Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Baseball should thank its lucky stars Aaron Judge is in Derby

July 4, 2017
New York Yankees' Aaron Judge hits a solo home run during the fourth inning of a baseball game against the Toronto Blue Jays in New York, Tuesday, July 4, 2017. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
New York Yankees' Aaron Judge hits his 28th home run of the season during the fourth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays in New York, Tuesday, July 4, 2017. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Aaron Judge has cut a Ruthian swath through baseball’s first half of the season, and to that point, could anyone imagine the Babe turning down the chance to participate in a hypothetical 1927 Home Run Derby?
There is as much chance of that as the Bambino rejecting an offer of a six-pack of brews and a fistful of hot dogs on any day of the week ending with a “y.”
Now, generations later, we will all rise — or, alternately, all sit in front of our televisions, tablets and other streaming devices — when the Yankees’ larger-than-life linear descendant in right field takes part in Monday’s Home Run Derby in Miami, a day before the All-Star Game.
Of course, Judge is all-in on this promotional extravaganza, his formal declaration announced before Monday’s 6-3 win at the Stadium against the Blue Jays. Given a choice, No. 99 never had a choice. For while it may be a stretch to suggest that Judge’s presence in this more-or-less silly event that was created in 1985 to pump the ratings for ESPN is good for baseball, there is no doubt that his absence from the competition would have been embarrassing for the sport.
Judge is a phenomenon, a 25-year-old rookie who is leading the American League in all three Triple Crown categories plus walks, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS. He is the king of distance and exit velocity. More than that, he is a show-stopper, the leading AL vote-getter in the fan balloting for All-Star selection and the youngest to achieve that milestone since 24-year-old Ken Griffey, Jr. in 1994.
The show would have gone on without him next Monday, but it would have been sorely diminished. Destiny’s Child without Beyoncé.
“For me, it’s just going to be another batting practice … in front of 50,000 fans,” Judge said. “I’m just going to go out there and compete and have fun.
“There’s no pressure. If I go out there and have fun, there are no worries.”
Judge has hit the longest home run of the season at 495 feet, that one into the left-field bleachers at the Stadium on June 11 against the Orioles. The next day, he broke his own record for the hardest-hit home run of the Statcast era at 121.1 mph. His batting practice swings have become shows in themselves.
“You can really notice the buzz he creates on the road in BP,” said manager Joe Girardi, whose team opened the Stadium early Monday so the home fans could watch him take his swings. “I think [the Home Run Derby] is part of our game and it’s a part of our game that the fans really look forward to.
“He has a chance to go, and Gary Sanchez has a chance to go, and you never want to take honors away from players who earn them. I’m OK with the opportunity.”
There is no empirical evidence that taking part in the Derby has a negative impact on the second half of a participant’s season. Indeed, Griffey won it three times in eight tries from 1990-2000. But stars have declined to participate. Mike Trout reluctantly passed on the event more than once. Bryce Harper, who was runner-up to Yoenis Cespedes (then an Athletic) in 2013 at Citi Field, turned down an invite to this year’s event, saying on Sunday, “I just don’t feel like it.”
Judge, who has 27 home runs in his team’s first 81 games, took more than a week to declare himself a participant in the event that will also feature teammate Gary Sanchez, last summer’s pinstriped phenom. He said he had not had any dialogue with MLB in which the Commissioner’s Office might have encouraged him to do the right thing.
“I waited so long because my 100 percent focus was with my team on the field and the All-Star was secondary to that,” Judge said. “I didn’t feel it was the right timing to announce anything.”
It has been team-first for Judge throughout this first-half whirlwind through which his celebrity has grown as large as his 6-foot-7 frame. He is no showman — no Ruth in that regard — but he stops the show. Monday will be as close to appointment-viewing as anything baseball can present in this new age of sports as video entertainment.
“I’ve never seen anything like it and I don’t think any of us have,” CC Sabathia, 17 years a big-leaguer, said. “I won’t watch the [All-Star] Game, but I will watch the derby.”
They’ll all rise. And they will all pay attention.

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