Aaron Judge has always stood out.
With the imposing size and muscular build of an NFL tight end or NBA power forward, the 6-foot-7, 282-pound New York Yankees slugger outclasses his teammates and opponents in the Diamond.
Never more than in 2022.
After hitting 62 home runs to break an American League record that stood for six decades, Judge was voted the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year by a panel of 40 sports writers and editors from news outlets across the country.
The outfielder outplayed Los Angeles Angels two-way star Shohei Ohtani, last year’s winner, in the vote announced on Friday. Stephen Curry of the NBA champion Golden State Warriors finished third.
Judge joins an esteemed fraternity of honorees that includes Jesse Owens, Muhammad Ali, Wayne Gretzky and Michael Jordan. Among the former Yankees who won were Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, the man who set the previous American League record of 61 home runs in 1961.
“Wow. That’s amazing,” Judge said of his selection. “All these other great athletes who not only impacted the game and their sport, but also impacted their communities and culture in the sports world and outside of the sports world. So to have the opportunity to be on that list is an incredible honor.”
Judge hit 16 more home runs than any other major league player, the biggest gap since Jimmie Foxx hit 58 for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1932 and Babe Ruth had 41 for the Yankees.
And while Barry Bonds holds the major league record of 73 home runs in a season for San Francisco in 2001 during the steroids era of baseball, Judge’s achievement caused some fans to celebrate what they see as the benchmark.” clean” in baseball.
Maris’ record had been surpassed six times in the National League, but all of those players ended up on steroids. Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs for St. Louis in 1998 and 65 the following year. Sammy Sosa had 66, 65 and 63 for the Chicago Cubs during a four-season stretch beginning in 1998.
McGwire admitted to using banned steroids, while Bonds and Sosa denied knowingly using performance-enhancing drugs. Major League Baseball did not begin testing with PED penalties until 2004.
“It’s an incredible feat,” Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner said.
However, Judge’s amazing season was about more than just power.
In part due to injuries to his teammates, the rocket-armed right fielder shifted to center for much of the season and provided his usual stout defense in both spots. With the Yankees without DJ LeMahieu at the top of the lineup, Judge hit leadoff late in the regular season, which also maximized his plate appearances as he searched for Maris’ record.
He even stole 16 bases, seven more than his previous career high.
“He is everything,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “An incredible two-way player, one of the great players in our sport. He is an ambassador of the game”.
With a bright, toothy smile that sometimes he can’t contain, the 30-year-old Judge led the majors in runs (133), on-base percentage (.425), slugging percentage (.686), OPS (1.111) , extra-base hits (90) and total bases (391). He tied for the major league lead with 131 RBI and finished second in the American League with a .311 batting average, falling just short of a Triple Crown.
And not to be overlooked, the No. 99 in pinstripes played in 157 of 162 regular-season games, leading the Yankees to their second AL East title in 10 years.
“That’s one of the things I love about Aaron: he’s a gentle giant in his interactions with people and children and whoever he is, he’s kind and gentle, but he’s going to rip your heart out between the lines,” Boone said. “He plays with energy, but with coldness, arrogance and intensity.”
It was undoubtedly one of the greatest individual seasons in baseball annals. All while playing for a new contract and carrying the enormous weight of chasing Maris in the second half.
“I don’t think there’s a single person who hasn’t marveled at that,” Steinbrenner said. “It’s amazing. Because it wasn’t just the pressure of the home run chase. It was the pressure of, you know, what’s next?
Just before opening day, Judge turned down New York’s offer of $213.5 million over seven years (2023-29) and bet big on himself. He became a free agent in November and cashed in, landing a nine-year, $360 million contract to re-sign with the Yankees, the third-biggest deal in baseball history.
With this done, he was named the team’s 16th captain and the first since Derek Jeter retired after the 2014 season.
“Everything about him just screams leader,” Jeter said. “And they all say the exact same thing.”
Judge hit his 62nd home run in the penultimate game of the season on October 4 at Texas. With opponents throwing carefully at him, his only home run in the previous 13 games came against Maris on Sept. 28 in Toronto. Number 60 came on September 20 against Pittsburgh.
As the record approached, the MLB Network discontinued live coverage of Judge’s at-bats. Fans rose to their feet as he approached the plate, falling silent at each pitch as they took photos and videos with their cell phones.
“That was a weird experience,” Judge said, laughing. “Definitely a different scene. But I’m glad I finally got over it. It was definitely a relief.”
After the Yankees won one round of the playoffs, Judge went 1-for-16 and the team was swept in the ALCS against the world champion Astros.
The four-time All-Star has never reached the Series, and New York hasn’t won a pennant since 2009.
“There are a lot of unfinished business here,” he said.
In 2017, Judge hit 52 home runs to set a rookie record that was soon broken.
Now, with the record and a huge contract, all eyes will be on his encore in 2023.
“You never know. Maybe 62 is my floor,” Judge said of expectations. “Maybe I’ve got a little more in the tank.”