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Judgment Day

I. The Waiting

When I woke up on Wednesday morning and checked my phone, the notification screen was full. The latest was from Twitter, from someone who seemed to be talking about an Aaron Judge deal. I found the truth within about thirty seconds — forty-five minutes earlier, Judge had indeed decided to return to the Yankees and had agreed to what we’ve been told will be a nine-year contract for $360 million. I already had a handful of texts from East Coast friends, and within the hour I’d get a few more from folks out here in California who thought of me when they heard the news. It was a whirlwind.

It been a long, strange journey that started before the Astros were done celebrating their victory over the Yankees in the ALCS. What would Judge do? With the Judge camp somehow as leak-free as a Flex Tape commercial, the baseball world was left to tea leaves and idle speculation. First we believed that the boos he heard in his final game at the Stadium might push him towards leaving, but when Anthony Rizzo signed we thought it meant he was staying. When he accepted his American League MVP award and joked good-naturedly with Giancarlo Stanton, it was another positive sign — of course he wanted to stay and play with his good friend, Big G.

But baseball is a business. We know this intellectually, but sometimes a baseball hero can turn an intellectual fan back into a ten-year-old, and we can forget the magnitude of the millions being offered to these players. Likely no fan base in sports is more guilty of this than the Yankee Universe, where we often drastically overestimate the power of pinstripe tradition and history. Most of us would probably give up a few years of our lives to experience any of the fantasies we’ve seen play out over the past few decades. To stand in right field and listen as an entire stadium chanted our name, to lace a single to right field for a game-winning RBI in our final at bat, to walk off the mound one last time and sob on a friend’s shoulder because the dream has come to a close. To stand before a microphone in the middle of the diamond and somehow try to explain what it means to have your jersey number hung alongside Ruth and Gehrig and DiMaggio.

We’ve convinced ourselves that all of those moments meant more precisely because of where they happened, not just how they happened. We’ve convinced ourselves that being a Yankee means more, and so it’s confusing when players — the businessmen whose salaries are paid for with the turnstiles we spin, the jerseys we buy, and the remotes we click — consider leaving. Why in the world would they?

And so when we first heard whispers of an offer from the Giants, it wasn’t overly concerning. Of course he has to talk to other teams, we reminded ourselves. It’s part of the process. He has to gauge his worth on the open market, but that’s all it is.

As the days went by and there was still no positive news, we tucked ourselves in and spun our own tales to keep us from panicking. Does he want to be Derek Jeter or Robinson Canó?

And then Tuesday happened. Most baseball observers still believed that the Yankees were the frontrunners to retain Judge’s services, but on the second day of the winter meetings, we suddenly began hearing reports that the San Francisco Giants were making a strong push, and we even heard numbers that were far larger than the Yankees’ last offer of $305 or $310 million. Things were getting interesting.

Weeks earlier I had set up Twitter alerts on my phone for all the relevant Yankee writers, and that was in addition to my standard alerts from ESPN and the Athletic. My phone was buzzing like a beehive all week, but it was never about Judge, always about a rumored deal for number three starter in the National League Central. Sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Thankfully I was in the middle of basketball practice when Jon Heyman sent off his infamous “Arson Judge appears headed to Giants” tweet, so I didn’t have to live in that seven-minute universe in which the Yankees’ had allowed their best player to leave, but it certainly seemed like something bad was brewing. Where there’s Arson, after all, there is usually fire. I was convinced — or at least almost convinced — that he was gone.


II. The Truth

Aaron Judge is more than just the numbers. Let’s set aside his historic 2022 for a moment and look back to his rookie season of 2017. That was the year when we knew he was different. Judge can only be compared to Derek Jeter, but not even Jeter had the immediate emotional impact that Judge did when he arrived. Jeter was a good player, a Rookie of the Year winner like Judge, but in 1996 he wasn’t yet the team’s biggest star.

In 2017, the Yankees had Chris Carter at first base, Starlin Castro at second, and Chase Headley at third. Honest. Judge opened the season in right field, and after hitting ten home runs in April and seven more in May, he wasn’t just the tallest Yankee, he was the biggest. The Judge’s Chambers was still a season or two away, but fans at the Stadium were already wearing robes and powdered wigs in the stands. Each game was a celebration, each at bat was an event.

