Judge, a rising star of extremes and mystery, takes US by storm
New York Yankee has smashed record for home runs by a rookie and slumped spectacularly too
Master blaster The 6ft 7in Aaron Judge hit 52 home runs in the MLB regular season and enters the American League series tonight with the Yankees against Houston
Jim McIsaac/ Getty Images
geese turned out to be swans or, in Judge’s case, some larger beast. He is 25, a little old for an overnight sensation, but he went to college first and put baseball second. In a way, he seems ageless. In some lights his face looks babyish; in others, as though it has been chiselled out of Mount Rushmore.
There are aspects of his game that might be regarded as immature. Along with the home runs have come their polar opposite: a record number of strike-outs (“three strikes and yer out”), regarded by grizzled old pros as a humiliating kind of exit, akin to being bowled middle stump. In this, he has already broken the post-season record, 30, with considerable power to add against Houston and maybe beyond.
Home runs are great for show, but for dough – the conventional wisdom has it – frontline batters such as Judge are meant above all to keep the ball down, get it through the infield, reach base and hustle like hell for runs. But in all of this, Judge is leading a trend: the total number of Major League home runs in 2017 smashed the previous high of 5,963, set in 2000, the height of baseball’s subservience to the illegal pharmaceutical industry. Total strikeouts were also a record, passing 40,000 for the first time.
No one has adequately explained the rush of homers, though there are whispers that the druggies might again have found a way to thwart the authorities, who were unbelievably slow in waking up to the power of steroids. There is no evidence for this, yet. It may be more productive to note the analogy with cricket, which also now prizes hit-and-hope above its old verities. Baseball, though, remains recognisably the sport it always was and not a marketing-driven mish-mash.
And Judge is quite clearly an exceptional, if mysterious, specimen. Even his ethnicity is a matter of internet speculation: he was adopted – into a notably proud and together family – as a baby and has no knowledge of his biological parentage.
His batting form, however, is again a matter of concern. He has suffered the strike-outs all right, but against Cleveland managed a solitary hit in 20 at-bats. The starring role with the bat was played by another up-and-comer, Didi Gregorius from Curacao, the much-derided replacement at short-stop for the great Derek Jeter. Gregorius hit two homers in the first three innings in the crucial contest in Cleveland, and no one’s deriding now.
But it was the Judge catch that broke Cleveland hearts. It did, however, have an extra dimension that caused a ripple of satisfaction across the game. The photos show Judge grabbing the ball inches away from the outstretched mitt of a yellow-shirted spectator, apparently a teenaged innocent sadly deprived of the catch of this life. Skilled observers, however, recognised him as 40-year-old Zack Hample, author of How To Snag Major League Baseballs, and described by Business Insider as “a notorious ballhawk”. Baseball custom dictates that balls hit into the crowd belong to the catcher, and attentive regulars may collect one or two in a lifetime. Hample reputedly has 10,000.
He does appear to have his own superhuman knack for being in the right place at the right time, and to raise money for charity rather than himself. Against that, he has been accused of knocking children out of the way to feed his collection. Ah well, as the saying goes, judge not that ye be not judged.
A group of Yankee fans have turned up in judges’ wigs and carrying gavels