Imagine the mythical lumberjack Paul Bunyan standing before you, but instead of a woodsman’s ax resting on his shoulder, he has a baseball bat and a warm smile.
That’ll give you a good picture of New York Yankees rookie sensation Aaron Judge, who, at 6’7” and 280 pounds, is one of the biggest men ever to play professional baseball.
But that’s not the only thing he’s known for. Judge hit more home runs in his rookie season than any player in history and led New York Yankees into the playoffs, where they fell just one win short of representing the American League in the 2017 World Series. For his heroics, Judge was named the AL Rookie of the Year in a unanimous vote by the Baseball Writers of America, the first Yankees player so recognized since Derek Jeter won that award in 1996.
“It’s quite an honor,” Judge said during a conference call after the announcement was made on Monday night. “I’m still sitting back trying to think about what happened this first year. It’s been quite a journey—from battling in spring training, to the highs and lows throughout the season, the run we had, coming up short. You dream about playing your first year in the big leagues, and I wouldn’t change a thing. It was an incredible year.”
In his first full season with the Yankees, Judge was a sensation. A first-round selection in the 2013 MLB draft, he started strong out of the gate, hitting a home run on his first time at-bat and 10 home runs in April to tie a major-league record. He finished the first month of the season with a .303 batting average and 20 runs batted in over 22 games.
That’s a great start to a season for any player, but especially for a 24-year-old rookie (Judge turned 25 on April 26). And not coincidentally, the Yankees got off to a winning streak, too, riding Judge’s hot hitting tear to a 21-9 record in their first 30 games.
Judge was named to the American League All-Star team and he even won the Home Run Derby, smacking a total of 47 long balls during the competition, four of which traveled more than 500 feet.
“It was a blast. I enjoyed every minute of it,” Judge said following the Derby. “Watching all the other guys swing. Coming here early, talking to the media. Everything about today was fantastic.”
Following the All-Star break, Judge came back to earth a bit. Hampered by nagging injuries, he struggled at the plate, and the Yankees put up a so-so 28-27 record in July and August.
But in September, Judge came alive again, and so did the Bronx Bombers. In an 11-3 win over the Kansas City Royals on Monday, September 25, Judge homered twice—his 12th and 13th long balls in September and his 49th and 50th of the season, breaking the major-league record for homers by a rookie.
“[Judge] went through it and just kept working,” teammate Todd Frazier told The New York Daily News following Judge’s record-setting performance. “That’s very hard to come back from, but that’s his mentality, his personality. It’s incredible, hitting 50 [homers], and for him to be as humble as he is, it’s an honor to play with him.”
Judge is already a superstar in a city that loves its sports heroes but also tempts them with an abundance of the kind of distractions that can derail a promising career. He relies on faith and family to keep his feet firmly on the ground.
Born and raised in Linden, California, Judge was adopted as a newborn. When he was 10 years old, his folks, Patty and Wayne Judge, both teachers, shared with him that they were not his birth parents, something he had already begun to suspect. “I knew I didn’t look like them,” Judge told NorthJersey.com columnist Bob Klapisch. “I finally said, ‘OK, what’s going on?’ and that’s when they told me. I was fine with that, they were the only parents I ever knew. It actually wasn’t a big deal.”
Judge remains very close to his parents and calls them every day. He’s also known for his efforts to commit to memory the names of every reporter he encounters, both at home and during road trips.
Judge also avoids the nightlife that has been the downfall of many a New York athlete, and while he does, like so many athletes today, have a Twitter account, it’s strictly G-rated. The intro blurb reads, “Christian. Faith, Family, then Baseball. If what you did yesterday still seems big today, then you haven’t done anything today!”, the banner image at the top of the page quotes 2 Corinthians 5:7 (For we walk by faith, not by sight) and one frequently finds additional Bible verses cited in his tweets.
During a pregame press conference in early May, Joe Girardi, then the Yankees manager, discussed what makes the superstar right fielder special. “He’s got a smile all the time,” Girardi said. “He loves to play the game. You always think that he’s going to do the right thing on the field and off the field when you look at him. He’s got a presence about him.”
Faith, family, then baseball. That’s a recipe for success.
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