashman's words, pumped. The Twin Towers will reign over the Evil Empire, with Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird and Didi Gregorius adding to a star-filled lineup. 

Shortly, we'll see what Aaron Judge, who will be coming off shoulder surgery, has for an encore. 

But chances are he'll simply be coming into his sophomore season the same way he came into his rookie campaign: to make a point and, well, keep his job this time around.


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