Red Sox outfielders Andrew Benintendi, Mookie Betts, and Jackie Bradley Jr. have a big fan in New York. As in 6 feet 7 inches and 282 pounds big.
It’s Aaron Judge.
“I love those guys,” the Yankees right fielder said. “There’s a lot of mutual respect there, I feel. I’ve known those guys for a while now, especially Jackie and Mookie. You never see a roller coaster with them; they’re always where they need to be mentally.
“They’re great players. I think this is a good time to be a fan of the Yankees or Red Sox. The games are a lot of fun.”
Judge has a good point, not that I was prepared to argue with him as he blocked out the sun during our conversation. The Sox won 108 games last season and the Yankees 100 before the teams met in the Division Series.
Betts and Judge aren’t Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio. But they’re compelling characters in the game’s best rivalry.
Betts had a 1.078 OPS in 136 games last season and won a Gold Glove. Judge had a .919 OPS in 112 games and was a finalist for a Gold Glove.
Betts has grace and speed, Judge size and power. As different as they are physically, they do the same job and play the same position with similar results.
“I have such respect for that team and for Mookie, the way he carries himself and plays the game. It’s a fun back-and-forth when we play them,” Judge said. “I love competing against a guy like that. You can’t get mad at him.
“The media side of it, there’s constant coverage. They play before a packed stadium just like we do. There are people watching all around the world, watching our games and scrutinizing us. He carries himself the same way through good times and bad. That’s when you see what a player is really about. Nothing but class.”
Betts feels the same way. He can’t recall where it was when he first saw Judge at a ballpark. Only that he couldn’t believe somebody so large was playing baseball.
“I remember thinking, ‘That’s a big dude. I hope we can keep it in the park.’ Not much has changed,” Betts said. “We come in different packages, but he’s a great player and I respect him. We know he’s really good. It’s fun watching him.
“I know how the fans get, but there’s a brotherhood among the players.”
Judge has a modest .717 OPS in 14 career games at Fenway Park. But he says it’s one of his favorite places to play.
“I love it, honestly,” he said. “The fans will give it to you, but it’s fun and I have fun with them. You can call me a bum and say this or that, but I like the atmosphere. I’m sure Mookie gets it when he’s at our park.”
Judge has closely watched Betts play right field at Fenway Park to get a better sense of playing the angles.
“I remember Mookie as an infielder and I think he has some of the same qualities as an outfielder with that quick first step and how he gets back on balls so well. It’s impressive,” Judge said.
“Right field at Fenway Park is probably the toughest right field in the game and he makes it look so easy.”
Judge also has an appreciation for Dustin Pedroia. Judge grew up in Linden, Calif., about 90 minutes from Pedroia’s hometown of Woodland. His mother, Patty, was a teacher and had friends at Pedroia’s high school.
“It was always fun watching him,” Judge said. “I hope he comes back strong this season. It would be good for the game.”
A chat with Judge couldn’t end without asking him about what happened after Game 2 of the Division Series at Fenway Park last season.
After the Yankees evened the series, 1-1, with a 6-2 victory, Judge walked past the door of the Red Sox clubhouse carrying a speaker blaring Frank Sinatra singing “New York, New York.”
None of the Sox players heard the song at the time. But a short video made the rounds on social media and soon became a minor controversy.
The Sox later played “New York, New York” in the visitors’ clubhouse when they eliminated the Yankees in the Bronx.
“Here’s the thing,” Judge said. “When it’s getaway day, I always play music on the way to the bus. At Fenway Park, it’s the only place we go where there’s not a tunnel for us to go through. Usually I’m playing music in the tunnel and nobody hears it except just us players.
“Fenway is the only place we go down the concourse and people hear it. They didn’t pick out any of the other songs I played, just that one. But stuff happens and people will write or say what they want.
“I would never do anything to fire up another team. I did it for my team and it was something I had done all season. Why would I change in the postseason?”
Betts laughed at the notion the Sox were inspired by Judge’s choice of music.
