America at Large: No rush to Judge Yankees’ new phenomenon

New York agog as muscle-bound newcomer rips up the record book with relish

 

When the New York Yankees’ Aaron Judge dispatched a ball 496 feet for his 20th home run of the season at Yankee Stadium last Sunday, radio commentator John Sterling reacted with what is now his signature call.

“It is high, it is far, it is gone,” he boomed. “Aaron – your judge and jury! All rise! Here comes the judge!”

Hackneyed and obvious but fans relish every single syllable so much that two different local radio stations replayed the audio several times come Monday morning. As a measure of the giddy mood in the city just now, it’s as good as any.

The Yankees were never supposed to be in first place in the American League East in early June or being talked about as having burgeoning World Series credentials. That they are in this lofty position almost halfway through the campaign is, some would argue, down to the outsized impact of Judge, a 6ft 7in 20-stone behemoth, in his first full year in the majors.

Following the most fecund 10-week spell of any rookie in the history of the sport, the right-fielder leads the league in home runs, batting average, runs batted in, and jaw-dropping cameos.

It’s not just the gaudy statistics the 25-year-old has put up, it’s the manner in which he’s done so. Last Saturday, a speed gun calculated the ball left his bat in one instance at 121 mph, the hardest hit since measuring began.

Twenty-four hours later, he followed up his 496-feet monster by somehow drilling a line drive over the fence. Little wonder that before his first at-bat at every home game, the Yankee Stadium Jumbotron flashes up an image of a gavel and the words “All Rise”. His name, like his backstory, lends itself to the easy burnishing of a legend.

Adopted at two days old by a couple who reared him in Linden, California, a rural town so small and idyllic that every profile of him mentions it has no traffic lights, he has become prince of the city yet so far has eschewed all royal accoutrements or airs.

Unsure of how long he’d even last in the majors this season, he chose to live in a hotel in Times Square rather than renting an apartment, a detail that speaks to the kind of “aw shucks” humility befitting somebody who professes to be a devout Christian.

Charmed life

“I’m blessed,” said Judge of his charmed life. “I feel they [my parents] kind of picked me. I feel that God was the one that matched us together.”

That he’s managing to keep his feet on the ground hasn’t stopped everybody around him from getting into a tizzy. Nowhere does hype and hoopla like New York and with every preternatural swing of his bat the coverage grows increasingly hysterical.

It couldn’t go any other way because the brighter the spotlight becomes the more he delivers. Conveniently ignoring that this is a sport where players notoriously tend to blow hot and cold, and 10 weeks doesn’t exactly represent a huge sample, there is already speculation about whether he can chase down Roger Maris’s 56-year old record of 61 home runs in a Yankee season.

In any other modern sport, not least one with baseball’s sordid recent past, the sight of a muscle-bound newcomer ripping up the record book with such disdain might prompt some suspicion. The word steroids could even be mentioned, especially given that he added 30lbs of muscle to his frame since being drafted in 2013. Not to mention either that this time last year there were legitimate doubts about whether Judge had the right stuff to even make the jump from Triple A minor ball, where he often struggled, to the big leagues.

Although he homered on his first plate appearance at Yankee Stadium following his call-up to the majors late last summer, he managed just three more long balls in his next 94 plate appearances.

Hardly the stuff of future legends. Indeed, he offered so little in that window that he was actually offered as trade bait to other teams by the Yankees over the winter. Against that unpromising background, it seems kind of remiss not to wonder about the pace of his transformation.

Improved mechanics

The absence of any serious drug debate at all seems to be down to his size (the biggest physical mass of any position player ever) and the nature of his character (he tweets about Jesus!). No, seriously. That’s what baseball aficionados, a curious demographic combining the myopia of Sky cycling devotees with the credulity of the Mo Farah fan club, will vouchsafe.

At a push, they will explain his sudden improvement is simply down to improved mechanics in his swing. They might bolster this by saying the ballparks are also smaller these days, and some believe the balls have more spring in them.

The utter lack of interest in seeking an, ahem, more scientific explanation isn’t surprising. Many of those watching on television, sitting in the bleachers or cheerleading in the media don’t care a jot about performance-enhancing drugs. Never really have. Never really will.

As long as balls are leaving the park, they don’t mind what assistance, legal or otherwise, players are getting. To them, sport is just another branch of the entertainment industry and Judge is merely offering a fresh blockbuster just about every time he comes up to bat. So pass the popcorn.

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