When the Yankees came out to the West Coast in June, Judge was hitting .347 with 21 home runs, but when my son and I headed out to Anaheim for the opening game of the series, I was still stunned by what I saw. There are always thousands of Yankee fans at these games, but this time there were as many Judge jerseys as Jeter. A few rows in front of us sat a family of five, each wearing a navy blue Judge 99 t-shirt. With each Judge at bat, someone in the crowd would yell out “All Rise!” and we dutifully stood for every pitch. Three thousand miles from Yankee Stadium, these fans who had planned ahead and ordered their gear in anticipation of their hero’s arrival all knew exactly how to worship. And when Judge hit his 22nd home run that night, the celebration in the unofficial Yankee section along the right field line in Anaheim Stadium was raucous. The MVP chants bounced around the stadium as Judge jogged around the bases with his head down, likely already thinking about his next at bat.

If Brian Cashman or Hal Steinbrenner had been in the stands with us that night, they’d have offered him a lifetime contract on the spot. It was his 86th career game, but he was already the face of the franchise.


III. The Resolution

When I went to bed on Tuesday night I was resolved to the fact that none of this had mattered. Aaron Judge would be blasting baseballs into the San Francisco Bay in 2023, but before he ever played a game in his new home, he and the Giants would open their season on the road… playing the Yankees in his old home. I fell asleep imagining this cruelest of twists, and I wondered if fans would cheer him for his six years of greatness or jeer him for having the temerity to leave it all behind. I cursed myself for caring so much.

And then it was morning.

For the next nine years the Yankees will be paying Aaron Judge for a season neither he nor anyone else will produce again, and that’s okay with me. I truly hope that he’s able to carry the team to a World Series championship or two, but I won’t be terribly disappointed if he doesn’t. For me, the true victory came on Wednesday morning with the realization that for the next nine years I’ll be able to watch Aaron Judge play for my favorite team. My son and I will go to as many games as we can, he in his Judge jersey and I in my Jeter, matching countless father-son combos in the Bronx and beyond.

All Rise.

Heating Up


The Hot Stove is simmering.

The Envelope, Please…

Tonight gives the 2022 MVP awards…

Anthony Rizzo, Drinks Are On the House

Rizzo returns.

The Whirled Serious

The Phillies swiped Game One from the Astros in Houston and hope to do more damage tonight.

Course, the damage has already been done to the Yanks, and the seasons ends with Aaron Judge inexplicably getting jeered at home, and Hal Steinbrenner giving Aaron Boone a vote of confidence as manager. Surely, all is not settled in Yankeeland.

Meanwhile, the championship with the Astros and the Phillies.

Never mind the hot stove:

Let’s Go Base-Ball!

If This Is It

The Yanks are down 3-0. Here’s hoping they can make us happy at least once more. One they lose, the panic about signing Aaron Judge, followed by Aaron Boone’s inevitable dismissal will set off a long, weird off-season.

Never mind hot stove:

Let’s Go Yank-ees!

Dread Not

The most difficult part of the playoffs from a fan’s perspective is that the narratives are crafted so quickly that they become fact before anyone has a chance to question them. After two games in Houston most people have decided that these Astros are simply too good for the Yankees, that their dominant pitching staff is untouchable, that the Yankee bullpen is a dumpster fire, that this team from the Bronx simply isn’t very good.

Perhaps it’s time to back away from the ledge and remember that we’re talking about two games, and those two games weren’t all bad. Consider, for example, that the mighty Astros only scored seven runs in those two games, and that the three runs they scored on Thursday night came courtesy of one mistake — a two-out, two-strike fastball that Luís Severino wasn’t able to get up in the zone. There’s also the fact that Aaron Judge nearly grabbed Game Two right back with a laser that might’ve been a home run were it not for the winds that were whipping through Minute Maid Park.

