Aaron Judge woke up Sunday and chose something other than violence. Alek Manoah drilled him in the fifth inning, and the slugger decided to keep his head when everyone else around him — especially Gerrit Cole — was ready to lose theirs.
Cole came out of the dugout like an amateur-hour drinker comes flying out of a bar at two in the morning, looking to swing at someone, anyone, on the street. Judge gave him the Heisman in response, sticking out his right hand to tell the ace and the other Yankees behind him to stop dead in their tracks.
It was an intriguing response from a giant whose team was in danger of losing four straight to Toronto, and of losing for the 15th time this month. Judge had called for “better energy in the dugout” the day before, and man, did Cole give him that enhanced energy, at least until the Yankee who had been hit in his upper left arm by a 91-mph sinker calmed him down.
Judge had taken a few angry steps in Manoah’s direction before the plate ump, Andy Fletcher, ushered him in the direction of first base. After the DH motioned to his teammates and then reached the bag, Judge and Manoah actually came together at a rare summit meeting between plunker and plunkee that ended in gestures of understanding and peace.
Asked why he chose to de-escalate the situation on a sellout Stadium day that called for escalation, a day defined by a celebration of the combustible Paul O’Neill, Judge delivered this answer:
“Just knowing the situation, and it’s a close game. At first you’re pissed, and I was pissed, but I don’t need anybody else getting thrown out for me getting hit. So I was just kind of moving on to the next play, and I know [Anthony] Rizzo had a big at-bat behind me. I’d be a little [more] happy with getting a couple of runs than us brawling out there and losing a couple of guys.”
On Rizzo’s grounder that led to the force at second, Judge could have gone in extra hard on Bo Bichette, and instead played it cleanly. He didn’t let any personal frustration over being nailed in the middle of his home-run “drought” compel him to do something silly to in a futile attempt to prove … whatever.
All the greats, Judge included, understand that mental toughness isn’t revealed by throwing punches or flying over the dugout rail. The 6-foot-7, 282-pound Judge vs. the 6-6, 285-pound Manoah might’ve been Yankee Stadium’s best heavyweight fight since Muhammad Ali-Ken Norton, but it wouldn’t have said anything about the home team’s mettle — even if Judge had won by knockout.
Beating the Blue Jays, 4-2, the way the Yanks beat them did suggest something for the moment that might mean something encouraging later on.
Nestor Cortes, a self-made All-Star with a ton of heart, outpitched his fellow South Beach-area starter, Manoah, in a battle he took personally. Andrew Benintendi, a winning postseason player described as “very low key and not real emotional” by Boone, hit the deciding home run in O’Neill’s favorite part of the old ballpark. Oswaldo Cabrera, kid shortstop, made some important old-school plays in the field and showed no hesitation to put his chest (and by extension his face) in front of a very fast moving ball.
Boone spokes of Cabrera’s confidence, maturity, and fearlessness — the very qualities the Yankees will need to win the whole thing for the first time since 2009.
Now back to O’Neill for a moment. The pregame ceremony to retire his No. 21 was poignant to those who watched him win four championships in five trips to the World Series. The same fans who booed Hal Steinbrenner’s appearance and the mention of Brian Cashman’s name cheered when the tribute O’Neill video showed him smashing a water cooler and slamming a helmet. It was a nice touch when the Yankees presented their former right fielder with a water cooler, and a nicer touch when O’Neill kicked it.
But as much as he could explode over a bad bounce, O’Neill also represented the Yanks’ controlled rage as much as anyone. He treated every at-bat, no matter the score, as a cage match, and effectively launched the dynasty in 1996 by making his running, lunging Game 5-saving catch in the World Series on an injured hamstring. O’Neill had been benched by Joe Torre for lack of October performance, and yet during batting practice that night in Atlanta he’d told himself he would find a way to help his prevail team.
That’s what the 2022 Yankees need right now, starting with the Mets in The Bronx on Monday night. They need people to play for team instead of self. They need people to perform at a high level through some degree of pain. They need Cortes to win 11-pitch at-bats against the Matt Chapmans. They need their right fielder — in this case Marwin Gonzalez — to open the game with a sliding catch, O’Neill style.
And they need their best player, Judge, to set a serious-minded tone of accountability. A manager doesn’t show mental toughness by slamming a podium table, and a slugger doesn’t show mental toughness by punching the other guy’s pitcher.
A team shows mental toughness by grinding down an opponent like O’Neill’s Yanks did in the past, and like Judge’s Yanks did Sunday. Forty games to go now. Let’s see if it lasts.