When Aaron Judge stood in the Yankee Stadium batter’s box in late September, he couldn’t quite shake the silence. Some 45,000 voices hushed, as if they were at a basilica, not a ball field. As fans anticipated a landmark moment in sports—the breaking of a revered home-run record—they refused to peep as the pitcher wound up.
“I never noticed the crowd until they stopped cheering, which was one of the craziest things in my career,” says Judge, 30, sitting in the leafy courtyard of his luxury New York City apartment building, about a week after the end of a monumental campaign in which he set a new American League home-run mark, with 62. “That’s when I started to kind of realize, ‘Oh boy, there’s something special going on here.’”
Judge—who at 6 ft. 7 in. and 282 lb. checks in as one of the most massive players in baseball history–slugged his 60th home run, tying Babe Ruth’s 1927 milestone, on Sept. 20, launching a 95-m.p.h. sinker deep into the left-center field bleachers. From there, the story got suspenseful. Over five home games and two more on the road in Toronto, Judge failed to tie Roger Maris’ American League record of 61. He began to press, and opposing pitchers, in no mood to become subjects of trivia questions for generations, remained reluctant to throw him strikes. Judge, however, locked in just in time. He tied Maris in Toronto on Sept. 28, and finally hit No. 62 on Oct. 4, a 391-ft. blast off Rangers pitcher Jesus Tinoco in the second-to-last game of the season. (Remember that name, for your sports-bar quiz night, circa 2041.)
The record chase boosted attendance, television ratings, and social media engagement down the stretch of the 2022 baseball season. ESPN even cut into college-football coverage to show potential record-breaking swings, interrupting sacrosanct Saturday-afternoon viewing routines. “That’s really good for the game,” Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred tells TIME. “When you cut into football, you’re hitting people that you might not otherwise get to.” Judge became a free agent in on Nov. 6, bringing buzz to the offseason. In early December, Judge agreed to sign the richest free-agent contract in the game’s history, keeping him a New York Yankee for the next nine years.
In a year full of memorable athletic achievements—Stephen Curry shooting the Golden State Warriors to another NBA title, Serena Williams and Roger Federer taking their final tennis bows, the World Cup wizards scoring goals in Qatar—none was more transcendent than Judge’s. Sports fans hold individual records dear, and no game cherishes its numbers quite like the national pastime. Many fans and pundits even consider Judge the “authentic” single-season home-run champ, given that all the National League players who’ve hit more than Judge—Barry Bonds (73 in 2001), Mark McGwire (70 in 1998, 65 in 1999), and Sammy Sosa (66 in 1998, 64 in 2001, 63 in 1999)—did so under a cloud of steroid suspicion.
Judge still considers Bonds, one of his favorite players while growing up in tiny Linden, Calif., some 75 miles east of San Francisco, the rightful record holder. “I’ll say I have the AL record,” Judge tells TIME. “I’ll hold my head on that.” He won’t, however, dissuade public sentiment. “I’m not going to try to change someone’s opinion if they say I am, or I’m not,” he says. “That’s up to them.”
As a tall, biracial kid growing up with white adoptive parents in Linden, a rural town of 1,784 in the 2010 Census with a 0.6% African American population, Judge stood out. But thanks in part, he thinks, to his athletic prowess—Judge was a three-sport (baseball, football, basketball) star at Linden High—he felt accepted. “Just because I didn’t look like my parents and was a little taller than everyone else and maybe had a little more freckles, no one treated me any different.”
When Judge was around 10, he asked his parents Wayne and Patty, both schoolteachers, why he and his older brother, who is of Korean descent, didn’t look at all like their parents. They told him the boys were adopted, and offered to provide any information he wanted to know about his biological parents. Judge just asked if he could go back outside and play. “I’ve just never had a need,” says Judge, “because I’ve felt at home.” (Judge says he does know that his biological father is Black and his biological mother is white.)
Though the Oakland A’s drafted Judge in the 31st round out of high school, he chose to go to Fresno State, his parents’ alma mater. At Fresno, coach Mike Batesole would fine players who used I or me in boastful conversation. Judge, who reached the big leagues in 2016, has continued to adhere to that team-first philosophy in New York, constantly crediting his teammates in interviews throughout his home-run charge, earning him comparisons to the longtime face of the Yankees, shortstop Derek Jeter. “Ultimately, if you’re artificial, time will expose you,” Jeter tells TIME. “You can’t fake out New Yorkers. You either mean it or you don’t, and it appears to me that he means it.”
