It’s a brisk, sunny Thursday in The Bronx. You’re playing hooky from work. Maybe you’re skipping school. A hot dog is in one hand. A scorebook is in the other. Baseball is back and all is right in the world.
It is Opening Day. Everyone has hope. But the Yankees still have more than most. They are among the top five World Series favorites again. They boast a top-five payroll again. They have been to the ALCS three of the past six years. They are months removed from one of the greatest first halves in MLB history. They are due to have better health.
It is March 30, and you see Gerrit Cole on the mound, still only 32 and two years removed from being the Cy Young Award runner-up, throwing to All-Star Jose Trevino. You look to the field and see a pair of former MVPs (Giancarlo Stanton, Josh Donaldson) and a pair of three-time All-Stars (Anthony Rizzo, DJ LeMahieu). And as always, Aaron Judge is the center of attention, the most popular Yankee since Derek Jeter now the most hated person in the building, sporting orange and black and a San Francisco smile that screams betrayal.
This surreal scene could be cemented in the next few weeks. The reigning AL MVP is currently in the Bay Area, where he was scheduled to meet Tuesday with the San Francisco Giants, perhaps the Yankees’ greatest competition to signing the Northern California native.
Judge is expected to sign a deal worth at least $40 million per season over at least eight years, and Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi has said that no deal is too rich for the team’s flexible payroll to take on this offseason.
“From a financial standpoint, there’s nobody that would be out of our capability to kind of meet what we expect the contract demands will be,” Zaidi said this month. “It’ll just be a question of whether there’s mutual interest and how we put together the best possible team.”
Judge might have serious interest in a homecoming. He could be seeking change after turning down offers — a $213.5 million extension he rejected before last season, as early attempts to avoid arbitration on his 2022 salary — deemed insufficient; after enduring boos from home fans who had witnessed him carry the Yankees for months in his historic 62-homer season.
Judge could also just be using his leverage as the sport’s most coveted free agent and driving up the price of his first and last massive long-term contract. Maybe a meeting with the Dodgers is next, forcing the Yankees to increase the offer Brian Cashman confirmed they recently made to the outfielder.
“I don’t know how fast it’s going to go or how slow it’s going to go,” Judge said recently of his decision. “There’s teams that we’ve talked to. For me, if we’re going to build a winning team, if I can get my [contract] stuff out of the way so they can kind of move on and add some more pieces to build teams up, I think that’s always an advantage for wherever I go.
“The most important thing is a winning culture and being with a team that’s committed to winning, not only for the remainder of my playing career, but I want the legacy to live on with the organization.”
No legacy is stronger than starting and finishing your career with one team, especially in pinstripes. Ask Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Berra, Jeter or Rivera. And nothing — aside from the “pot of gold” guaranteed wherever he lands — matters more than winning. Because what might Judge’s legacy be if he finishes his career without a championship? Ask Mattingly.
Judge’s suitors all appear to be deep-pocketed teams, capable, and likely willing, to meet his asking price, giving him the choice of contracts in the same neighborhood. If the decision does not come down to money — such as when Robinson Cano left for Seattle — it would make Judge’s potential departure even more devastating, as a perceived rebuke of the city and the franchise — going on 14 years without a championship — where he gained unrivaled stardom, unparalleled affection and the unprecedented honor of a Yankee Stadium section named after him.
On March 30, the MVP could be standing in front of the dismantled “Judge’s Chambers,” treated like Alex Rodriguez in Seattle or Bryce Harper in Washington. He would be just the second player in MLB history (Barry Bonds) to leave a team as a reigning MVP, the biggest star to spurn a New York title contender since Pat Riley faxed his resignation to the Knicks.
It would be surreal. But it may not be far from reality.
Today’s back page
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What a mess
Lionel Messi may not be long for this World Cup.
Despite entering Qatar with a loaded Argentina squad pegged as the field’s second-strongest favorite, in position to fill the only hole in his résumé, the 35-year-old legend is now in danger of leaving his fifth — and likely final — World Cup in the group stage, following one of the greatest upsets in tournament history in Tuesday’s 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia. It was Argentina’s first loss in its past 37 games and Saudi Arabia’s second World Cup win since 1994.
Messi, who scored the game’s first goal, was in shock afterward.
“The truth? Dead,” Messi said when asked how the team was feeling. “It’s a very hard blow because we did not expect to start this way.”
In 1990, Diego Maradona — the Argentinian deity to whom Messi has long been compared, and whose memorable ’86 World Cup run Messi has never been able to replicate — and Argentina also suffered one of the tournament’s all-time upsets in a loss to Cameroon, but that team recovered to reach the World Cup final.
A win over Mexico on Saturday keeps such a scenario in play for Argentina. Otherwise, the greatest player of his generation will be gone from the world’s greatest stage once again.
“There are no excuses,” Messi said.”We are going to be more united than ever. This group is strong, and we have shown it. It is a situation that we haven’t gone through in a long time. Now we have to show that this is a real group.”
Can the Devils do it again?
When the Maple Leafs visit Prudential Center tonight, the Devils (16-3-0) will have a chance to set a new franchise record with their 14th consecutive win. New Jersey, which beat Toronto (10-5-5) six days ago, tied the 2001 Stanley Cup finalists’ mark with a 5-2 win over Edmonton in front of a sold-out crowd in Newark. The Devils haven’t lost since Oct. 24.
“We’re up there [in] the history book,” captain Nico Hischier said after Monday’s win. “Nobody’s gonna take that from us now.”
Despite making one playoff appearance in the past decade and finishing 28th in the NHL last season, the Devils have amassed the second-most wins (16) in NHL history through a season’s first 19 games, trailing this season’s Bruins and Boston’s 1929-30 squad (17). The 1992-93 Penguins hold the NHL record for most consecutive wins (17).