ANAHEIM, Calif. – One afternoon when I was in middle school, my football coach tore a white sheet of paper from a large roll in the corner of the locker room, near the showers. We knew this roll of paper as our bath towel dispenser. As in, “Hey, tear me off a towel, will ya?” And then, often, “I’m gonna need more towel over here.”
Anyway, coach made a big show of this one day. We’d had a great practice the afternoon before. It had rained. Everybody had laughed and splashed around and ended up covered in mud and feeling quite football-ish. Frankly I was surprised there were any towels left on the roll.
To the locker room wall he affixed with athletic tape the paper, maybe three feet by six feet. From his pocket he drew a black Magic Marker. In all caps, he wrote:
“FROM THE NEW YORK FOOTBALL GIANTS LOCKER ROOM:”
Football Giants. Old school.
“IF WHAT YOU DID YESTERDAY STILL LOOKS GOOD TO YOU TODAY THEN YOU HAVEN’T DONE MUCH TODAY.”
He capped the marker, returned it to his pocket and, without a glance back, strode through the swinging door and to the football field. The door slammed behind him. What followed was the hardest practice of the season.
I was amused, then, and curious, these decades later, to stumble onto this, from Aaron Judge’s Twitter bio: “If what you did yesterday still seems big today, then you haven’t done anything today!”
Not the precise words. The exclamation point softens it some, pushes it toward merry. Nobody slammed a door. The towels are of luxurious cotton.
“Came from my dad at a young age,” Judge said.
Aaron’s father was not my football coach in 1976. I don’t think.
“Little League, travel ball, even basketball or football,” Judge said. “He’d always say it. First game of a tournament, if I went four for four, and I’m all happy about it, he’d say, ‘Hey, man, if what you did yesterday … ”
“He’d say, ‘So let’s go out there and do something today,’” he said. “’Yesterday’s not going to help you today.’”
Aaron’s father is Wayne. He was a teacher. Teachers teach, sometimes by rote.
“It’s something that stuck in my head, got caught in my head,” Judge said, “at a very young age.”
So here he is, at 25, having enjoyed plenty of todays that, given time, became yesterdays. More often than not the todays have been great, bordering on surreal, and yet Aaron Judge seems to show up tomorrow carrying the same feathery humility, the same what-have-you-done-for-me-lately purpose, the same grin-and-dare-it. There’s a handshake and eye contact and a follow-up question to be sure he got your name right, and if that doesn’t seem different to you then you haven’t spent enough time in baseball clubhouses. Sure, it’s all new and fresh and who wouldn’t be in a first-impression mood while batting .338 with 22 homers and 49 RBIs, 61 games into his rookie season?
Maybe he’s the next Derek Jeter, as some have artfully and breathlessly limb-crawled. Maybe, and more likely, he’s the first and only Aaron Judge, whatever that turns out to be. He does have an awful lot of strike zone to defend, and pitchers generally are good at finding the shadows in there, and he has struck out his fair share. He also leads the American League in walks and on-base percentage and making the ball get very small very quickly, so at this point it’s a more than fair trade.
What’s fun about it all is Judge seems impressed by it all and not at all impressed by himself at the same time. His teammates can’t stop talking about what a nice young man he is, how hard he works, how eager he is to learn from, you know, yesterday. Those reporters who cover the team appreciate how accessible he is, and sure enough on a Wednesday afternoon two hours before game time he’s in a deep conversation with one tape recorder while two more wait their turns. If you’re going to be the league MVP 2 ½ months into the season, may as well enjoy it, while not making a bit of it.
This is what it looks like when a young man goes from Linden, California to the 31st round (Oakland) to Fresno State to the first round to the New York Yankees to near the tops of batting average, home runs and RBI over six or seven years. Or, should, anyway. He’s huge, of course, that you know, and when he loops a baseball into the crowd from right field, done with his between-innings warm-up tosses, he then shyly looks over his left shoulder to see the havoc it wreaks. It’s fun. It’s today. Man, don’t want to miss that.
“For me,” he said, “I try to take it one day at a time,” and he’s not just flipping that out there to get the conversation over with. It’s earnest. “To be honest,” he continued, “I’m only thinking about what I’m doing today, however good or bad.”
One of the reporters who covers the team, who saw Judge arrive and hit .179 late last season, then bloom into this batter’s box beast, said to me casually, “He just seems to know who he is,” which, at 25 – Judge, not the reporter – would be especially mature. This is where the conversation with Judge veered off, away from himself, into a description of great teammates and great leadership and a world of opportunity (and backdoor sliders) that await. At the end, he smiled.
“So,” I said, “you know who you are?”
“I’m pretty sure I do,” he said.
The guy with something to prove today.
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