By Ernie Palladino
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The drumbeats have started, and will only become louder if Aaron Judge continues on his current trajectory.
"Here Comes Da Judge! Here Comes Da Judge!"
"Aaron Judge for MVP!"
Whoa there, Nellie. It's a little early for MVP talk as the season winds itself through its second third. A lot of bad can happen to a rookie between now and October. A lot of good can happen to more experienced players like the Angels' Mike Trout.
But the way Judge has played, he at least deserves inclusion in the conversation. At worst, he'll finish up well-positioned for the next crack at it.
And if he does win it, he'll go down as only the third rookie to take home an MVP award, joining the Red Sox's Fred Lynn and the Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki. But, really, it was only just Lynn, because Ichiro had already made his hitting bones over nine years in Japan.
But if there's any rookie who has already checked off enough boxes to draw baseball's consideration for its ultimate award, it's Judge.
What other rookie, after all, has had his own outfield cheering section? Disregard that his name naturally lends itself to "The Judge's Chambers" in right field. The concept of the 18-seat gallery, complete with gavel-bearing, robe-donning, be-wigged disciples, would not have crossed a single mind had the 6-foot-7, 282-pound slugger not transformed himself from strikeout machine to the .321 hitter with a major league high 18 homers heading into Friday's series-opener against the Orioles.
But it's not just the homers that have people buzzing. It's the legend he's building around them. MVP winners don't usually come out of the blue, after all. They have reputations, some of them built over the better part of a decade. The 25-year-old Judge, however, is in the process of getting that part done all at once.
He's Paul Bunyan minus Babe, the blue ox. Huge and powerful, he knocks home runs of 450 feet or more, and not when his team is up or down by 10 runs. He hits important ones, all while dealing with a strike zone taller and wider than any player in the majors. His discipline within those dimensions is why no less than former Boston slugger David Ortiz recently called him "the scariest thing I've ever seen."
But other components are working themselves into the legend. His destruction of Yankee Stadium property, for one. Nothing malicious, mind you. Just a batting practice bomb that found its way over a left field food stand and shattered a flat-screen TV.
He has the public relations down pat, too. He often conducts his outfield warmups with the fans rather than a ballboy or bullpen coach.
Oh, and he can catch, too. Already he has made two amazing grabs, the latest during Tuesday's 5-4 loss to the Red Sox as he slammed shoulder-first into the outfield wall. Three weeks ago in Tampa Bay, he stretched full length and made a spectacular diving catch off an Evan Longoria liner, and then doubled Corey Dickerson off first.
The plaudits are already coming in. The latest All-Star tally Tuesday had Judge as the leading AL vote-getter IN ALL POSITIONS, 100,000 votes ahead of two-time MVP winner Trout. Only the Nationals' Bryce Harper has more votes.
With Trout injured and the Mid-Summer Classic a little more than a month away, Judge is just about assured of joining Joe DiMaggio (1936) and Tom Tresh (1962) as the only true Yankee rookies to start an All-Star game. Hideki Matsui also did it in 2003. But like Ichiro, he, had already carved out an All-Star reputation in Japan.
It usually takes time for even the greatest of players to work themselves up to an MVP award. But if Judge continues to terrorize the American League's pitchers and the Yanks wind up with a once-unthinkable playoff berth, he could wind up with baseball's ultimate award immediately.
After all, who in their right mind would make Paul Bunyan wait for anything?
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