Aaron Judge has every right to make his free-agent decision a matter of simple economics. If he wants to go to the highest bidder this offseason, so be it. Most people in most industries base their career choices on the bottom line.
The Yankees might end up being that highest bidder, of course, as a $6 billion franchise that is baseball’s most valuable by far. And if Hal Steinbrenner doesn’t weigh in with the best offer for the slugger, who looks certain to break the all-time team, American League and non-PED record for homers in a season (see Roger Maris, 61), he will have a whole lot of explaining to do to a fan base that let him hear it again Friday night.
But the Yankees do have an edge here that goes beyond pure dollars, and the natural home advantage that superstars often grant the teams that drafted and developed them. The Yankees have their own currency in the form of mythology and tradition that no other club can touch.
The Babe, the Iron Horse, the Yankee Clipper and the Mick. Twenty-seven World Series championships, or 16 more than the second-place club on the list, the Cardinals.
“You know why the Yankees always win, Frank?” Christopher Walken’s character asks Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in “Catch Me If You Can.”
DiCaprio: “Because they have Mickey Mantle?”
Walken: “No, it’s ’cause those other teams can’t stop staring at those damn pinstripes.”
Thurman and Reggie restored those damn pinstripes in the 1970s, and Derek and Mo took it to another level in the 1990s. Friday night in The Bronx, before the start of a critical series with Tampa Bay, Derek Jeter was honored for a Hall-of-Fame induction made possible by the tangible and intangible impact he had on a dynastic team.
Judge was right there in The Bronx for the ceremony — while waiting to try to add to his 55 homers — just as he was right there for Paul O’Neill’s number-retirement ceremony a few weeks earlier. He knows there is no other major league franchise that delivers this kind of pomp and circumstance.
He also knows that he will surely have his day in the sun, or under the lights, after he retires.
If he stays healthy.
If a Yankee stays.
Would Judge really walk away from the prospect of landing in Monument Park, and of watching his own perfectly outsized number, 99, getting retired before a packed Yankee Stadium crowd that will chant his name the way it chanted Jeter’s?
Sure, it’s possible. If the Giants or Dodgers are willing to give the 30-year-old Judge the guaranteed years and cash that Steinbrenner won’t, then he might feel his decision has been made for him. Different athletes are motivated by different things. Nobody ever looked more like a slam-dunk, one-uniform icon than Tom Brady, and yet he walked out on Bill Belichick and the Patriots’ forbidding dynasty for some fun in the Tampa sun.
If Brady can leave New England, yeah, it’s possible that Judge could leave The Bronx.
The smart money still says that the 6-foot-7, 282-pound center fielder (you can’t type those absurd measurables enough) will follow Jeter’s lead and finish his career just as he started it — in pinstripes. As a free agent nearing the end of his playing days, Jeter was angered by the contract position taken by general manager Brian Cashman, who dared the shortstop to find a better offer on the open market. Team president Randy Levine later met with the captain, who made an impassioned plea for more money to be added to proposed performance bonuses, and Levine’s openness to compromise helped close what became a three-year, $51 million deal.
Jeter made it clear he never wanted to leave, and his willingness to take some painful lumps from Cashman, and to accept what he felt was a substandard offer, showed his understanding of the franchise’s mystique. As much as Jeter meant to the Yankees brand, not enough was said or written about how much the brand meant to Jeter.
He had a special career and belongs on the list of all-time Yankees, somewhere in the mix right after the Fab Four. But still, Jeter’s career wouldn’t have looked quite the same with almost any other club.
All these years later, Judge knows the same can be said of his career. He saw and heard how the fans responded to Jeter, who spoke Friday night during the pregame ceremony of how much it meant to him to spend 23 years with one organization, and of how he might live in Miami, but The Bronx is still “where I really feel like I’m at home.”
The Yankees have staged quite a few of these scenes since they drafted Judge in 2013. In the end, Judge is a businessman who is in the business of hitting home runs at a record pace, and he deserves a nine-figure contract worthy of his staggering skill.
But the Yankees can also compensate him the way they compensated Jeter. And that would be an awfully difficult thing for him to walk away from.