TAMPA — You can make a compelling argument that Aaron Judge is the best athlete to ever play major league baseball, or at least the best since Bo Jackson. Judge met Jackson once while competing in a home run derby in college, with Bo assuming the role of celebrity coach.
If you are too young to have seen Jackson play the outfield (or run with a football), either read Jeff Pearlman’s epic biography on him, or do what Judge did — watch film of the one and only scaling the center field wall in Spiderman form in 1990.
“That’s an athletic move that I don’t think I would ever try,” Judge said Friday.
That’s OK. He has tried just about everything else.
Judge cares far more about winning a World Series title — multiple titles — than any individual pursuit. That doesn’t need to be said.
But given that Judge is coming off his American League-record 62-homer season, which earned him a nine-year, $360 million contract to remain the face (and new captain) of the Yankees, it felt like a good time to ask him about his long-term, long-ball plans. Judge just told The Post’s Jon Heyman that he actually failed to reach some goals while nearly winning the Triple Crown in 2022, though he declined to identify them.
So with the public disclosure of his goals a no-go, I asked the 30-year-old Judge about opportunities instead. Namely, the opportunity to stay healthy and productive enough to play into his 40s and make a run at the all-time home-run record held by his boyhood idol, Barry Bonds, who hit 762.
It’s funny, but after a magical year shaped by comparisons to Bonds and Babe Ruth, Judge will enter this season tied for 308th on the all-time homer list with 220. He got a later jump than the most accomplished sluggers of all. Bonds, Hank Aaron, Ruth, and Albert Pujols — the only members of the 700 Home Run Club — all cleared a big-league wall for the first time at ages 20 or 21. Judge didn’t hit his first homer until he was 24.
So for kicks, I informed him that if he played another 10 years and retired at 41 (he will turn 31 next month), he’d need to average 54.3 homers over that span to break Bonds’ record.
“Man,” he said, “fifty-four is a pretty good number. That’s tough. You don’t see too many guys later in their careers still putting up the 50s, so maybe if I do a little bit of work right now and put up some bigger numbers now, maybe it could happen. It’s out of my hands. It’s just about me showing up here, putting the work in, making the adjustments, and hopefully we can have another conversation in 10 years.”
I told Judge I hoped I was alive in 10 years to have that conversation. He laughed. A more realistic projection would have Judge averaging about 42 homers over 13 years to pass Bonds — with the 13 years being more reachable than the 42 average.
“With what we’ve got in sports medicine now and the way the game is changing,” Judge said, “you’ve got [Justin] Verlander, you’ve got [Max] Scherzer, guys in their 40s still dominating. You see guys in other leagues, [Tom] Brady, [Aaron] Rodgers, especially Brady winning Super Bowls after 40.”
Brady lasted forever as a pocket passer who didn’t need to use his legs. With the designated-hitter spot as Judge’s likely endgame destination, reducing stress on his wheels, I asked him why he couldn’t compete until age 45, the way Brady did.
“That’s always been my argument,” he responded. “But it’s all about putting in the work. … That’s what I try to tell a lot of the younger guys here, especially the kids who are 20, 21, 23. If you’re doing the little things in the weight room and getting treatment in the training room, it’s all going to pay off in your mid-30s.”
Judge said that he admires how 38-year-old LeBron James is still driven to beat opponents barely half his age, and that he carefully watches how James changes his workout and recovery routines to stay on top.
What is Judge’s definition of staying on top in baseball? Does it include breaking Bonds’ single-season record of 73 homers?
“I don’t even know,” he said. “I didn’t even try to think about 62 last year. … Speaking of getting to 74? Man.”
How about reaching 70 at some point?
“We’ll see,” Judge said. “It’s fun to think about, fun to dream about. … It could happen, it couldn’t, but I think the unknown is what’s pretty exciting.”
Babe Ruth belted his last homer at age 40, Aaron and Pujols hit theirs at 42, and Bonds hit his at 43. At 6-foot-7, 282 pounds, Judge is a better athlete than all of them.
He has a prodigious work ethic and ever-advancing fitness techniques on his side, along with that future DH role to protect his large frame. Believe it: He will sign another contract beyond this nine-year deal, and hit at a high level into his 40s.
“I’m just getting started,” Judge said.
We’ve never seen anything like him in baseball. The unthinkable needs to be considered thinkable.