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Mudville: May 23, 2024 10:10 pm PDT

More Than HR Leaders


Leadership matters.

Some guys just do it right.

The Aaron and Albert home run saga is great for baseball in so many ways, but it also is a genuine reminder that leadership and a team-first mentality should be back in vogue in Major League Baseball.

Aaron Judge and Albert Pujols are beloved by their teammates and not just because of the way they hit home runs. They make it clear that the team comes first.

I noticed that the first time I saw Aaron Judge play in spring training when he would always be there in front of the dugout after the third out of the inning. Judge hustled in from right field to make sure to give a pat on the back or an encouraging word to his teammates as they came off the field.

Pujols is the same type of player and he has shown that throughout his 22-year career. Adam Wainwright told a wonderful story earlier this year about his stop and smell the roses season which included Wainwright going up to the radio booth to spend time with Brewers legendary broadcaster and one of the funniest men in baseball history, Bob Uecker.

Wainwright, who obviously was not pitching that day, had a grand time talking to Uecker on the air and was so happy that he had checked that off his baseball bucket list… until he got back to the Cardinals clubhouse and there was Pujols, the designated hitter that day, waving his finger at Wainwright and saying that was a no-no.

This season is the ultimate reminder that baseball numbers are important but it is the heart and soul of the player that makes all the difference.

You don’t leave the team during a game to do a broadcast. Even if it is Bob Uecker.

The point was made, have your fun, but have it with your teammates, and on Friday night when Pujols clubbed his 699th and 700th home runs at Dodger Stadium, Wainwright put out a tweet to show the playful side of Pujols.

Wainwright wrote: Everybody always asks, “What’s it’s like to play with Albert and Yadi (Molina)?” My answer … “yeah, it’s great! Especially when they’re playing and not in the dugout scheming! For 17 years, if Yadi isn’t playing, he’s going to pour water down my pants #playmore

In the tweet Wainwright showed a picture of that scheme taking place between Pujols and Molina, two great leaders having a little dugout fun.

Leadership comes in all different ways but in both Judge and Pujols (with his sidekick Yadi) the Yankees and Cardinals have true leaders and that takes the heat off the manager. Just having Judge setting a tone for the Yankees makes life easier for Aaron Boone.

Just having Pujols in the dugout for the Cardinals, after so many years away with the Angels and Dodgers, helps make life easier for Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol. The Yankees will win the AL East this year. The Cardinals will win the NL Central.

Having player leadership coming from an iconic player makes all the difference in the world.

The Padres hung their hat on Fernando Tatis, Jr. as their leader and look what happened there. Tatis got injured in off-season motorcycle accidents and is now suspended because of PEDs. The Padres, who have an insane payroll, looks like they will hang on for a wild card spot, in part because of the leadership of Manny Machado, who has stepped up his leadership game with Tatis out of the picture.

Nerds need to understand it’s not just about the numbers and exit velo even when you have great numbers. It’s about great leadership, too.

That’s why Judge’s value to the Yankees or another club when he becomes a free agent after the World Series, is off the charts. He is sitting on 60 home runs, tying Babe Ruth’s mark from 1927 and one behind Roger Maris’ 61 in ’61. Essentially, teams will be getting a Triple Crown winner, it’s actually a triple Triple Crown considering all the categories Judge is leading in, but they also will be getting a leader who will show the way so the manager does not have to have such a burden.

Some managers don’t need all the extra help and they will lead the way like the Mets’ Buck Showalter as the players follow suit. But most managers are not like Buck anymore. They don’t know how to lead and that is exactly why they were given the job by the Nerdy Front Office. They don’t want the manager to lead, they want the manager to follow orders. Use the bullpen the way we tell you to use the bullpen. We set the lineup, you just walk it out to the umpires.

There is a stunning leadership gap in the dugout today in MLB. That’s all part of the plan where front offices run the game so in essence Judge becomes that much more valuable to a team because he can lead. That is just another reason why the Yankees need to keep Judge in New York, it’s not just about the talent, it’s about the leadership too.

That also is the reason why some teams who are on the cusp of winning need to go that much harder after Judge. Judge returning to his hometown San Francisco Giants makes a lot of sense from a baseball perspective and from a leadership perspective.

The Giants lost the leadership of the retired Buster Posey this year and went right in the tank with no one there to help the lost Gabe Kapler. It was obvious from the start of the season that the Giants missed Posey’s leadership. If the Giants can sign Judge they have that leader in uniform and on the field again. Don’t underestimate the importance of that.

Harrison Bader #22, Isiah Kiner-Falefa #12, and Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees celebrate during the ninth inning against the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium on September 24, 2022 in the Bronx borough of New York City. The New York Yankees won 7-5. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

The Dodgers are doing so well because the players play hard for Dave Roberts but in Justin Turner, Mookie Betts and the free agent signing of Freddie Freeman, the Dodgers are a talented team that runs on autopilot because key players help lead. It’s really that simple. The Dodgers could run into big problems in the postseason because they appear to be short on starting pitching and the backend of the bullpen is struggling, but they do not have to worry about internal leadership.

