Hear ye, hear ye, the court of swing
Is just about ready to do that thing
I don’t want no tears, I don’t want no lies
Above all, I don’t want no alibis
This judge is hip, and that ain’t all
He’ll give you time if you’re big or small
Fall in line, a-this court is neat
Uh-oh, Here Come the Judge, Here Come the Judge
Everybody know that he is the judge
– Pigmeat Markham, “Here Comes the Judge”
When Don Mattingly was in his prime in the mid-1980’s, he was considered the best player in baseball. NBC had a famous “Game of the Week” introduction boasting of the network’s sixth decade of bringing you “baseball’s memories, baseball’s milestones, baseball’s majesty and baseball’s magical moments,” and Mattingly’s swing fell into the “majesty” category. Keith Hernandez could field a little better, but Mattingly was piling up home runs and RBI’s at a Hall of Fame pace. Often, fans wondered if watching him was like watching Lou Gehrig fifty years before.
Now we have a Yankee whose line drives rocket off the bat at record speeds, who sends fly balls to distant reaches of the Stadium previously untouched by falling leather, makes flying catches like a wide receiver out in the flats and finished a win over the Baltimore Orioles on Sunday leading the American League in home runs, RBI and batting average.
And his name is not Mickey Mantle. Though you wonder if your mouth is dropping the same way your parents’ and grandparents’ did when they saw the Mick slug his way to the Triple Crown in 1956. I don’t have to wonder. I asked my father, who saw Mantle back then, if he saw similarities, and he said yes.
The backgrounds match up. Star multi-sport athletes in high school, locally famous as much for football as baseball, both made conscious choices to play baseball and both hit the ball with crushing authority. Like Mantle, Judge commands your attention whenever he steps up to the plate. What will he do next? A 495-foot bomb where no ball had ever gone in the new Stadium? Check. Going the other way with a 400-foot-plus drive in the next at-bat? Yup. Making up for a bad throw in the field that set up a tying run with a tie-breaking 438-foot opposite-field jack on the other coast one night later? Done.
Manager Joe Girardi is running out of words to describe the phenomenon that hit .178 in late-season call-up duty and was still not a lock for the Major League roster in the final days of spring training. One night, he called Judge a “defensive end who plays baseball,” taking into account the combination of size, strength and speed unique to that position on the gridiron. Though Judge played wide receiver in high school, he’s filled out a bit for that job at 6’7”, 282.
Monday night, after Judge’s game-winning blast, fans in Angel Stadium chanted “M-V-P! M-V-P!” Girardi pointed out, “In Mike Trout’s town, too,” referring to the injured two-time Most Valuable Player sitting in the Angels dugout.
From a front-office standpoint, Judge and his heavy-hitting cohorts could not have arrived at a better time. And not just for the stats and game-winning hits, but for the spectacle.
Two years ago, a Yankee team eked its way into a Wild Card berth and went out as quickly as it came in thanks to eventual Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel. You’d be excused if you can’t remember much else from that year. Take a magical year like 1998 and it’s a little easier. Or even the last World Series win in 2009, sort of a last hurrah for the Core Four. 2015 will be remembered as the year after Derek Jeter retired. And the Yankees’ only postseason appearance in the past four seasons.
Superagent Scott Boras has long contended that merely winning is not sufficient to engage fan interest and fill seats. Star quality matters, too. It is the argument he used to net Alex Rodriguez two of the most lucrative contracts in sports history, and if you look at Yankee attendance numbers before and after his 2004 arrival, they bear it out. They won six pennants and four World Series from 1996-2003 and were drawing franchise-record numbers, then A-Rod pushed those into the stratosphere, setting a new record in 2004, then beginning a streak in 2005 of four straight seasons drawing four million or more, stopped only by moving to the smaller new park in 2009.
And while they continued to lead the AL in average attendance per game, the Stadium turnstiles made their rounds three quarters of a million fewer times in 2016 than new-Stadium record year 2010. Average attendance has slowed even further this year with unseasonable weather, but the numbers picked up this most recent home stand with the Red Sox and Orioles in town. And Judge blasting balls all over the park.
It’s not just Judge, of course. New York fans have long had a reputation for impatience, or at least that was the excuse general managers gave for not going into rebuilding mode, which then usually forced a team to rebuild rather than embracing the process. Last August, the Yankees finally gave in, trading away Carlos Beltran, Ivan Nova and Aroldis Chapman for prospects, allowing youngsters like Judge and Gary Sanchez to get some top-level experience and giving Sanchez center stage as the supposedly decimated Yankees roared back into contention in August, only to falter again in September.
To understand the impact, one need only turn back the clock a full year to an aging Yankee team struggling to tread water, hanging on pitching to stay in games while the lineup strained to score runs. The Yankees of the first half of 2016 were not particularly bad, but not particularly good either. The change in stats will jump off the page if one chooses to look, but watching a game will do the same thing. This team is never out of a game. Opponents know whenever they build a lead, they need to brace for an inevitable comeback. The Houston Astros, best team in baseball by a fair margin, hung on for a win only by throwing out a ninth-inning tying run at the plate. The Red Sox managed to grab a win at the Stadium last week in which the Yankees scored runs on a double play, error, wild pitch and a homer, a relatively rare off night for the bats.
Most importantly, the Yankees pulled off something people previously thought was difficult for any franchise and impossible for a franchise driven to win every year. They created an upside where none previously existed. They transformed their roster without the typical years of pain and suffering that a team like the Astros had to endure. Now all people have to do is come and watch in amazement.
That, however, is a can of worms for another column.