JUDGE CHALLENGED THE YANKEES AND MADE THEM BOW AT HIS FEET
It’s one thing to have historic power at the plate, quite another to confront baseball’s richest team with a bet on himself — and he earned an extra $146.5 million in an admirable win and life lesson
Not all gambling forays are hazardous to one’s health. There is, in Aaron Judge’s case, the definitive bet on himself. In what amounts to a masterclass in seizing leverage over a monolithic, $6 billion franchise, he told the New York Yankees to shove their seven-year, $213.5 million offer last spring, then responded by hitting more home runs in a single season than any non-steroids-using slugger in baseball history.
The end result was a nine-year, $360 million contract — the $40 million average is, by far, the sport’s highest-ever annual salary for a position player — which means Judge’s Bronx sportsbook ticket cashed in at $146.5 million. In a 62-homer season, he elevated himself into one of the biggest attractions in American sports, a humble giant popular even among the legions who loathe the Yankees. He wanted to remain in pinstripes, despite the lukewarm offer and organizational dishonesty in not keeping his rejected terms private, and an all-time badass managed to do so on his own terms.
Kiss it, Hal Steinbrenner.
Every future free agent should take notes. He refused to talk about the drama during the season. In recent days, he toyed with the Yankees with a nugget about the favored team of his northern California youth. Seems many years ago, he projected his life path with the girlfriend who would become his wife, Samantha Bracksieck: “In 10 years, I’ll be married to Sam and playing for the San Francisco Giants.” Not hiding their desire to sign a locally raised superstar, regain relevance and stem massive attendance declines at their waterfront ballpark, the Giants drove the market with an offer in the $360 million range. Swooping in late were the San Diego Padres, who weren’t bidding $342 million merely to faux-impress an industry gathered at the Manchester Grand Hyatt for the Winter Meetings — rather, they continue to operate like a behemoth in a mid-size market.
As the financial terms ballooned into landmark territory, a Time profile honoring Judge as the magazine’s Athlete of the Year detailed his annoyance with Yankees general manager Brian Cashman. Recalling the broken promise after he turned down the $213.5 million, Judge said, “We kind of said, ‘Hey, let’s keep this between us.’ I was a little upset that the numbers came out. I understand it’s a negotiation tactic. Put pressure on me. Turn the fans against me, turn the media on me. That part of it I didn’t like.”
So he got in his last licks, too, accusing the Yankees of bad faith. He could have left for California and the sports world would have totally understood. Who needs a snake for a boss? Who needs the burden of a surly fan base demanding he bring the team’s first World Series title since 2009, the people who booed him when he struggled in the postseason? Why not go home?
Because Judge, as a longtime Giants fan and now a Yankees legend, realizes where he can maximize his legacy. That would be in New York, where the same inviting home-run dimensions remain and where he’ll be hailed as a generational great if he maintains prolific power numbers and does lead the Yankees to a championship or two as their captain — a perk negotiated into his deal. San Francisco can be cold, remember. Home runs at Yankee Stadium die on the warning track at Oracle Park. San Diego has America’s best weather and an owner hellbent on winning as the Los Angeles Dodgers — “the dragon up the freeway we’re trying to slay,” Peter Seidler famously said — begin to downsize and rely on kids while whiffing on elite pitchers Jacob deGrom and Justin Verlander.
But Judge knows where he belongs, in the outfield by Monument Park and “The Judge’s Chambers,” where his fans hold “ALL RISE” signs. He is taking on immense pressure, as the game’s most visible player in an unforgiving cauldron, yet didn’t he just take down the Yankees in a staring contest? Why would he stop challenging himself now? He just beat down Babe Ruth, Roger Maris and the front office. Why not chase down Derek Jeter and his impact, his renowned October imprint?
Yes, coming off his age-30 season, he’ll turn 39 during his final contractual season in 2031. It’s a Father Time risk — the baseball owners usually lose — but it’s a risk Steinbrenner had to take as his father, George, screamed at him from the grave. The Yankees needed to protect their brand, their pomp, their lineup and their status as contenders. They are gambling on themselves now, and they do have the benefit of deploying him as a designated hitter in his final seasons. But Judge has dealt with nagging injuries — oblique strains, a calf, a wrist — and he is subjected to human concerns even at 6 feet 7, 285 pounds.
As the Yankees genuflected, the industry gasped again. A labor impasse of 99 days did nothing to narrow the gap between the sport’s haves and have-nots. The Philadelphia Phillies, smelling blood after their first World Series visit in 13 years, continued their spending splurge by investing another $300 million in shortstop Trea Turner for 11 years — and are looking at a $250 million payroll next season. The Texas Rangers overspent for injury-riddled deGrom — five years, $185 million, all guaranteed — and Steve Cohen was quick to replace him in New York by tossing $86.6 million at Verlander for two Mets seasons. The Padres were prepared to have three $300 million players on their roster — Judge, Fernando Tatis Jr. and Manny Machado — while vowing to crack $400 million for Juan Soto.
All of which has rattled so-called commissioner Rob Manfred, who knows the competitive canyon only will widen with the demise of the regional sports TV networks that subsidize so many teams. As winter spending cracks the $1 billion threshold once again, how do fans feel in Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Arizona, Miami and Oakland, where the A’s are stuck in the same ballpark political limbo that inevitably will lead them to Las Vegas? The Cleveland Guardians are showing how to contend without massive spending — via homegrown talent and cost-efficient purchases, such as slugger Josh Bell for two years, $33 million. The Baltimore Orioles finally are competitive. Tampa Bay always figures it out. But nothing has changed. Major League Baseball is a sport of relegation without officially adopting the term.
“On the positive side, I think a week in December where there is a ton of focus on players and where they are going to be is a good thing, in terms of marketing the game,” Manfred said Tuesday. “On the down side … we have a level of revenue disparity in this sport that makes it impossible for some of our markets to compete at some of the numbers we’ve seen. That’s not a positive. It’s like everything else in life: There is good and bad.”
At least he keeps Aaron Judge, the sport’s reigning ambassador, in New York. That is a good thing, even if the Yankees were bad guys. In September, when America usually is fixated on football, eyeballs were focused on his every at-bat. And it wasn’t only his 61st and 62nd homers that interested people.
This was about an audacious man sticking it to an ungrateful boss. Who can’t relate to that? Here was a Judge who had all the power, in the batter’s box and at the negotiating table, and squeezed it for dear life. God love him.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.