This way, the Nerds then can focus on their Nerd things and let baseball players help run the baseball aspect of things.

It sounds so simple but so many teams have made it so hard.

Pujols will be in the postseason for the 10th time this October. He has played in 19 postseason series, 86 games and 352 plate appearances, over that span he is batting .321 in the postseason and is a lifetime .296 hitter. Both Pujols and Judge believe in batting average.

As my friend Silvio Ciafardini pointed out, in his 22 seasons, despite all his power and those 700 home runs, Pujols has never struck out 100 times in a season, that is amazing in this day and age but it shows the dedication he has to his craft. Judge is much more of a free swinger.

The other three members of the 700 Club, Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth, each of them never had a 100-strikeout season. Power and contact, what a concept.

Here is something else. Of those 700 home runs, Pujols has hit 500 off right-handers and 200 off left-handers. The 699th and 700th both came on Friday night, September 23. It’s worth noting, September 23, 1956 was the date of the first native born Dominican player appeared in a Major League game. That was Ozzie Virgil Sr. That debut came with the New York Giants. Pujols was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Virgil was born in Monte Cristi Province, Dominican Republic.

Albert Pujols #5 of the St. Louis Cardinals hits his 700th career homerun in front of Will Smith #16 of the Los Angeles Dodgers, a three run homerun to take a 5-0 lead, during the fourth inning at Dodger Stadium on September 23, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Only Albert Pujols and Hank Aaron have produced 700 home runs and 3,000 hits. Hammerin’ Hank totaled 3,771 hits and 755 home runs. Barry Bonds is the all-time leader with 762 home runs but he finished with 2,935 hits. Babe Ruth produced 714 home runs and 2,873 hits.

What a special club is the 700 home run club and then you throw in 3,000 hits and it is a two-man team.

Baseball has been given the gift of late season relevance this year because of Pujols, to some degree, and Judge. Roger Maris’ 61 in ’61 is one of the great feats of all-time and it only lost some of its luster because of the PED era and Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. By the way, when Pujols played his first game for the Cardinals back on April 2, 2001, McGwire was the Cardinals first baseman.

Roger Maris was a quiet leader for the Yankees. AMBS has been to Fargo and it was a treat many years ago to see the Roger Maris Museum, which is fittingly located in the West Acres Mall. The museum opened in 1984 and I was lucky enough to be given a tour by Bill Weaver, a longtime friend of Maris, who told me that Roger was the most humble person he had ever met in his life.

Then there is this too. Each Judge at-bat has become must-see TV because of the anticipation of 61 and the pure drama, watching the faces of Judge’s family, including his mom Patty and dad, Wayne. The Maris Family joined The Watch this week at Yankee Stadium and Kevin Maris said on Saturday something he told me three weeks ago, that his dad took pride in playing the game the right way and Aaron Judge does the same thing.

Pride in playing the game the right way should be a given, but it has been tarnished in this “Let the kids have fun, look at me, check out my bat flip, watch me pimp this home run,’’ attitude which has become the norm these days.

My favorite was this week when a minor league hitter pimped a home run, went into his trot and made it nearly around the bases before he realized the ball was caught in left field.

Judge puts his head down and runs the bases much like Roger Maris used to and Albert Pujols does the same. The joy comes from the teammates and that was evident with the Hollywood ending Friday night in Los Angeles when Pujols hit two home runs.

With Judge you can see how much his teammates are pulling for him and that speaks volumes. Something else to consider for Judge’s next team is he will bring that must see TV aspect or just as importantly these days, must-see streaming, to your team.

Aaron Judge is MLB The Show ’23. If the Yankees retain him all eyes will be on his every at-bat. If the Yankees lose him to another team, all eyes will be on his every at-bat. From a business standpoint it does not seem imaginable that the Yankees could mess this one up but don’t forget the final choice will be made by Aaron Judge. Hal Steinbrenner lost the hammer the moment he let Brian Cashman spell out the numbers of the $213.5 million deal Judge turned down.

The truth is the Yankees cannot afford to let Judge get away, but the other side of the coin is that if any team winds up with Judge it’s a win-win before he takes his first swing of 2023. You get the one player the world will be watching and the bonus is he is a team leader and his approach to the game will only be sharper and that will help your team in many ways.

No one thought the Braves would lose Freddie Freeman but that has turned out to be a brilliant move by the Dodgers. No one thought the Red Sox would be dumb enough to trade Mookie Betts but that was a brilliant move by the Dodgers.

The beauty of it all is that Aaron Judge has always been about the game. The same goes for Albert Pujols. Those in charge of teams who think the latest data widget is going to make all the difference are missing the boat. It’s about the ability of the players to perform and having internal leadership.

Play the game right. Do the right thing.

This season is the ultimate reminder that baseball numbers are important but it is the heart and soul of the player that makes all the difference. This game has a heartbeat. Baseball is a simple game and just use Aaron Judge as your template. Get players who care about the team as much as they care about themselves. Get players who play the complete game, not just one aspect of the game. Get players who play the game the right way.

Do the right thing and your team will win.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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