A quick note about those two balls, Alex Bregman’s towering fly ball that landed in the seats for a three-run home run and Judge’s line drive that was caught at the wall by Kyle Tucker. Those two balls determined the game, so the postgame analysis naturally focused on the differences between the two, and the Yankees came out looking a bit petulant as one after another they stood in line to tell us that they thought Judge’s ball was going out. (In their defense, they had to answer the questions.) Severino even went so far as to say the Astros had been lucky because Bregman’s ball had been only 91 MPH off the bat while Judge’s had been 106. (Ever the diplomat, Judge said he never thought it was going out. He had hit it to the wrong part of the yard.)

Alex Eisert at Fangraphs provides some quick analysis on the data behind those two balls:

After the game, Severino expressed surprise that Bregman’s looping 91.8 mph fly left the park and Aaron Judge’s 106.3 mph shot to right didn’t. He mentioned the wind as a factor; the roof was open at Minute Maid, and the swirling air currents may have brought balls back into the park in right field but lifted out those hit to left. Yet, it’s hard to discern the ultimate impact environmental factors had on the game’s outcome; there were plenty of Astros who flied out to deep right as well, notably Peña, who hit a 99.2-mph, 22-degree drive that stayed in the yard. Besides the wind, batted ball spin may have caused Judge’s knock to fall short.

The whole discussion was interesting because it pointed out how exit velocity and launch angle haven’t just changed the way the game is played but the way it’s perceived. When you’re sitting in ballpark, every ball hit in the air looks like it’s going to be a home run, so we’ve all quickly learned to watch the outfielders, not the ball. Knowledgeable fans have been doing that for generations, but the players don’t do that anymore. With stadium scoreboards posting exit velocity and launch angle the instant a ball is struck, all eyes in the dugout immediately look to those magic numbers. It’s no longer the crack of the bat but the flash of the scoreboard that triggers celebration in one dugout and despair in the other. The game has changed.

Today will determine whether or not this series changes. If I’m being honest, I’ll admit that the narrative being written right now actually isn’t based on just games one and two. We all know that Houston beat the Yankees five out of seven games this season, without Yankee pitchers throwing a single pitch while holding the lead, and we all bear the scars of 2017 and 2019. These Astros, whether cheating or not, have ripped our hearts out of our collective chests over and over.

Ah, but this is baseball, and sometimes the action doesn’t follow the script — just ask the Dodgers and Mets. Gerrit Cole pitched and won the biggest game of his Yankee career six days ago in Cleveland, and today he takes the mound for a game that’s probably even bigger. (No, it’s not an elimination game, but to my knowledge no team has ever come back to win an ALCS after being down 0-3, right?)

I have faith in Cole because I have to. There is no other choice.

There are a few tweaks to the lineup — Rizzo moving into the leadoff spot, Carpenter back at DH, and Cabrera at short. I’ve gotten used to Boone’s constant shuffling of the batting order, so I have no thoughts on that, but I wonder about playing Matt Carpenter. He looks hopelessly lost, bringing to mind the days of Gary Sánchez. The only hope is that he might run into one and accidentally put a ball into the seats. Here’s hoping. Anyway…

Let’s-Go-Yank-Ees!

  1. Rizzo, 1B
  2. Judge, RF
  3. Stanton, LF
  4. Torres, 2B
  5. Carpenter, DH
  6. Bader, CF
  7. Donaldson, 3B
  8. Cabrera, SS
  9. Trevino, C

Grab-and-Go

Yanks still have a chance to swipe a game in Houston—and yes, Game 1 was within reach, a missed opportunity, dammit.

Sevi on the hill tonight.

Never mind the brisket:

Let’s Go Yank-ees!

What, Nu? Again

Ah, the Yanks and Astros play for the American League pennant. Just like it was drawn up. Sure, the Astros should be able to wipe the floor with these Yanks but stranger things have happened.

We’ll be here rooting.

Never mind the hangover:

Let’s Go Yank-ees!

Game Five in the Bronx

Nail-biting time for the Yanks and Guardians in the Bronx tonight. The weather looks lousy. The fans will be noisy. We will be rooting.

Never mind the Hot Stove:

Let’s Go Yank-ees!

 

On the Edge

Last night’s game was difficult.

There are any number of things that could’ve been done differently, and all of them were hashed out and beaten into the ground in the minutes and hours after the Cleveland Guardians scored three runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to beat the Yankees 5-3 and take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five series.