Judge denies mimicking Jeter—or anyone else. “I’m always confused when people are like, ‘Oh, you’re like Jeter, you’re like this guy,’” Judge says. “I try not to be. I just try to be who I am.” He cops to strategic communication, which was Jeter’s MO. He’s unlikely to, say, leak juicy details of a team meeting to the New York tabloids. “To say I’m boring, I don’t care,” says Judge. “I’m in front of that camera after every single game. They can never say I’m not accountable.”
In 2017, Judge set a new rookie home-run record, with 52 (Pete Alonso of the New York Mets broke that mark two seasons later). Injuries curtailed Judge’s home-run numbers the next three years. Starting late in the 2021 season, he made a subtle hitting adjustment, moving his hands from behind his neck to the middle of his chest at the plate. This enables him to coil his hips and load up his power before swinging through the ball. This action creates a slingshot effect. “You want to stretch the rubber band all the way out,” says Judge. “And once you get to that moment, you want to release it.”
The adjustment made his at-bats a must-watch. Judge’s highlights generated 84% more engagements than the average post on MLB’s Facebook page. The MLB Network’s telecast of the Sept. 28 Yankee game in Toronto, in which Judge smacked his 61st home run, was the most-watched regular-season game in eight years. At the start of the season, according to MLB data, 21% of fans ranked Shohei Ohtani as “the most exciting player to watch in baseball right now,” while only 4% thought the same of Judge. Come October, 27% of fans said Judge was the most exciting player in the game, a near sevenfold increase. Just 16% picked Ohtani.
Judge has remained the object of attention this off-season, a validation of his decision ahead of opening day not to extend his Yankees contact beyond his “walk” year, the last season before a player can become a free agent. He had felt blindsided in April when New York Yankees GM Brian Cashman took the rare step of publicly revealing that Judge had turned down $213.5 million to stay in the Bronx for the next seven years. “We kind of said, Hey, let’s keep this between us,” says Judge. “I was a little upset that the numbers came out. I understand it’s a negotiation tactic. Put pressure on me. Turn the fans against me, turn the media on me. That part of it I didn’t like.” (A Yankees spokesperson declined to make Cashman available for comment.)
Though he had been confident he could earn more as a free agent, when his season got off to a somewhat slow start, Judge second-guessed himself. “But then you kick yourself in the butt and say, Nah, man,” he says. “Come on.” By the end of May, Judge had slugged 18 homers and was off toward history. Besides setting the new AL home-run record, Judge led the AL in runs batted in and finished second in batting average. He didn’t make a single error in the outfield. Now he is expected to command north of $300 million over the next eight or nine years on the free-agent market. “I don’t even think it’s arguable,” says Yankees first baseman Anthony Rizzo. “It’s the best walk year you can ever have in any sport.”
As a result, Judge was flush with options. Remaining with the Yankees could allow him to join the pantheon of icons—Jeter, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Mariano Rivera—who wore only pinstripes during Hall of Fame careers. Another franchise, like the well-moneyed Los Angeles Dodgers, could swoop in with an offer that would be hard to refuse. Coming home to the Bay Area to play for his childhood team, the San Francisco Giants, also holds clear appeal.
In fact his wife, high school sweetheart Samantha Bracksieck, reminded him of a prediction he made in 2010, his senior year at Linden High School. “I said, in 10 years, I’ll be married to Sam,” says Judge, “and playing for the San Francisco Giants.” Judge smiles. “I was like, that’d better not get out.”
The thought of Judge playing out his days elsewhere brings jitters to the pinstripe faithful. “I just pray and hope that [Yankees owner] Hal Steinbrenner does the right thing and makes it mo’ better and gives Aaron Judge his money,” says New York sports superfan Spike Lee in mid-November, while Judge was still deciding. “Hal, you had the chance to sign him, and you bet against him. Yankee Nation is looking at you, Hal. What are you going to do? To paraphrase my Puerto Rican brother, Fat Joe, last season’s price is not this season’s price.”
Judge got his money, with a whopping $360 million deal. In the end, he chose between the Yankees, Giants, and San Diego Padres, ultimately banking on the allure of “Yankee-for-life” status. His decision should pay off for baseball. “There’s just absolutely no doubt—our research supports this—that player continuity in a particular market is really important to building fandom in the game,” he says.
Sitting on a fountain’s edge in his courtyard, Judge eyes the future. “When I was young and getting into the game, all guys ever talked about was, ‘Hey, wait until you become a free agent,’” Judge told TIME, quite correctly. “You’re getting a chance to make your own decision, start a legacy somewhere, start something new somewhere. I’m looking forward to the whole process, man. It’s going to be special.”
New York awaits Judge’s parade.
Grooming by Evy Drew