Aaron Judge Sizes Up As Baseball’s Best New Hope

5 minute read

Rarely do nachos make dreams come true, no matter how good the guacamole. But while Maria Baez was on her way to a Yankee Stadium concession stand one recent evening, a team employee offered her a spot in the Judge’s Chambers, a section of seats behind the right-field fence reserved for fans of the towering phenom Aaron Judge. Thanks to the young slugger’s head-spinning power at the plate–he entered mid-August leading the American League in home runs despite a recent slump–the invite-only cheering section has become New York City’s most coveted ticket since Hamilton. Clad in a team-issued black robe and waving a foam gavel, Baez was so eager to join the fray that she gave up on her nachos. “I was so excited,” she says, “I didn’t want to eat anymore.”

This is heady stuff for a 25-year-old rookie. But baseball has never seen a player quite like Judge. He is built more like a football or basketball player–indeed, he is the first position player in Major League Baseball to be 6 ft. 7 in. and weigh at least 280 lb. But all of that would amount to little if Judge weren’t also one of the game’s best power hitters. In a season that’s on pace to set a record for home runs, Judge stands out for the distance and ferocity of his blasts. Take, for example, a story that MLB commissioner Rob Manfred recalled to TIME: before the Home Run Derby on July 10, Manfred was discussing with a Miami Marlins executive the ground rules for a ball hitting the roof of the retractable stadium in Miami. The executive said that no one had ever done it before, and stadium engineers had used NASA calculations to determine a roof height that they felt no baseball could possibly reach. As if on cue, Judge, who was taking batting practice, smacked a ball off the ceiling. He did it again during the competition, which he won with an electric display of brawn. “This is the stuff of Paul Bunyan legend,” says Manfred.

Ever since Derek Jeter hung up his spikes in 2014, baseball has thirsted for a transcendent personality with broader cultural resonance. If basketball has LeBron James and Tom Brady carries football, who is baseball’s brightest light? Los Angeles Angels slugger Mike Trout and Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper are far more accomplished than Judge–but neither have fully broken through. Nor do they have the benefit of playing in the nation’s largest media market, for the sport’s most storied franchise.

“I do think it’s important to have a player that fans, no matter what market they’re in, gravitate to as the face of the game,” Manfred says. “We’re in an interesting phase, where we have a really talented group, and people are kind of watching to decide who steps forward to claim that mantle.”

Judge hails from Linden, Calif., a close-knit farming community of about 1,800 people some 40 miles southeast of Sacramento. “There were no strangers in that town,” Judge says of his upbringing. He was raised by adoptive parents, retired teachers Wayne and Patty Judge, and starred in baseball, football and basketball at Linden High School. Notre Dame, UCLA and Stanford wanted him to play football, but he spurned them for a partial scholarship to play baseball at Fresno State. “There was some doubt,” Judge tells TIME. “I thought about going the football route. But I saw myself having fun playing baseball for the rest of my life.”

It was a risky decision. Taller hitters tend to struggle at the plate–one reason that players Judge’s height tend to be pitchers. A longer swing gives tall hitters less time to catch up with fastballs and more chances for mechanical glitches. Judge, however, has a compact motion with little wasted movement. The Yankees drafted him No. 32 overall in 2013 and called him up to the big leagues last August. He slugged a homer in his first at bat, then struggled the rest of the way, hitting just .179.

Turns out that was not a sign. In his first full major-league season, Judge slammed 30 homers before the All-Star break, breaking Joe DiMaggio’s season record for Yankees rookies. He’s hit the four hardest home runs of the season so far, as measured by exit velocity off the bat, as well as the longest: a 495-footer in June. He has helped vault the Yankees into the playoff race and make the team’s games appointment TV. Viewership for Yankees games on the YES Network is up 57% this year.

Like the Yankees’ most recent legend, Judge has taken a studied approach to the spotlight. Even during a second-half slump–as of Aug. 15, Judge had struck out at least once in 32 straight games, tying a major league record–he has remained polite and avoided controversy. “Aaron and Derek carry themselves in a very similar way,” says ESPN analyst Mark Teixeira, who played with Jeter for six seasons.

Judge will let his blasts do the talking. “It’s just like Stephen Curry,” says TBS analyst Gary Sheffield, who spent three seasons with the Yankees in the mid-2000s. “When Curry hits a three-pointer from near half-court, it’s much sexier than a regular three. Aaron Judge is hitting balls to places we’ve never seen.”

If the expectations are weighing on Judge, he’s not letting on. “The big thing for me this year is having blinders on,” says Judge. “It’s tough. There’s a lot of noise. But that’s the thing, you’ve got to be mentally strong enough to fight through that noise.”

The entire sport should be happy if he does.

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com