There were questions about bullpen usage and defensive strategy, but we never got any actual answers from Aaron Boone. Rookie Clarke Schmidt, and not All-Star Clay Holmes, was tasked with getting the final three outs of the most important game the Yankees had played up until that point in the season. When asked about it afterwards, Boone said that Holmes was only available in an emergency. When Holmes was asked about it, he said that he had showed up at the park prepared to pitch. When Luís Severino was asked about it, he said that Holmes was the closer, so of course he was surprised. Then he expanded: “You’ll have to ask Boonie and Blake about that.”

It was a bad look. The Yankee house was burning, and everyone one was taking turns tossing kerosene on each other.

Some also wondered about Oswaldo Cabrera’s play in left field. He had had a great game and certainly would’ve earned first-paragraph mention in most recaps had things not imploded in the ninth inning. His double ahead of Aaron Judge’s home run was important, and his own two-run home run in the fifth inning gave the Yankees the lead in a game they were poised to win.

But for the second time this series we saw him make a tentative approach on a ball hit in front of them, and this time it started that rally in the ninth. Why, people asked, was Aaron Hicks on the roster if not to play defense in the ninth inning of a two-run game? That double was a ball that Hicks likely would’ve caught.

There were also questions about shortstop Isaiah Kiner-Falefa, who continues to struggle in the field. He botched a ball that led to a run in the second inning, then misplayed a grounder that should’ve been the third out of the sixth inning. Instead, Severino was lifted early and the Guardians plated a run.

Boone wouldn’t admit concern about either Cabrera’s defense in left or IKF’s fielding at short, but tonight’s lineup indicates something different; IKF is out, Cabrera is at short, and Hicks is in left. Too little too late? We’ll see.

If you’ve made the mistake of wandering through Yankee twitter in the last twelve hours, you know that the natives are restless. I get that, but there’s one theme that I disagree with. When the Phillies play the Padres in the NLCS, Bryce Harper will be facing Manny Machado, and many Yankee fans are convinced that one of those two players would’ve been the balm to heal all these wounds. (This summer it was Carlos Correa, but since the Twins didn’t make the playoffs, I suppose people have forgotten about him.)

The reality is that this is baseball, and this is the playoff structure that baseball wants. The 162-game regular season tells us who the best teams are, but that isn’t exciting enough for Rob Manfred and his minions. They don’t believe that October provides enough drama on its own; they want ALL the drama. But it’s a double-edged sword. The scene in San Diego last night was epic. I apologize for using that word, but that’s truly what it was. It was everything that baseball wants.

But on the other hand, by allowing a team into the playoffs after finishing 22 games out of first place, baseball now moves to the LCS without one of the greatest regular season teams in the history of the sport. They will see this as validation of the expanded playoff system, but it shouldn’t be a surprise. If they expand to 24 teams, there will be upsets galore and even more excitement — precisely because this is baseball. Anyone acn beat anyone in a short series, and that’s exactly what they want. They want the drama.

Will the Yankees be the next victim of this? Or will Gerrit Cole do what he was paid to do? Tune in tonight and find out.

Let’s-Go-Yan-Kees!

  1. Torres, 2b
  2. Judge, rf
  3. Rizzo, 1b
  4. Stanton, dh
  5. Donaldson, 3b
  6. Cabrera, ss
  7. Bader, cf
  8. Trevino, c
  9. Hicks, lf

Guardians

  1. Slap hitter, lf
  2. Slap hitter, ss
  3. José Ramirez, 3b
  4. Homer or nothing hitter, dh
  5. Rookie, rf
  6. Slap hitter, 2b
  7. Slap hitter, 1b
  8. Slow slap hitter, c
  9. Bloop hitter, cf

Welcome to the Playoffs

New York Yankees starting pitcher Luis Severino throws during the first inning in Game 3 of a baseball American League Division Series against the Minnesota Twins, Monday, Oct. 7, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

Game 2 in the Bronx did not go the Yankees’ way, and not just because of the final result on the scoreboard. It was one of those games when line drives off Yankee bats were caught, but bloops and flares off Guardian bats found the grass.

