Sports Nut

Aaron Judge Could Be the Face of Baseball

But he’s not the hero the sport needs right now.

Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees bats against the National League during the MLB All-Star Game at Marlins Park on July 11 in Miami.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

A couple months ago, Jimmy Fallon did a segment with New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge. The towering right fielder is set up at a desk in Manhattan’s Bryant Park, where he interviews Yankees fans about … Aaron Judge. The fans don’t get that it’s him, until they do, at which point there are laughs and hugs and affirmations. A fan puts him in good company: “Two gaps in New York, you and [Michael] Strahan,” he says, comparing Judge’s toothy smile to that of the ex-Giants defensive end and current daytime TV host.

The Fallon spot puts Judge in good company—Matt Harvey and Robinson Canó, New York baseball heroes in their time, both participated in similar skits. The joke works because fans can’t recognize their idols out of context. It’s also funny because not even guys who grace the New York tabloids a few dozen times a summer get recognized on the street, because they play baseball.

Two weeks after that Fallon video made the rounds, ESPN released its “World Fame 100,” a ranking of the biggest names in sports. There were golfers, a table tennis player, and a whole lot of soccer players. Lin Dan, the Chinese badminton star and “bad-boy sex symbol” known as “Super Dan,” came in at 88. There were no baseball players. Among American sports fans, the results look only slightly better for the national pastime: ESPN’s poll of our top 50 favorite athletes included just three baseball players, Derek Jeter, Pete Rose, and Babe Ruth. One is retired. One was banned from the sport for life. One had been dead for almost 70 years.

Want to listen to this article out loud? Hear it on Slate Voice.

Into this void stomps a 25-year-old rookie who stands 6-foot-7 and weighs 282 pounds, and leads the majors with 32 home runs, including one this weekend that nearly left Seattle’s Safeco Field. The day of the Fallon interview, Judge was set to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated. In June, he was the American League player of the month. A few weeks ago, he swatted 47 home runs to win baseball’s Home Run Derby. Four of them traveled more than 500 feet, and one of them hit the roof of Marlins Park. No one had ever done that before, and the officials weren’t sure what to do. They didn’t count it, so Judge hit another. No problem.

It was a national audition for the Yankees phenom, and he passed. The verdict: This guy might just be the face of baseball—a Wheaties-ready mug that could appear in network ads without an introduction, that will get recognized on the street, that might revive flagging interest in baseball among young Americans and give the sport a much-needed household name.

“He’s must-watch TV,” said Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper. “Next coming of Derek Jeter,” said Rays ace Chris Archer. SI’s Gabriel Baumgaertner declared Judge superior to both Harper (“inconsistent,” “gruff”) and consensus best-player-in-baseball Mike Trout (“bland,” “forgettable”). On the eve of the All-Star Game, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said Judge was indeed “the kind of player that can become the face of baseball.”

No doubt he can. But if this Paul Bunyan of the Bronx is the hero baseball wants, he may not be the one it needs.

It’s easy to see why Judge, in less than four months, appears to have eclipsed what Trout has done in five MVP-caliber seasons. Trout can hit for power, get on base, run, and field as well as anyone in the game, but that well-roundedness doesn’t pop out in a highlight reel like Judge’s roof-scraping, TV screen–smashing power.

Like all exceptional athletes, Judge leaves fans certain they could not possibly do what he does. He makes adults feel like children, even the ones he plays against. “It’s just that he’s so big,” Red Sox star Mookie Betts said recently. “For a human to get like that is pretty amazing to me.” The Rockies’ Charlie Blackmon said Judge was “a contact hitter trapped in an ogre’s body.” His stats will regress from their current Ruth-ian levels, but his size ensures he’ll hit with awe-inspiring power so long as he stays healthy.

But Judge would be a surprising choice to be the face of a sport that’s perennially diagnosed as suffering from a lack of personality. This is the primary complaint about Trout, who Mike Schur described thusly in a profile for Slate last year:

There are no famous stories about wild behavior, no crazy nights at whatever the 2016 equivalent of the Copacabana is. Trout’s main off-field passion seems to be … the weather. He loves weather and weather reports, even appearing on the Weather Channel a few times, to guest-announce the weather. That’s right. His true passion is the thing we all talk about to fill awkward silences on elevators.

