TAMPA, Fla. – Aaron Judge stood with his hands clasped behind his back early Thursday morning, addressing the story he probably didn’t consider to be worth all this, but there were questions, and he did what he could to be forthright and still honor those values that are dear to him. To be humble and bold. To know his place and take what’s his. To do what’s right and do the right thing by himself. To repay the game and strangle the life out of it.
So, his cheeks flushed on and off red, not from impatience or embarrassment, perhaps, but because serving all those bosses is a lot of work, and complicated, and you could fill a whole ball bag with the subtleties, even if the entire conversation is about a few rounds of televised batting practice.
He said he is not going to participate in this summer’s Home Run Derby. He said it over and over again. Only, mostly, he gave it the whole, “It’s not you, it’s me” thing, letting it down easy, while at the same time leaning away from the presumptuousness that him being there would be such a big thing, even when he must know it would be.
This is about growing up in a little boys’ game and recognizing that the next 10 or 15 years can be – and will be – a fragile exercise, whether he’s him – at 6-foot-7, 280 pounds – or he’s the shortstop he could eat like a stick of jerky. He spent a lot of time last season, particularly in the second half, buried under wheelbarrows of ice, most of that on his left shoulder, which after the season required surgical relief.
When you’re Aaron Judge and you’re in charge of Aaron Judge’s future and a good portion of Aaron Judge’s future entails swinging a baseball bat, and when Aaron Judge batted .185 and struck out 84 times in 189 at-bats over 55 games after the Home Run Derby for the New York Yankees, and when Aaron Judge’s front shoulder maybe didn’t feel quite right either, well, that’s certainly something to think about. Asked directly Thursday if he could tie some or all of his shoulder issues to the derby, he said, “I’d rather not say.”
Later, however, he said, “The derby wasn’t even that big of a toll to be honest. It was just like taking BP. It wasn’t anything too taxing. I wasn’t trying to swing 110 percent. I was just taking normal, 80- to 90-percent swings, trying to make contact. So.”
Of course he won it with, like, a thousand home runs. The balls he squared went 500 feet. The balls he just missed went 430 feet. The balls he flared scraped the back side of the fence. (Just like the regular season.) All of which became another rung on the Aaron Judge ladder, him rising to become a star at the right time in the right town, him looking like the perfect young man to become the new face of the game. Whatever that means. But everyone agreed at the time, it would be him.
And, of course, everyone loved the Home Run Derby again, which, you know, to each his own.
There is more to baseball than home runs, though you wouldn’t know it lately. And there is more to Aaron Judge than home runs, though they’ve kind of become synonymous. And there’s a lot more to a man’s career than batting practice exhibitions, except for some reason the stories are endless of who will and won’t participate in MLB’s signature event. Hey, just tryin’ to keep the conversation lively. This is not to say Judge can’t or won’t change his mind, only that he was pretty sure of his decision Thursday, and it wouldn’t seem another four months of swings out of that shoulder and games on that psyche would make him more likely to consent to defend his title.
That was about where we came in, with Judge at his locker with his hands behind his back, a pleasant enough expression if perhaps unsure what he’d done to draw such an early-morning crowd. Turned out, he’d told a The Players’ Tribune podcast he’d probably decline an invitation to return to the derby, and on the fourth Thursday of spring training that counts as interesting, because he’s Aaron Judge.
“One and done,” he confirmed. “I’m home run derby champion, cool experience, I enjoyed it all. But, I don’t think I really need to go out there and do it again. I just won it once. So.”
“For me, I’m focused on other things right now,” he said. “I’m not really focused on the derby. It’s March. It’s March 8th. You know, so I got other goals in mind, other things I want to accomplish and take care of first before I even start thinking about a derby.”
“I did it once,” he said. “Enjoyed it. Loved the experience. Was able to win it. Was such a cool experience. So I did the derby. One and done is good for me. So.”
Asked when he’d be totally sure of his decision, he said, “Probably the day before the derby. That’s a long way away. So.”
If MLB asked him back and was persistent, he said, “To do the derby? Um. Even if they reached out, it’s still up to me and my decision and what I think is best for me. Like I said, I’m not even, that’s the last thing on my mind right now is the derby.”
Really, this is a guy trying to say no. It would be best for him, best for the New York Yankees, in his soul, to say no. Maybe he won’t have to drag a sore shoulder through months of baseball, were he to say no. And if maybe some of this sounds like he can’t quite bring himself to say no, because he’s polite and doesn’t want to disappoint anyone, you and MLB are welcome to hold out hope.
He smiled. His cheeks went rosy. He’s trying to be nice here.
“Yeah,” he said, “but I’m leaning more toward not doing it. So.”
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