In a well-pitched game on both sides, there were a handful of moments that determined the game. With a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the third, Josh Donaldson stood at the plate with two outs and runners on second and third. He ripped a ball to left field that would likely have scored two and might even have chased Cleveland starter Shane Bieber from the game, but left fielder Steven Kwan was able to race in and grab it for the final out. Later, with two outs and the bases loaded in the eighth, Kyle Higashioka looked for just a moment as if he would be the hero, but his line drive was snagged by third baseman Jose Ramirez, and again the Yankees were turned away.

Finally, in the top of the tenth inning, Aaron Boone sent Jameson Taillon (and not Clarke Schmidt) to the mound, a questionable decision considering Taillon had never before appeared in relief. The result was predictable, if not the manner in which things played out. First there was a bloop to left by Ramirez, a ball that Oswaldo Cabrera might’ve been able to catch were it not for a moment’s hesitation towards the end. The hustling Ramirez forced a desperate throw to second from Donaldson, and when that throw sailed into right field, Ramirez ended up a-huggin’ third. Oscar Gonzalez followed that with another bloop, this one falling in front of Aaron Judge in right, and the Guardians had their lead. (Josh Naylor followed with a double that was an absolute rocket, but it was the bloops that had done in Taillon.)

The Yankees were never going to go 11-0 in the postseason, and they probably weren’t even going to sweep the Guardians. This isn’t the time to panic. Luis Severino takes the mound today, and it’s been more than two weeks since he last allowed a base hit! Yesterday’s loss does nothing to change the fact that the Yankees are a better team than the Guardians, or that Severino is a better and more experienced pitcher than Cleveland’s Triston McKenzie. Tonight’s game is pivotal, but this isn’t doomsday. Come in off the ledge and watch the game. It’ll be fun!

Let’s-G0-Yank-ees!

Friday Matinee


Game Two gives a rare afternoon playoff game in the Bronx.

Yanks looking to stay ahead of the Guardians and not turn this into some kind of soggy, misbegotten weekend of horrors in Cleveland.

Never mind the doubts:

Let’s Go Yank-ees!

The Flip Side

Today gives a pair of Game 2’s in the National League.

Never mind the chill:

Let’s Go Base-ball!

Showtime

And so it begins.

Originally I wasn’t sure what I thought about baseball’s new playoff format — I’m generally against any expansion of the playoffs, any further dilution of the regular season — but I actually think they got something right this time. (Mets fans, sadly, likely have a different thought right now.)

But our Yankees are fresh and ready to go, and so are we. Sure, it’s nice that the bullpen arms are rested, but I didn’t mind having five days free of anxiety either. So bring on the Guardians!

If you’ve been paying attention for the last twenty years — and you wouldn’t be reading this if you haven’t been — you know that there’s some deep recent history between these two teams. As the Yankees were rising in the mid ’90s, the rivalry with Cleveland was sometimes more intense than the one with Boston. It’s blasphemy, but it’s true.

It began with Mariano Rivera’s ill-fated cutter that floated up in the zone and then into the seats off of Sandy Alomar’s bat in 1997, one of just two bad postseason losses during an otherworldly six-year run. The following year, Cleveland gave the 1998 Yankees their only moments of tension (helped a bit by Chuck Knoblauch) before El Duque Hernández showed that he was still an ace, fourth starter or not. Almost a decade later, Cleveland had the upper hand again, this time when a swarm of midges engulfed Joba Chamberlain and changed the course of the 1997 ALDS.

The Yankees eliminated Cleveland in the 2017 divisional series and again in the 2020 wild card series, but it’s interesting that I don’t remember a single thing about either of those moments. Didn’t Giancarlo Stanton do something monstrous in 2020? Perhaps.

And so what will 2022 hold as these two teams face off again? Will we remember this series forever, or will it disappear into the corners of memory?

There’s been drama in the Yankee camp, as Aroldis Chapman has been left off the roster for this series because he failed to show up for a workout — or maybe it’s the other way around. Either way, we’ve likely seen the last of Chapman in pinstripes, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, who among us would’ve felt comfortable watching him on the mound in an October game that mattered?