“I didn’t even hear about it until the next day,” he said. “We didn’t need any motivation to win a playoff series.”
Betts certainly playing it smart
Nolan Arenado, Alex Bregman, and Mike Trout are among the many notable position players in their 20s who have agreed to contract extensions in recent weeks. That Mookie Betts is not eagerly standing in line to be next has angered a segment of Red Sox fans.
Not a majority of fans based on my inbox and social media interactions, but certainly a significant percentage. There have even been calls to trade Betts, which is a ridiculous notion.
I have to ask: Why?
That Betts understands his value and is willing to wait until the Red Sox agree with him, or at least come close, is something he should be commended for, not condemned.
The Red Sox are running a profitable business and Betts is a star employee, one arguably more valuable to the operation than anybody else.
Betts is not a simply a great player; he’s on a path that would make him one of the best ever to wear their uniform.
Shouldn’t he be fairly compensated for that? Betts is taking a chance he could be injured. But as every day passes his value only gets higher.
Player salaries are not ruining baseball. That tired trope has been uttered for decades and has never been true.
The game is financially strong because it provides a television product advertisers love because viewers watch it live.
Franchise values have soared to a point where the inept Miami Marlins were worth $1.2 billion when they were sold in 2017.
Sure, it’s hard to understand how any athlete could turn down a lucrative extension. It would be life-changing money for most anybody. But focus less on all the zeros and more on the percentages.
Betts is not Trout, but he’s as close to Trout as it gets, and the Angels viewed Trout being worth $430 million over 12 seasons.
I asked the angry e-mailers the same question: Would you advise your son to take less if he were in the same position?
Of course you wouldn’t.
It may take a while, but I suspect the Sox will get there with Betts. They understand his value, too.
A few other observations on the Red Sox as spring training wraps up:
■ Derek Lowe has a new hobby: volunteer pitching coach. He has shown up for all of Rick Porcello’s starts this month, even taking the 90-minute drive to Sarasota to see him face the Orioles on Wednesday night.
Now 45 and living in Fort Myers, Lowe started coming around a few years ago to help Porcello with his sinker. A genuine friendship has been built since.
“Him helping me out has been greatly appreciated,” Porcello said. “It’s nice having him around to bounce things off of. The situations when I throw the sinker are usually when I need a big pitch, and he’s helped me having it dialed in. He sees mechanics well and the feedback helps me learn.”
Lowe is part of what Porcello called a “nice little team” of advisers that includes pitching coach Dana LeVangie, assistant pitching coach Brian Bannister, and bullpen coach Craig Bjornson.
Lowe pitched for seven teams over 17 seasons and experienced it all. He was twice an All-Star, won a World Series with the Sox in 2004, but also had a 17-loss season with the Braves in 2011 and was released twice.
Whether it’s Lowe, Jason Varitek, Pedro Martinez, Mike Lowell or others, the Sox are finding there’s a lot of value in having ex-players around.
■ One more on Porcello: He’s gaining confidence in his changeup, a pitch he added this spring by copying Eduardo Rodriguez’s grip.
“There will be a time this season when I’ll be comfortable throwing it,” Porcello predicted. “It’s getting there.”
Until then, just the idea that he could throw it will create an advantage against some hitters.
■ One of the adjustments Dustin Pedroia has made this season because of his left knee is wearing molded plastic cleats instead of metal ones.
“They stick less,” Pedroia explained. “I wear the plastic ones pregame so it’s not a big change.”
Pedroia also has abandoned the little hop he made before every pitch to set his feet.
■ Heath Hembree on pitching one inning in the World Series: “To have my fingerprint on the World Series meant a lot. My dad [Rick] said he just wanted me to face one batter in the Series. He was so thrilled.”
Hembree pitched the 11th inning of Game 3 at Dodger Stadium. He got Cody Bellinger on a grounder, Yasiel Puig on a fly ball to right field, then walked Austin Barnes before striking out Chris Taylor.
