Aaron Judge makes the Yankees his permanent home, but only after ‘difficult’ free agency

NEW YORK — “Welcome home Aaron Judge.”

That phrase, tattooed on Yankee Stadium’s center field Jumbotron on a freezing New York morning, sounded like a sharp, intentional choice of words. That this beautiful mess of a crowded, jumbled city, and not the green and yellow hills of Northern California, could be considered the judge’s “home” must have seemed impossible to the 31-year-old slugger when he debuted here in 2016.

Throughout the winter, Judge’s hometown of the San Francisco Giants had established itself as a worthy destination for the 2022 AL MVP. Familiarity was their greatest asset, their best selling pitch. They hoped the chance to play for the team he grew up with, just two hours from his small hometown of Linden, Calif., might be enticing enough to make Judge a Giant. It shouldn’t be.

And here are the Yankees, the morning of Judge’s big reintroduction press conference to announce his new nine-year, $360 million contract, reminding everyone where his home really was.

But despite all the pomp and circumstance typical of the Yankees — from the surprise appearance of former captain Derek Jeter to the bouquet of flowers presented to the judge’s wife, Samantha, and his parents, Wayne and Patty — the morning was especially notable for everything she revealed about the pragmatic reality of Judge’s free agent experience. His return to the Bronx was not due to fate or loyalty. It was not a foregone conclusion. This ceremony was a reminder of just how close Judge was to leaving and how cash, willingness to commit and a timely transatlantic phone call ensured that would never happen.

After some opening remarks from manager Aaron Boone, general manager Brian Cashman and owner Hal Steinbrenner, Judge put on his 99 jersey and stepped onto the podium. On this stage, he towered over the standards of the crowd who had braved the wintry weather to report on this moment. At 6-foot-8, Judge drew attention in every room he entered. It was no different.

As he prepared to speak, the crowded press conference room in the bowels of the stadium fell completely silent, as it had done upstairs all year during his at-bats, the only sound from the clatter of subway cars passing overhead.

It was the crowning achievement of a captain, the next eternal player in a franchise with an entire monument dedicated to him.

Related: How Aaron Judge became the next Yankees captain

But baseball and the truth are rarely that simple.

On multiple occasions, both on the podium and in a subsequent breakout session with the media, the 2022 AL MVP was asked, in so many words, if his homecoming with the Yankees was inevitable. , if all that free agency shenanigans were just shenanigans.

The fake TMZ video of him in San Francisco? His dramatic 11-hour flight to San Diego for winter meetings to sit down with the Padres? Those quotes in Time Magazine about feeling disrespected by Brian Cashman revealing what the judge believed to be private contract negotiations in April? These were just trading tactics designed to drive up his price, right? Right?

Each time Judge was asked about the predetermination of this meeting, he had the chance to stretch the truth with sentimentality, a mere opportunity to write his own storybook ending in a baseball love story. He could easily have said it was the Yankees, it was still the Yankees. That he never had eyes for any team other than the one that drafted him in 2013, that his free agent journey was always going to lead him back to the Bronx.

Judge, asked a reporter, did he ever imagine he wasn’t a New York Yankee?

Instead of an immediate yes, the judge paused, collected his thoughts, flashed his trademark shy smile, and then gave a diplomatic but incredibly revealing response.

“It was hard.” said the judge. “That’s why this whole free agency process was a different situation. I think it was helpful to see other places and hear opinions.”

Although the judge shared that he and his wife eventually came to the conclusion that they “belong in New York,” he declined to describe the situation as pre-ordained. Rather than write up a practical account of his free agent experience, Judge readily admitted that, yes, he did, at times this winter, imagine himself in another team’s uniform. The interest in dressing for his hometown Giants was real. The Padres’ huge late-game offer convinced Judge to rework his travel plans en route to a getaway to Hawaii.

Boone echoed that sentiment. The Yankees skipper admitted there were times during Judge’s free agency where he feared his most important player might return. The now infamous ‘Arson Judge to the Giants’ moment in particular sent the New York skipper into panic mode.

“It was like losing your cell phone, your keys, your wallet and your iPad all at once,” Boone joked.

And in the end, the Yankees made that historic deal, not because the seriousness of a striped life was an irresistible influence, or because Judge felt a deep sense of loyalty to the only team he had ever known. . Aaron Judge is a Yankee, and will be for the next nine seasons, because Steinbrenner was willing to make the necessary financial commitment.

This is how this (capitalist) world works. The allegiance is only as strong as the next payday. Steinbrenner, as his late father, knows. The judge too. It may be an unromantic reading of the situation, but it’s as real as a well-hit baseball and shouldn’t dampen the excitement of Judge’s return one bit.

Linden’s big kid is a Yankee and will be for life because Steinbrenner did the necessary – personally calling the outfielder, mid-holiday, from a roadside rest stop in eastern Italy as something from an episode of Succession – to get the deal done. He knew the Yankees couldn’t afford a future without Judge, so he asked Judge what it would take. When the big man admitted he needed a ninth grade, Steinbrenner gave it to him.

“I actually told him,” Steinbrenner revealed from the podium on Wednesday, “as far as I’m concerned, you’re not a free agent. As far as I’m concerned, you’re a Yankee and we have to do whatever we can to keep it the same.”

That’s exactly what Steinbrenner and the Yankees did. And now Judge has had a new home for quite a while.

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Jake Mintz, the loudest half of @CespedesBBQ is a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He is an Orioles fan living in New York and as a result leads a solitary existence most of October. If he doesn’t watch baseball, he almost certainly rides a bike. Follow him on Twitter at @Jake_Mintz.

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