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The backstory to Aaron Judge becoming Yankees’ 16th captain 12/21/2022 Randy Miller,

NEW YORK — It was 3 in the morning in Linden, Calif., on Dec. 7. Aaron Judge was tossing and turning in bed. The newly crowned American League Most Valuable Player had a scheduled flight to Hawaii in the morning. It was coming up on his one-year wedding anniversary, so he and wife Samantha were heading to paradise to celebrate.

But Judge still was a free agent with a life-altering decision to make. Judge wanted to go back to the Yankees, but they’d offered $320 million for eight years and the San Francisco Giants, his hometown team, were at $360 million for nine. The San Diego Padres, a late arriver, had the most lucrative offer on the table, $400 million for 14 years.


Lying in bed, Judge heard a text message buzz his phone. It was Yankees owners Hal Steinbrenner checking in during his family vacation in Italy.

The message read:

“What’s the holdup? What’s it going to take to get this to the finish line?”

Judge texted Steinbrenner back suggesting they talk.

Steinbrenner called and asked Judge again what it would take. Judge wanted nine years.


Just like that, the Yankees matched the Giants to ensure Judge wouldn’t walk after his AL-record 62-homer season.

And then before Judge hung up, kissed his wife and woke up his parents to pass along the great news, Steinbrenner delivered a signing gift that everyone knew was coming provided this happy marriage hadn’t ended in a divorce.

Steinbrenner told Judge that his favorite player after his dad brought the Yankees was Thurman Munson, a franchise great who captained two World Series championship teams in the 1970s before dying young in a plane crash. Steinbrenner told Judge how important the title of Yankees captain was to him, his family and the organization. And then Steinbrenner told Judge that he’s being promoted to team captain, just the 16th in franchise history and first since Derek Jeter retired in 2014.

“I was kind of lost for words,” Judge said Wednesday during a news conference at Yankee Stadium. “I don’t think I said anything for like five minutes, but it was probably only a couple seconds. I was pretty taken aback because that is such an incredible honor. You look back at the list of individuals who had this title and it’s such an honor.’

The Yankees could have used the captaincy as a bargaining chip during the contract talks with Judge, but Steinbrenner refused.

“I didn’t want this to be perceived as a negotiating tool or trying to incentivize you to come back,” Steinbrenner said. “It’s too noble of a thing, so I asked him once we had a deal done.”

Judge was thrilled Jeter showed up for his big day. He didn’t know until shortly before the start of the presser when he noticed the Yankees great in Steinbrenner’s suite along with other team executives who took part in the event.

“I was very surprised,” Judge said. “It was almost like a passing the torch kind of thing. That was special because he means a lot to this organization and to myself, too.”

Jeter wanted to be there when Steinbrenner brought up the invite.

“I’m a Yankees historian,” Jeter said. “This is historic. People will be talking about it 20, 30, 40 years from now. There’s only a short list of Yankee captain. I thought it was important for me to show up because they thought it was for me.”

Judge’s game is very different from what Jeter’s was — he’s an outfielder who hits a lot of home runs, not a shortstop who puts up solid all-around numbers — but their personalities, drive and commitment are carbon copy.

“I think he’s done a great job handling himself,” Jeter said. “I’ve gotten to know him better over the last few months. In terms of mindset and what’s most important, which is winning, he has that same mindset.”

Judge stood out to Jeter when they first met at a Yankees captain’s camp prior to spring training in February 2015. Before Jeter shared a steak dinner in Tampa with many of the organization’s top prospects, he talked to them about what expected on and off the field when you’re a Yankee.

“Everyone at that camp was kind of quiet,” Jeter recalled. “They really didn’t say too much., but you could tell (Judge) was respectful. You can tell when people are attentive. Sometimes you see people who are just going through the motions., but you could tell that (Judge) was listening.

“And I take all responsibility now for his success!”

Judge started being viewed by teammates as a leader in 2017 while he was hitting 52 homers as a rookie, but it took him years to grow into accepting the role. He’d always led by example, but putting out clubhouse fires wasn’t something that he felt comfortable doing early into this career.

“It wasn’t something that hatched out of an egg and ‘I’m going to lead this team and I’m going to be the de facto captain,’” general manager Brian Cashman said.

CC Sabathia and Brett Gardner helped mold Judge into the role early into his career, then DJ LeMahieu the past three seasons.

“DJ has a lot of Don Mattingly-type qualities,” Cashman said. “You know, lead by example. I think he was transformative in that clubhouse. Aaron being a younger player still finding his way … I remember having conversations with Aaron along the way about leadership and having back and forth about how he’s viewed and how he looked at it by his peers.

“I felt in the last two years especially he grew into it with the comfort level of establishing himself of speaking up, confronting issues, sharing concerns, things that a true leader and a partner with his franchise would do.”

Yankees manager Aaron Boone saw signs right away that Judge was captain material.

“I remember one of the first times I was around him was in spring training in 2017 for ESPN,” Boone said. “Coming through there in spring training, I knew one of the stories of their camp was, ‘Was he going to make the team and be the starting outfielder?’ I just remember you’re first struck about being around him, the size. But then to just kind of watch him how he interacts and touches different people, that’s something that stood out to me right away. It was like, ‘Oh, wow!’

Over time, Judge’s presence reminded Boone of how players flocked to Hall of Fame slugger David Ortiz during his Red Sox heyday.

“He’s different than Big Papi, but Big Papi I always would watch just and the reaction to him was different when he’d come out of the dugout for batting practice. They’re different, but the buzz around the interaction (is similar). And the gentleness that I think Aaron treats people with when he sees kids and things like that, that’s always kind of stood out. And then getting to just basically live alongside him these last five years., you just see all the qualities that would scream out captain.”

Being a Yankees captain probably will bring added responsibilities for Judge. It’s now officially his team. He’s the clubhouse policeman. It’s up to him to set the tone and mood with his actions. He’s the guy who has to say something to help get the team through slumps or when a teammate doesn’t hustle.

But Jeter, who was named Yankees captain during his eighth full season in 2003, says he didn’t change much of anything. George Steinbrenner told him to keep doing what he’d been doing, so that’s what he did.

What changed, Jeter said, is “how you may be perceived by others.” He added, “Nothing changed for me internally. You have young players that are coming through the organization. They tend to look at you and see how you handle yourself. Free agents coming to New York … New York isn’t an easy place to play and I think all those guys will tend to look to you to see how you handle things.”

Judge figures he’ll have to be a little more hands-on now that he has the C, which by the way won’t be on his Yankees jersey because that’s the way it’s always been.

“Man, this is an incredible honor that I don’t take lightly,” Judge said. “I’m going to continue to try to be the same leader that I’ve been in the past six years, continue to lead by example and I know there’s probably going to be a couple more responsibilities with this.”

Championships is the one missing link in Judge’s career. His stats usually are fabulous and he gets to the playoffs every year, but the Yankees haven’t been to or won the World Series since 2009, the year Jeter got his fifth ring.

Now with a $360-million contract and a cherished title to go with it, Judge is on a mission to live up to both.

“I’m here to embrace every single obstacle and continue to lead this team to not one but multiple championships down the road,” Judge said.

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