Judge is less eccentric. At the time of his SI cover shoot, he was living out of a suitcase in a Times Square hotel, wary of renting an apartment lest he be sent back to Scranton. His favorite Times Square activity? Getting frozen yogurt at midnight. He claimed to have not yet bellied up to a bar in New York City. Lana Berry calls Judge “the biggest baseball boy,” a lovable, small-town kid with extraordinary skills. That sounds a little like … Mike Trout.

Not every baseball star is a snooze. There’s Blue Jays slugger José Bautista, whose dramatic bat flip in the 2015 playoffs prompted so much introspection about the sport’s supposed code of honor. There’s Mets ace Noah “Thor” Syndergaard, the obstinate fireballer who, like Harvey before him, has embraced the idea that a pitcher can be a superhero. (Unfortunately for Mets fans, Thor and his hammer have spent much of the year on the disabled list.) And there’s Harper, the mound-charging, hair-whipping Nationals outfielder who, with “That’s a clown question, bro,” produced the game’s most memorable one-liner since Pedro Martínez said the Yankees were his daddy.

The All-Star Game that thrust Judge into the spotlight was supposed to belong to José Fernández, the Miami Marlins pitcher who died in a boating accident last September. No doubt the two young ballplayers would have gotten on well. Fernández was famously fun and outgoing; Judge is universally liked. But in the battle for the soul of baseball, they represent two very different philosophies.

Fernández played with exuberance and barely contained delight. He performed, as my colleague Josh Levin wrote after his death, “with a kind of generosity of spirit that’s rare at any level of any sport.” His colleagues saw him as emblematic of a new style in baseball, part of a crop of magnetic players (many of them Latino) who’d injected a little fire into the game’s worn traditions.

Judge isn’t in that cadre. He’s incessantly invoked as a paragon of good sportsmanship and virtue. “The kid seems to have his head on his shoulders the right way,” former Yankees catcher John Flaherty said. “He seems to say the right thing. It’s about team first, it’s not about him.” Nats fireballer Stephen Strasburg echoes that: “Judge has a good head on his shoulders and he plays the game the right way.” So does the Rays’ Archer: “You can tell he’s very humble and keeps his nose clean.”

If fans like Judge, does it matter that he doesn’t toss his Louisville Slugger into the air like a cheerleader’s baton every third at-bat? I think it does. Yes, Judge is a physical revelation. But he doesn’t subvert our fundamental expectations about what a baseball player can be. He is the biggest, the strongest, and hits the ball the hardest. He is the quintessence of what we expect from a baseball player. And so far, nothing we don’t.

Twenty years ago, the most famous player in baseball was Ken Griffey Jr., the smooth-swinging, smiling kid from Seattle who wore his shirt untucked and his hat backward. It’s easy now to see that Junior was the epitome of class, but that is a testament to his influence. He, like Fernández and Bautista, was accused of disrespecting the game in his day. It was his charisma, as much as his play, that made him a star, and changed what stardom looked like in the national pastime.

Judge looks more like another young star from the Bronx whose imperturbable manner didn’t stop him from becoming the biggest star of his generation. While Derek Jeter dated supermodels and practically trademarked the jumping throw from shortstop, his enduring trait was his supreme levelheadedness. It worked for him in part because he played in an era full of fallen heroes. Baseball needed a straight man—then.

Judge’s popularity (he had the best-selling jersey in MLB even before his All-Star showcase) invites us to think we’ve been wrong—that baseball doesn’t need a hero with an edge, someone who flips bats like Bautista, applies a no-look tag like Javier Báez, or drinks 40 beers on a plane like Wade Boggs. For the moment, the Yankees right fielder appears to have solved baseball’s personality problem with sheer bat speed.

After a while, though, even the most majestic home runs start to blend together. Judge is young. We don’t know what lies ahead for him, or how he might play in October, when baseball is on national television in prime time. What we do know is that he’s a model ballplayer. In this era, baseball needs something—and someone—different, the kind of star who breaks the mold, not just the flat-screens in Yankee Stadium.