The late Chuck Daly was once describing not just the talent of Shaquille O'Neal when Shaq was in his prime, but Shaq's appeal. And Chuck said, "This country loves great, big action heroes."
When I mentioned Aaron Judge to Reggie Jackson, who knows more than a little bit about hitting home runs for the New York Yankees, one of the first things he said was, "It's like seeing Shaq."
The Yankees have a great big action hero in Aaron Judge, who is 6-foot-7 and nearly 300 pounds and has already hit 13 home runs this season, some of them to the moon. Of all the stories of the early season in baseball, Judge is the biggest, in just about every way. Now he and the Yankees head into Wrigley Field this weekend. They are probably boarding up windows beyond the ivy already.
"[Judge] right now is the leader of the pack," Reggie said.
You don't always have to love the schedule in baseball. But sometimes you do. Last weekend, we had the Cubs going into Fenway Park for a weekend series, the Theo Epstein Bowl, Wrigley against Fenway. This weekend, we get the Yankees on the North Side of Chicago. Not only have the Yankees been a team to watch again so far this season, they currently have the hitter that everybody wants:
The big kid in right field wearing a very un-Yankee-like number, 99.
A number as big as he is, as big as the baseball spring he is having.
"It is," Reggie said, "exciting for everybody. Because you gotta remember that it wasn't so long ago that people had questions about him. Was he too big? They actually asked that. How good was he, really? Was he athletic enough? Well, now people see. And what people don't see if they're just watching the home runs, is what great character the kid has, what a good teammate he is, what a solid citizen. The whole package."
At the end of last season, the home run-hitting kid for the Yankees was their catcher, Gary Sanchez, who hit 20 home runs in 53 games and looked as if he were going to be the team's homer-hitting star, and for a long time. But when Sanchez got hurt early this season, there was Judge, who wasn't even recognized as the Yankees' starting right fielder until the end of Spring Training.
Now Judge hits home runs the way he does, hits them far, hits what Reggie calls "the big fly," the kind that end up on the other side of the fence. Judge tries to make the technology measuring exit velocity explode, and even makes his teammates watch and wonder as he does hit another home run in the direction of the moon. You can only imagine what the Yankees' batting order will look like if Sanchez comes back and starts losing baseballs as well.
Judge is not the only reason you want to watch the Yankees again, as they have shown early speed out of the box and played themselves into first place in the American League East. But for years, there was nobody, really, you wanted to watch on the most famous baseball team in this world. They have contended every season for an AL Wild Card Game. Got one a couple of years ago against the Astros and then, appropriately enough, got themselves shut out by Dallas Keuchel and the Houston Astros. The last time they were viewed as a serious contender for anything in the AL was five years ago. They scraped by against the Orioles in the AL Division Series, then got swept by the Tigers in the AL Championship Series.
They have hung in, and hung around, since then. They never have a losing season. Through it all, they kept telling their fans that they just had to hang in while they waiting for their kids to be ready. Then Sanchez was ready. Now Aaron Judge is ready. Maybe things will be different when he has to go around the league again, and again. For now, he has made himself into as much of an attraction as there is in the game right now. Big guy, big home runs, big story, maybe a big weekend coming at Wrigley this weekend if he catches a couple just right.
With all the home run history of the New York Yankees, going all the way back to Babe Ruth, it is a rare thing to have one home run kid finish a season the way Sanchez did, and have another, Judge, start a season the way he has. Judge hit another one on Wednesday night against the Blue Jays. Got three hits. The numbers going into Wrigley are these:
Thirteen home runs in 25 games and just 88 at-bats, with 27 RBIs.
Batting average of .330.
Slugging percentage of .818.
OPS of 1.251.
And the kid who was supposed to strike out every other at-bat has struck out just 27 times in those 25 games.
Here is what Joe Girardi, the Yankees' manager, said to me about all of his young guys a week or so before Spring Training ended:
"This isn't just about the future. We're gonna be a good team this year if the veterans on this team do what they're supposed to. But what all these kids have done is put everybody on notice. Everybody can see what I'm seeing, that some of these kids could very well help us this season."
You think? Again: Sanchez's season hasn't even started yet. He was the kid to watch in September. Judge was the kid to watch in April. CC Sabathia gave up four in the top of the first to the Blue Jays on Wednesday night. But the Yankees hadn't hit yet. Then they started hitting right away. Matt Holliday hit a three-run shot off Marcus Stroman and Judge got Stroman with his 13th in the third inning, and by the end of the night, the Yankees scored eight runs and won again.
"An old teammate of mine, Ron Jackson, said to me once, 'Reggie, ballparks are too small for you,'" Reggie said. "Now Yankee Stadium looks too small for this kid."
For years, you have looked at their lineup and wondered just who it was that fans paying big-ticket prices were supposed to spend their money to watch. There was great excitement around Aroldis Chapman, who can throw 100 mph, but nobody spends money to wait around until the ninth inning and watch a closer. There was no at-bat for anybody to watch. The last home run hitter they had, really, was Jennifer Lopez's boyfriend.
This is such a small sampling for big Aaron Judge, not even as much of a sampling as we got from Gary Sanchez last year. But it has been some sampling. And not only has he hit, he had played his position, making a wonderful running catch, over the low wall down the right-field line, when the Yankees went into Fenway a week or so ago.
For now, we wait to see what Judge can do in Wrigley Field this weekend. A sudden, surprising leader of the pack. A great big action hero goes into the place that has seen the best action in baseball lately. If he can make Yankee Stadium look small, what happens on the North Side?