Conservatives and liberals seldom agree on anything these days, especially where it concerns judges. Liberals abhor the likes of Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, and the late Antonin Scalia while conservatives view Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer, and Elena Kagan with utter disdain. And then there’s President Trump’s view of Gonzalo Curiel.
But there might be one judge on which both conservatives and liberals can agree. This judge wears pinstripes or gray instead of a black robe. He uses at bat instead of a gavel. His rulings usually occur in the Bronx, but they are known nationwide, and his verdicts cannot be overruled.
I am, of course, referring to New York Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge, who has probably just completed the most sensational rookie season in the history of Major League Baseball.
In his 155 games played in his inaugural season, Judge hit .284 with 52 home runs and 114 RBI. Those 52 home runs not only led the American League but surpassed the MLB rookie record set by Mark McGwire three decades ago, when he hit 49 home runs for the Oakland A’s in 1987. Judge also led the AL in runs scored with 128 and walks with 127. His on-base percentage of .422 was second only to two-time AL MVP Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels. His exploits were such that Judge received more than 4.4 million votes to earn a starting spot on the AL All-Star Team. No American League player earned more votes, and in the National League only Washington Nationals superstar Bryce Harper received more votes. Judge won the Home Run Derby the night before the All-Star Game, overshadowing the Miami Marlins’ hometown favorite, Giancarlo Stanton. Stanton finished the season with 59 home runs. When someone can out-power Stanton on his home turf, people sit up and take notice.
With Judge’s prodigious numbers playing no small part in earning the Yankees an AL wild-card berth (the playoff against Minnesota is tonight), he has a chance to become only the third rookie in American League history to win the AL Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards in the same year (the others are Fred Lynn with the Boston Red Sox in 1975 and Ichiro Suzuki with the Seattle Mariners in 2001). To be sure, Judge will have stiff competition from Cleveland Indians third baseman Jose Ramirez and Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve. The contrast between Judge and Altuve couldn’t be more stark. At 6 feet 7 inches and 282 pounds, Judge is the largest player by weight in MLB history, while Altuve is one of the smallest at 5 feet 6 inches and 165 pounds. Ramirez isn’t that much bigger than Altuve at 5 feet 9 inches and 165 pounds — all of which goes to show that baseball is not a one-size-fits-all proposition.
Yet it must be understood that Aaron Judge had a historic season with the most historic of baseball teams. When you consider some of the Yankee rookies who preceded him — Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Derek Jeter — Judge had a season better than all of them and all of them are in the Baseball Hall of Fame except for Jeter, who will likely be enshrined in 2020. While one season isn’t enough to earn a Hall of Fame plaque, Judge’s achievements are not only astonishing but Ruthian. Indeed, Judge surpassed Ruth when he hit his 52nd and final home run of the regular season. The 484 foot shot hit off th Toronto Blue Jays’ Marcus Stroman was his 33rd at Yankee Stadium, this season eclipsing the 32 that the Bambino hit in 1921, when the Yankees played at the Polo Grounds. If the original Yankee Stadium is The House That Ruth Built then it could be said that the new Yankee Stadium is The House Where Judge Ruled.
The scary thing is that the 25-year old Judge has a good chance of getting even better.
What is most astounding about Judge’s meteoric season is he was not expected to make the Opening Day roster and was competing with Aaron Hicks for a roster spot. Judge did see some playing time with the Yankees in 2016 and struggled. Although he showed flashes of power, with 4 home runs and 10 RBI, he struck out in 42 of his 84 at bats, compiling an anemic .179 batting average. As late as the end of March, Yankees manager Joe Girardi discussed the possibility of sending him back to their Triple-A affiliate in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Girardi said at the time, albeit reluctantly, “When you look at Aaron Judge, you don’t want him to sit. So if we don’t think there’s enough at-bats for him, that would be the thing that would keep him off the team. But that’s not what I’m saying.” For his part, Judge was prepared to accept a minor-league assignment, stating, “If I go to Double-A, High-A, it doesn’t matter. I’m going to go out there and play baseball, have fun, and everything will work out the way it’s supposed to.” Things have certainly worked out way beyond anyone’s expectations.
The scary thing is that the 25-year-old Judge has a good chance of getting even better. He still strikes out too much and would be the first to say so: He led all of MLB with 208 strikeouts. Following his Home Run Derby triumph in Miami, Judge went into a second-half slump during which he managed to set a single season MLB record by striking out in 37 consecutive games. During this period his batting average fell nearly 50 points, from .330 to .284. Yet Judge managed to maintain an even keel. After striking out three times in an extra-inning loss to the Boston Red Sox in mid August he stated, “I have to keep grinding and working. You know the results will come. If I feel good in the box and feel ready to compete, good things will happen.” Good things happened in September, as Judge hit .301 with 15 HR and 31 RBIs, his highest HR and RBI totals for any month this season. If Judge isn’t named AL Player of the Month for September, there ought to be a judicial inquiry.
In a time where sports has become politicized on both the left and the right, Aaron Judge has remained refreshingly above the fray. This isn’t to say that Judge doesn’t have opinions or doesn’t have the right to express them; he’s just probably too smart to do so. And if he did express them, he would do it in a judicious way. Judge has exhibited the kind of Kiplingesque temperament that has met with and treated triumph and disaster just the same.
Aaron Judge is the one judge in this country that both conservatives and liberals can unite behind, except of course for those who are Boston Red Sox fans. But eventually Red Sox Nation will come around — once Judge announces that he is retiring from the bench.