“It was pressure knowing the game could end,” Hembree said. “Before I got out there I was thinking, ‘Don’t hang a pitch.’ But once I threw that first one I was fine.”
■ Marco Hernandez broke out his phone the other day to show off videos of his swing in 2017 compared with now with his left shoulder finally healthy.
“I can get to a high pitch now, adjust my swing,” he said. “I feel so much better. I was hitting with one arm before.”
Hernandez needs reps in the field before he’s ready to return. But the 26-year-old could help the big league team this season. He can hit.
When the Sox make their seemingly inevitable trade for bullpen help during the season, they could deal a utility player. They’re deep at that spot with Brock Holt, Tzu-Wei Lin, Eduardo Nunez and, soon, Hernandez.
For Ichiro, next stop Cooperstown
Ichiro Suzuki, who retired Thursday night after playing one final game for the Seattle Mariners, had been my favorite player to watch and occasionally interview since he came to the majors in 2001.
Ichiro defied comparisons to other players. He would intentionally hit ground balls to shortstop knowing he could beat the throw. Or drive 10 balls the other way until deciding he would pull the next down the right field line for a triple.
Nobody caught a fly ball with more style, and you would find yourself hoping a runner would tag up on him just to see one of those magnificent throws.
Peter Gammons, the founding father of this space, often writes that certain players have duende, a Spanish word loosely translated as an effortless, authentic cool. That’s Ichiro.
His comments were part of that.
In 2007, Ichiro was asked about facing new Red Sox righthander Daisuke Matsuzaka.
“I hope he arouses the fire that’s dormant in the innermost recesses of my soul. I plan to face him with the zeal of a challenger,” he said.
Ichiro made the All-Star team 10 times and was famous for giving a pregame speech to his American League teammates. In near-perfect English loaded with obscenities, Ichiro would leave the whole room laughing.
A few years ago, when Ichiro was a Yankee, I walked up to Gate D at Fenway Park early one afternoon as he was getting out of a cab.
Ichiro was wearing skinny black jeans, a leather jacket with the sleeves pushed up, a black fedora, high-top designer sneakers, and wraparound sunglasses.
I had to look twice, wondering if it were Ichiro or J. Geils frontman Peter Wolf.
Ichiro peered over his sunglasses and laughed.
“Gangstaaa!” he said before walking away.
The Yankees will open the season with Dellin Betances, Aaron Hicks, CC Sabathia, and Luis Severino on the injured list. That sounds like trouble until you consider they’re also opening the season with 12 of 15 games against the Orioles, Tigers, and White Sox . . . Through Friday, Drew Pomeranz had pitched in four spring training games for the Giants and allowed five earned runs on eight hits over 14 innings with six walks and 10 strikeouts. He was signed for one year and $1.5 million, plus incentives. Pomeranz’s velocity was trending up as last season ended and Sox put him on the World Series roster, although he never pitched . . . Hanley Ramirez has not hit for much power in spring training and may not make the Indians. Cleveland called in some of its scouts to watch Ramirez and confirm what may be the hard truth that he is done . . . Major League Baseball continues to make small, but smart, moves. The latest was to push the Arizona Fall League up to Sept. 17 and allow teams to send any prospects they choose to play there. In previous years, the AFL started the second week of October, a month after the minor league season ended, and only more experienced prospects were allowed . . . The distrust between the MLB Players Association and some of the teams runs deep. Union officials meet with teams during spring training every year, usually in the clubhouse. This year several clubs — the Yankees and Tigers among them — held their meetings on a practice field because they were worried about electronic surveillance . . . Happy 61st birthday to Bruce Hurst, who was selected MVP of the 1986 World Series before the Mets rallied in the 10th inning of Game 6. Hurst started Games 1 and 5 and held the Mets to two runs over 17 innings. He came back on short rest for Game 7 and allowed three runs over six innings, giving up a 3-0 lead. Mike Brown, who also played for the 1986 Sox, turns 60. He was one of the four players traded to Seattle in August of that season with the Sox getting back Spike Owen and Dave Henderson.