Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 9, 2022

Judgement Day in The Bronx

Stress, lack of exercise, cigarette smoking, high cholesterol – most of us are at least generally aware of the leading causes of heart attacks.  But for fans of the New York Yankees, a new source was added to the familiar list Tuesday afternoon.  That’s when Jon Heyman, the veteran New York Post sports columnist, hit “send” on a tweet that rocked the Yankees’ faithful and brought the Great Game’s hot stove season to a full rolling boil.  From the MLB Winter Meetings in San Diego, Heyman informed the world, or at least that part of it with a Twitter account, that “Arson Judge appears headed to Giants.” 

The news was so incendiary that some fans didn’t immediately notice the typo in Aaron Judge’s first name, a product of the app’s auto-correct feature.  Heyman fixed that quickly enough, though not before other users started filling up Twitter timelines with photoshopped images of the Yankees superstar and American League home run king in front of burning buildings.  It took several more minutes, and the rapid issuance of denials by representatives of both the Giants and Yankees that any deal was close to fruition, for Heyman to pull his original tweet and apologize for “jumping the gun.”

Baseball fans will never know if Heyman was scorched by sources that had in the past proven reliable, or if a burning desire to be first in reporting the biggest story of MLB’s offseason caused him to abandon basic tenets of reporting.  What is certain is that if the deleted tweet had been correct, Judge might as well have torched the big stadium in the Bronx.  With a home run to Monument Park in dead center field in his first big league at bat in August 2016, and 52 round-trippers in his Rookie of the Year campaign the following season, Judge quickly established his place in the proud lineage of Bronx Bombers.  The “99” on his jersey and his NFL tight end physique made Judge instantly recognizable, and his oft-stated commitment to winning a championship forged an immediate bond with fans.  This past season, in a lineup that many of those in the stands understandably disparaged as underperforming and overpaid (see Donaldson, Josh), Judge was the consistent fiery light.

And how brilliantly that light shone.  Entering his last year under team control, Judge turned down the Yankees offer of 7 years and $213.5 million during Spring Training.  Plenty of fans, and more than a few journalists, scoffed at his audacity in rejecting a contract worth more than $30 million per year.  To be sure, no matter the sport, fans have seen players make the ultimate financial bet – a high-stakes wager on their own performance – only to come a cropper often enough that the reaction wasn’t surprising.  No doubt some fans, beholden to the myth that owners are just barely scraping by financially, were even pulling for Judge to get his comeuppance when the season began in April.

By August those same partisans were likely making their way into the Stadium before a game clad in jerseys or tee shirts with a “99” on the back, ready to rise from their seats when their hero sent one more spheroid soaring into the sky.  Having pushed all his chips into the pot, over the course of the longest season Judge revealed a hand filled with aces.  The near unanimous choice as American League MVP, he led the majors in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, runs scored, runs batted in, and total bases, all while passing first Babe Ruth and then Roger Maris to set the new AL home run mark.  To complete the picture, he also played above average defense patrolling both right and center field and stole sixteen bases.  No wonder Heyman’s tweet caused the hearts of Yankee fans to start palpitating at several times 99 beats a minute.   

That the report seemed believable speaks not just to Heyman’s now severely damaged credibility, but also to the deep distrust of GM Brian Cashman and owner Hal Steinbrenner felt by so many of the Yankees’ faithful.  That antipathy was on display in September during ceremonies at the Stadium honoring Derek Jeter’s enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame.  Both the general manager, who was not on the field, and the owner, who was, were loudly booed by the capacity crowd.  For his part, Jeter told fans they should cheer, though he appeared to limit that sentiment to Steinbrenner.  Fans remembered the Yankee legend’s admonition when, a little more than twelve hours after the Heyman fiasco, multiple sources reported first that Judge was staying in pinstripes, and then that his new contract, for $360 million over nine years, was the product of personal intervention by Steinbrenner, who was in Italy, nine time zones away from San Diego.

Fans can tell themselves their catcalls helped spur Steinbrenner to action, but the truth is that keeping Judge on the payroll is enormously good for business.  The expectation is that he will soon be named the team’s first captain since Jeter retired in 2014.  Whether or not that happens, Judge has already stepped into the role of franchise icon.  His jersey and tee shirt sales far outstrip any other player on the current roster, as was the case when Jeter played, and even after he retired.  Judge is the only player whose name Paul Olden emphasizes when reading the starting lineups in the minutes before every game’s first pitch, in part because the stadium announcer knows Judge is the one name that will be greeted by raucous cheers.  All of which helps sell tickets, beers, and chicken buckets.

Of course, shoulders as big as Judge’s are needed for the expectations that are now placed on them.  More than three million paying customers every season and the added revenue of annual playoff appearances may be enough to produce a positive bottom line for the owner, but perhaps even Steinbrenner now understands that the franchise’s history, most recently embodied by his father’s single-minded pursuit, means that Yankee fans measure success by championships won. 

No single player can deliver a title, but Steinbrenner’s commitment to baseball’s highest average annual value contract for a position player, and Judge’s commitment to play out his career in the Bronx, join the two in a partnership to finally end the team’s World Series drought.  Next season will be the 14th since the Yankees last played in the Fall Classic, potentially matching the franchise’s longest absence from the Great Game’s ultimate stage since New York’s first title one century ago.  That is not a record Yankee partisans want to see tied, though for a few minutes on Tuesday, one inflammatory text made such a sad outcome seem certain.  But whether due to carefully calculated business judgment, or a storm of boos raining down from the stands last September, or the trauma engendered by a misbegotten tweet, Hal Steinbrenner did what he had not done since assuming the stewardship of sports’ most successful franchise.  He acted like his old man.  Come what may, somewhere, the Boss is smiling.  

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