NEW YORK — Now we know where our grandfathers were coming from when they told their stories about Babe Ruth, and how he could fill a ballpark with his overpowering presence at the plate. Aaron Judge is his generation’s Bambino, plus 67 pounds of muscle and five inches of height. We are all lucky to be in his time.
He hit a majestic home run over the center field wall in the seventh inning of Game 4 of the American League Championship Series, and its flight awakened the sleeping beast that was the Yankee Stadium crowd. The fans were thinking this was a lost New York cause, and for good reason: The Houston Astros still held a 4-1 lead, and still had Dallas Keuchel waiting in Game 5. The same Dallas Keuchel who has built a cottage industry out of destroying any and all pinstriped dreams.
But there was Judge again with one out and a man on third in the eighth, the deficit suddenly whittled to 4-3 and the crowd as alive as it ever was in the old place across the street. “I just feel like the fans are back,” Judge’s manager, Joe Girardi, would say later. Back to where it was during the dynasty years of Jeter and Rivera and Torre.
Those Yankees won four championships in five years for Joe Torre, and then a fifth in 2009 for Torre’s successor, Girardi. As great as those teams were, they never suited up an athlete quite like Aaron Judge. No big-league team has ever suited up an athlete quite like Aaron Judge.
At 6-foot-7, 282 pounds, Judge was a towering figure in the box when he confronted Ken Giles in the eighth, taking the kind of cuts a lumberjack takes with an ax. “He missed a slider up in the zone,” Girardi said. “He missed a fastball up in the zone.”
The foul balls only multiplied the sense of anticipation by ten. Finally, Giles threw Judge a 2-2 slider that wasn’t up in the zone, and the Yankee in jersey No. 99 dropped down and got it with a one-arm follow-through, sending the ball toward the left field wall while the Stadium fell on its ear around him.
How do you know when a slugger is special? When you’re positively shocked in the middle of October — with the entire season resting on the man’s shoulders — that he fails to drive a ball into the outfield seats.
The feeling in the building for the Judge at-bat was hard to describe, even for those highly paid to govern their emotions in such settings. “I think I’m probably caught up in it,” Girardi said, “anticipating he’s going to do something great because we’ve seen it so many times this year.”
Judge’s double off the wall scored Jacoby Ellsbury and tied the game, and at that moment there was no doubt the Yankees would make this a 2-2 series rather than a 3-1 series in Houston’s favor. Gary Sanchez followed with the winning two-run double — on top of his earlier sacrifice fly — only advancing the narrative that the Yankees could be a much different team in Houston for Game 6 than they were for Games 1 and 2.
Judge and Sanchez had entered Game 4 of the ALCS with a combined 36 strikeouts in nine postseason games, and with batting averages south of .160. If they are indeed back on track, the Yankees will likely defeat yet another 100-plus-win team and represent their league in the World Series.
Given what he did in Game 3, when he ripped a three-run homer and sacrificed his body on a catch against the right field wall, Judge has made his own case that he has returned as a clear and present danger. Even as a rookie, Judge has a level heartbeat and a maturity beyond his years. He spent some time over the summer at the home of Brett Gardner, the Yankees’ undisputed clubhouse leader, just to learn what it’s like to be a pro’s pro in the sport’s noisiest market. Judge had a record-setting start to his career, swatting 52 homers and driving in 114 runs, and yet he still carries himself like the world’s tallest walk-on just trying to earn a scholarship.
Judge barely made the team out of spring training, and he attacked his opportunity with a vengeance that might win him the league’s MVP award. Tuesday night, after he wrapped his mighty arms around October, Judge was asked how the dream he once had of hitting big postseason homers in the Bronx compared to the reality of actually hitting them.
“It’s pretty surreal, to be honest,” he said. “I haven’t reflected on tonight’s game yet. But as a kid I’ve been in that situation in my head a thousand times, through the minor leagues, all your daily batting practice, your cage work. I’m putting myself in that situation. Get out there and get the job done.
“But the dreams aren’t the same as reality. To be out with the crowd and the atmosphere, it was unbelievable.”
Judge was the Yankee most responsible for creating that atmosphere. His absurd physical skills were on display all night, as he ran the bases with the speed of one of those hybrid tight ends in the NFL. In the fourth inning, after wandering too aggressively off first base, he scrambled back to the bag on Sanchez’s fly out and somehow beat the throw from Josh Reddick. When Girardi realized a subsequent review showed that Judge failed to touch second base on the return trip, and that he was about to be called out, the manager ordered his right fielder to make a mad dash for second – with Houston starter Lance McCullers holding the ball – to create a new play and wipe out the pending review. Amazingly enough, Judge was a split second away from beating the pitcher’s throw to second.
“To a certain extent,” Judge said, “I enjoy failure. It’s part of the game. There’s always room to grow, there’s room to improve. So it’s been a fun ride. And it’s my first year, still pretty crazy.”
Still even crazier to think scouts and executives found 31 other prospects to draft before him in 2013. The Yankees have won 56 of their 86 home games this year, and Judge is the most obvious reason why. His team looked dead-and-half-buried after six and a half innings Tuesday night, just as dead-and-half-buried as they looked after Cleveland took a 2-0 series lead in the ALDS. The Yankees were about to go down three games to one to the Astros, with the good Mr. Keuchel on deck.
Keuchel had shut down the Yankees in their own building in the wild-card game in 2015, and did the same in his building Friday night in Game 1. He’s got a 1.09 career ERA in 57.2 innings against the Yankees, October included, and he’s never allowed them to hit a home run. The numbers say that in the 114-year history of baseball’s most storied franchise, there’s never been a Yankee killer quite like him.
But the numbers and the visuals also say that in the 114-year history of the Yankees, they’ve never sent a rookie to the plate who looked like Judge. He is an outsize version of Babe Ruth, who happens to be the most outsize slugger of all, and he just took the dagger right out of Keuchel’s hand.
So someday we will tell our grandchildren stories about Aaron Judge, a tall man whose long-ball truth was better than any tall tale.