MLB Opening Day 2023: Aaron Judge demonstrates to New York — and San Francisco — the value of a captain

NEW YORK — Last year at Yankee Stadium, Aaron Judge hit 30 homers from his historic 62. Each was another reason Judge was entitled to back himself by beating the Yankees’ 213.5 preseason extension bid million dollars over seven years, and each was another reminder for fans of what they would lose if Team Judge went off-season.

On his first at-bat in the Bronx after his first – and probably only – foray into the free hand, Judge hit again. New season, clean slate, home run No. 1 on a new record with no word on how high it will go.

When Judge first emerged from the dugout, referee Laz Diaz pulled a brush from his pocket to dust off a plate that already seemed perfectly clean. It was a lavish act of homage to the moment when housekeeping prevented the pitch clock from starting, giving Yankees fans an extra punch to pay tribute to their hero, Judge, coming home.

And then it was exactly as the 46,172 in attendance would have dreamed it would be: 422 feet into Monument Park, beyond the center field wall.

If you’ve spent the winter completely ignorant of baseball news, it’s almost as if nothing has changed: Aaron Judge dropping bombs in the Bronx just as you left him. Yankees manager Aaron Boone didn’t spend the winter completely ignorant of baseball news, however, and there was a version of that judge at bat—that day, in that very ballpark—that had seemed like a nightmare scenario not so long ago.

“One of my deepest, darkest places this winter was when I thought there might be some danger of him coming back. For whatever period of time, that was one of the darkest places I’ve been, imagining him on that third baseline in a Giants uniform on opening day,” Boone said before Thursday’s game began. “That was not good. That was not a good thought or image.”

Judge grew up in Northern California supporting the San Francisco Giants. After perhaps the best Walk year ever, earning 28 out of a possible 30 votes for first place for AL Most Valuable Player while remaining inscrutable about his upcoming free hand, rumors circulated that he was jumping on the opportunity could to return there to his home team. It made baseball sense; San Francisco has almost no long-term financial commitments and is in dire need of a big hitter and presence to both anchor the lineup and take on the mantle left by Buster Posey.

The giants pursued the judge – He recruited his childhood favorite, Rich Aurilia, to welcome him to Oracle Park for her pitch and offered him more than $300 million — but he returned to New York on a nine-year, $360 million deal that also made him the first Yankee captain since Derek Jeter.

“I didn’t want to go anywhere,” Judge said Thursday after the Yankees picked up the first of many wins it took to live up to their consistently high expectations. “This is where I wanted to go and I’m glad I’m here.”

First, though — before the 5-0 win and before Gerrit Cole set a Yankees opening-day record with his 11 strikeouts — Judge hit the home run in the first inning of Giants ace Logan Webb, who gave up just 11 long balls in more last year more than 192 innings, Gleyber Torres handed another second to the Yankees’ DH for the day.

“He’s such a tough guy you’re going to do it against,” Boone said afterwards. “An inning later I said, ‘Really?’ And he just sort of smiled.”

Anthony Volpe watched the home run from the middle of the dugout. It must have been surreal for the 21-year-old Yankees fan, who spent his childhood wearing a Jeter jersey to games and aspired to one day actually don pinstripes. When he first did it as a Yankee Big Leaguer on opening day, “it was probably the funnest day of my entire life,” Volpe said.

His debut – his picture-perfect rise from fan to top prospect, imbued with all the hope and hype this organization is heaping on Jeter’s spiritual descendants to launching the shortstop for the sport’s most celebrated franchise – was the narration, which occurred on opening day. The kid made the team and all of New York would find out how he handles pressure and pitching in the premier league.

The judge had told Volpe to make sure he had something good planned for the bleachers, the Yankees’ most ardent fans. As they chanted his name, Volpe kissed the “NY” on his jersey—like that Richter did it after a postseason home run Last year, fans took a sign that he was returning to town.

In the end it was a respectable performance for the boy – smooth defense, a walk and a stolen base – although he’s still waiting for his first goal. Volpe later appeared in awe of his own circumstances, citing goosebumps and the possibility that he would need friends to tell him what actually happened in the game since he was too busy absorbing it all to bring back memories.

Well, except for the part where he saw an Aaron Judge running home up close.

“Coming back, being the new captain and then announcing his presence like that,” said Volpe, “that’s something I’ll never forget.”

The assumption is that the Yankees’ debut is the pinnacle of pressure — and it’s difficult to argue with the premise that this team is playing on the biggest stage. That’s one of the reasons why Judge’s superhuman presence is so important here.

Even rescuers and coming back one day do not have to be alone in the limelight. You have a living legend who can change the game with a single swing.

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