With less than one week to go until Spring Training is scheduled to resume amid the COVID-19 pandemic, one burning question remains engrained in the minds of all Yankees fans:
Will Aaron Judge be ready for this summer's truncated season?
The slugger has been sidelined since Spring Training began in February, nursing a stress fracture in his first right rib that he sustained last fall. Unable to participate in team workouts, or play in the Yankees' slate of Grapefruit League exhibition games, his status since the onset of Major League Baseball's coronavirus-induced hiatus has been up in the air.
After an exclusive interview with Pat Ragazzo of Sports Illustrated's GiantCountry, it's evident that Judge has taken full advantage of baseball's respite to take strides closer to returning to game shape.
"This break has allowed some of the players, including myself, to get healthy," Judge told Ragazzo over the phone this week. "Luckily, I’ve been able to go into our facility in Tampa Bay with five or six teammates to work out, get on the field and run around, and hit a little bit. For us, it’s kind of been business as usual and has felt like an extended spring training.”
News of No. 99 taking swings again is a massive step in the right direction. Not only has the slugger been healing from his cracked rib, but Judge had already recuperated from a pneuomothorax (collapsed lung) believed to be traced back to the fateful diving catch attempt that resulted in his rib's fracture.
While skipper Aaron Boone was "hopeful" the superstar would be ready for the originally scheduled Opening Day in late-March, Judge was quickly ruled out. Months later, general manager Brian Cashman revealed the club didn't anticipate Judge's return until “summertime.”
Judge told Sports Illustrated he's eager to get back to work with his teammates, explaining that even in unprecedented circumstances, the Bombers have one of the best ball clubs in all of baseball.
“I honestly can’t wait to get back out there," he said, arriving back in New York City Saturday afternoon. "It’s going to be an exciting year. I’ve been telling my teammates that we have one of the best teams in the league, especially with the acquisition of Gerrit Cole in our rotation. It’s going to be something special."
Had the 2020 season begun on time, outfielders Aaron Hicks and Giancarlo Stanton, as well as southpaw James Paxton, wouldn't have been available due to injury. Those three have all bounced back quick enough to be ready for MLB's return next month.
That said, staying on the field and avoiding injuries in the midst of an unorthodox schedule is another obstacle New York's star-studded roster must overcome.
When asked by Ragazzo how Judge feels about the unique circumstances at hand, he said it's bound to be a "shock" for everyone across the league as players still need to acclimate themselves back to playing baseball every day.
Then again, after all the hard work he and his teammates have been putting in at George M. Steinbrenner Field and across the country during the coronavirus-induced delay, Judge is confident those in pinstripes can adapt efficiently.
"As a Yankee, we’ve been out there on the field every day staying in shape. I feel like other guys haven’t been as lucky to have access to a field or facility which could post problems," he said. "But I think this three-week Spring Training we are about to have will allow guys to get into game shape soon.”
As Judge inches closer to a full bill of health, he also needs to prepare for a season consisting of countless unique health and safety protocols to keep players from contracting and spreading the coronavirus.
In a 60-game campaign featuring several new rules and regulations, including social distancing guidelines and a ban on chewing tobacco and spitting seeds, Judge called the adjustment a challenge but nothing this Yankees roster can't overcome.
“Some of those things are going to be challenging, but I think the most important thing is to keep ourselves healthy for a season and I know myself and my teammates will try and follow them the best way we can," he explained. "Missing out on some sunflower seeds is going to be tough but I’ll take playing baseball over that aspect any day. It’s time to get things rolling. The fans need baseball back.”
Subsequently, a handful of the two-time All-Star's in-game rituals are in jeopardy. After starting out each contest munching on two pieces of gum, Judge will spit them out if he fails to get a hit in his first at-bat. He also likes to toss a fist full of seeds into the air – an ode to LeBron James' pre-game chalk toss on the hardwood.
While baseball's return is music to Judge's ears, regardless of a few modifications, playing without tens of thousands of fans booing and cheering in the stands will be another notable transition to make.
"They energize us as players and give you the adrenaline you need," Judge explained to Ragazzo. "I don’t even need a cup of coffee on game day. I’m not sure how long it will be without them, but hopefully New York will see some improvement, so we can start getting some fans in the stands, even if it’s at 20 percent capacity.”
In the meantime, Judge has utilized his time away from the game to give back to the community.
His latest charitable endeavor launches on Monday as Judge's "All Rise Foundation" is teaming up with Jersey Mike's. The sub sandwich chain is offering a special "Aaron's Way" promotion with Pepsi and Lays, allowing customers to add a fountain drink and bag of chips to their sub order for $2.99. With a QR code given to those who take advantage of the promotion, fans can access exclusive content online, including instructional videos from Judge himself.
Jersey Mike's is donating $1 million to Judge's foundation, a "generous" contribution that made Judge's jaw hit the floor. His foundation strives to support and inspire children and youth from diverse backgrounds to develop into responsible citizens and be rewarded for academic achievements.
“My parents are both educators and always stressed the importance of getting a good education and being on top of my school work, despite my baseball career, which has helped inspire me to launch my foundation and get involved with this campaign," Judge said. "I love being a part of It as it’s going to help out a lot of these kids and especially my All Rise Foundation as we have the opportunity to give some great entertainment, prizes, and rewards to fans.”
This isn't the only philanthropic initiative Judge has been involved in since baseball's shutdown. Judge was one of the first members of the Yankees family to participate in the 'ALL IN Challenge,' raising money for those impacted by COVID-19 by offering up a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The slugger also took part in #TheRealHeroes project, paying tribute to the frontline workers fighting the coronavirus.
A class act off the field, Judge has a little under one month before this season is scheduled to begin. Once New York's campaign is underway, there's no time to waste in pursuit of contention.
“We only have 60 games this year, so there’s no time for let up. Our pedal is going to be to the metal. There is no room for error and we have to play the best we can during this time.”
Pat Ragazzo of SI GiantsCountry contributed to this report
Learn more about Judge's initiative with Jersey Mike's and his "Aaron's Way" promotion by heading over to their website (click here).
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