Our old friend Matt Carpenter is back, and even though his role is yet to be seen — will Stanton play the field to let him DH, or will Carpenter just be a pinch hitter? — I’m as happy for him as I am for the potential impact he might have on the Yankees’ playoff run.

Aside from the efforts of the Cleveland Guardians, a better team than some might think, there are two things that will determine the Yankees’ success or failure in this series. The first one is obvious, the $324 million elephant in the dugout, but we’ll get to that later. What I’m interested in seeing is how the more inexperienced Yankees fare in the postseason spotlight. I don’t worry for a minute about Aaron Judge or Giancarlo Stanton or Luís Severino or even Josh Donaldson. Even if those players don’t perform, it won’t be because of the moment.

But what about Nestor Cortés? We’re told that he doesn’t fear anything, but I don’t think that even Nestor himself knows how he’ll feel when he toes the rubber on an October night in Yankee Stadium. Oswaldo Cabrera has been an important contributor over the past month, and observers have noticed how comfortable he looks. Will he still have that same comfort with two outs and a runner on second in the eighth inning? We’ll see.

The truth, however, is that nothing that I’ve written so far matters nearly as much as how Gerrit Cole pitches tonight. He’s still one of the best pitchers in the game, the type of pitcher who’s a threat to throw a no-hitter every time out, but this season he’s also been one of the most volatile pitchers in the game. At no point tonight, no matter how well he appears to be throwing, will I be relaxed. It won’t matter who’s in the batter’s box, it won’t matter how many strikeouts Cole has, I will always worry that he’ll groove a fastball or hang a curve or lose a changeup and the ball will disappear into the night.

The Yankees gave him the richest contract in their history precisely for Game 1. It’s the reason that Aaron Boone named Cole the starter for this game weeks ago, even though an objective look at the statistics would’ve resulted in Cortés getting the ball instead, or even Severino.

But it always had to be Gerrit Cole. This was always going to be his moment. And so much depends on this moment.

One More Bomb

Aaron Judge didn’t hit a home run during the weekend series against the Orioles. He hasn’t seen that many strikes, though yesterday he whiffed three times. Can’t help trying to hit a home run at home. He had at least two pitches yesterday that were mistakes. He put a good swing on both of them. Fouled them both off. The difference between a hot streak and “pressing.”

The Yanks are winners of the AL East and end the regular season against the Rangers in Texas. Tomorrow gives a double header so figure Judge will play three of the four games.

Never mind the pressure:

Let’s Go Jud-ge!

 

What Are You Lookin’ At?

The Yanks clinched the AL East on Tuesday night. They’ve got eight games left (including a double header next Tuesday in Texas). Under normal circumstances, Aaron Judge would get a game or two off. That’s not going to happen with him sitting on 60 homers.

You know he’s got to be pressing and yet last night he walked four times. He was up five times and the count went full in each at-bat. In the first inning, he lined out sharply to third and after that, he spit on the 3-2 pitch, all enticing, and took his walks.

One of Roger Maris’s sons sits next to Judge’s mother at each game. It’s all exhausting—Michael Kay has to rev up into “historic” mode each time Judge comes up—but in the meantime, the Yanks are winning and all is well.

Everyone should have such problems.

Never mind the great expectations:

Let’s Go-Yankees!

It Ain’t Easy

Hitting home runs is not easy even for the best of the them.

All eyes on Aaron Judge again this afternoon. Yanks have beat the Sox 5-4 each of the past two nights; he walked three times on Thursday and hit a long fly ball that he “just missed”; got a base hit and whiffed twice last night. The magic number for clinching the AL East is down to four for the Bombers.

Never mind the pressure:

Let’s Go Yank-ees!

 

Mr. Big Stuff

Aaron Judge hit home run number 60 last night to lead off the ninth inning. Four batters later, Giancarlo Stanton hit a line drive home run—the kind Dave Winfield used to hit—for a game-ending grand slam.

Tonight Judge goes for 61.

Let’s Go Yank-ees!

Bombs Away … And Counting

Well, the Yanks offense has been lousy this summer but Aaron Judge continues to astound.

What a season, with a couple more homers last night in Boston and Maris’s 61 within reach.

Funski.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver