, Years before Aaron Judge became MLB’s most dominant hitter, he spent a summer in the ABL. Jake Mintz talked to Judge and others about that time.,
Major League Baseball
11 mins ago
By Jake MintzFOX Sports MLB Writer
LOS ANGELES — In the summer of 2011, a 6-foot-7 college freshman from Fresno State University boarded a plane to Anchorage, Alaska. His name was Aaron Judge, and he was headed north to play some baseball.
Years before the titanic New York Yankees outfielder evolved into the game’s most feared and most powerful hitter, he arrived in Alaska as little more than a 19-year-old kid with promise, size and a dream. He spent that summer playing for the Anchorage Glacier Pilots, one of five teams in the summer collegiate Alaska Baseball League.
In his two months in the ABL, Judge dropped jaws with his prodigious power and turned heads with a professional work ethic that would enable his meteoric rise a half-decade later.
From speaking to a number of people who were around Judge that summer — including his Glacier Pilot teammates and opponents such current Cubs infielder Patrick Wisdom — FOX Sports learned how the hulking figure created a larger-than-life legend during his time in Alaska. A legend that continues to live on years after his time in the league and the state came to an end.
Those lucky enough to have seen the future star in his formative years say they’ll never forget what they saw.
And while Judge admits that he didn’t know there was an Alaskan baseball league until he received the league’s invitation to play via his college coach, the leading vote-getter for Tuesday’s All-Star Game (8 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app) has nothing but fond memories of his great northern experience.
“I certainly saw more moose than I was expecting,” he joked to FOX Sports.
This is the story of Aaron Judge’s summer in Alaska.
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Founded in 1974, the Alaska Baseball League has long been considered one of the nation’s best collegiate summer circuits. Its long list of prestigious alumni includes Barry Bonds, Randy Johnson, Dave Winfield, Paul Goldschmidt and a plethora of other big-league All-Stars. Some of the country’s best college players make the trip from the lower 48 to spend their summers competing in a corner of the world they’d never otherwise visit.
And while the league has changed in form and structure over the decades, it remains an incredibly unique baseball experience, thanks mostly to Alaska’s natural beauty (many players spend their off-days fishing, hiking and climbing glaciers) and endlessly long summer days.
From early June to early August, when the league is in action, the sun doesn’t set in most of Alaska until well after 10 p.m. That bizarre dynamic allows for a one-of-a-kind baseball event: the annual Midnight Sun Game, which starts around 10:30 p.m. on the longest day of the year and doesn’t end until after midnight. For the rest of the ABL schedule, it’s perfectly light outside long after ballgames finish up.
When players first arrive, many struggle to adjust to their new normal. According to former Glacier Pilot and Sacramento State first baseman Clay Cederquist, Judge and some of his fellow Glacier Pilots coped with the nearly eternal sunshine by clanging and banging at the local all-night gym.
“We’d be all wired up after the games because it was still light outside,” Cederquist said. “So a lot of us would go work out at this 24-hour gym, but Judge basically lived there after games.”
Looking back, those late-night gym sessions must have been helpful for a young Judge, who, despite his immense size, had yet to develop the strength and explosiveness that should earn him more than $200 million in free agency this winter. Although he had been drafted in the 31st round in 2010 out of a Northern California high school by his hometown Athletics, Judge was light-years from a finished product. During his freshman season at Fresno State, he hit .358 in a full season but bashed only four home runs.
“I was still growing, for sure,” Judge recalled. “A priority for me that summer was trying to work on developing some more power because I only hit those four homers my freshman year.”
The in-game power never showed up for Judge in Alaska, and he finished his summer without a home run for the Glacier Pilots. However, at the end of the season, Judge was named the club’s top pro prospect, despite his lack of fence-clearing prowess, thanks to his enormous potential and solid .289 batting average.
“To be honest with you, I don’t know if any of us could have imagined he would become the superstar he is today,” Cael Brockmeyer, a former Glacier Pilot and Cal State Bakersfield catcher who spent seven years in the minor leagues, told FOX Sports. “That he’d become, you know, a worldwide phenomenon. I remember him most as a cool dude and a great teammate.”
Jon Dyson, a lifelong Alaskan who has been the GM of the Anchorage club for more than 15 years, remembers Judge as a tremendously skilled player who was more capable of driving liners into gaps than hitting balls over fences.
But even though Judge didn’t yet tap into his raw juice in live competition, those who saw him regularly discovered that he had magnificent power potential.
“Batting cages and during on-field batting practice, the kid would put on a show, an absolute show,” Dyson said. “Pregame he could leave the ballpark at will, send it up to the light towers with ease. But in games, hitting homers wasn’t really something he was trying to do.”
Judge’s outfield arm, which Statcast once clocked over 100.5 mph, also stood out. Of the nine people FOX Sports spoke to for this story, five mentioned Judge’s throwing ability unprompted. One teammate, former University of Nebraska Omaha infielder Brady Hohl, shared a particularly hilarious story about Judge’s willingness to show off his cannon of an arm.
As Hohl remembers it, the Alaska Baseball League used to have a “Pro Day” so scouts could journey up and watch all the league’s best players in one place. As part of that event, outfielders would put their arms on display by unleashing full-gas throws from right field to third base, as is typical for any showcase.
But while all the other college prospects aimed their tosses directly toward third, Judge had bigger plans.
“So Judge fields it and proceeds to throw the ball entirely out of the stadium and into the parking lot on purpose,” Hohl shared via text. “I think he did it just to prove he had the biggest arm there. I’ll never forget that. I loved that move so much.”
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On a wet and gloomy evening that summer at Mulcahy Stadium in downtown Anchorage, Aaron Judge lost his first Home Run Derby, even though the league put on the event just for him.
Before 2011, the ABL had never hosted a Derby during its all-star festivities, but when the big wigs in charge heard about Judge and his absurd raw power, they decided to organize the league’s inaugural home-run-hitting contest.
“I was the league president that year, too,” Anchorage GM Jon Dyson said. “And part of the reason that we did a Home Run Derby was specifically for Aaron Judge.”
Dyson remembers a phone call before the season from Judge’s head coach at Fresno State, Mike Batesole, in which Batesole compared Judge to Dave Winfield. The GM knew then and there that the league had to put on a derby.
“That was definitely the first derby I’d ever done,” Judge told FOX Sports. “It was fun, though. I had a good time doing that.”
Because the Derby was at Judge’s home field, most of his Anchorage teammates were in attendance to cheer for him and the other Glacier Pilots. Today, they remember him putting on a great show that included a few balls thwacked above the stadium’s light towers, and they remember the rainy, chilly weather, but not one of them could vividly recall how exactly Judge got eliminated.
Current Cubs third baseman Patrick Wisdom was the only other future big-leaguer among the 12 hitters who swung in the derby that year. And while Judge was bounced after the first round, Wisdom caught fire and made it all the way to the finals.
“The bad weather took a toll that day,” Wisdom told FOX Sports. “Not ideal conditions to hit. It was kind of slippery, cold, misty. The guy I lost to [in the finals] went on a tear, so when I came up after him, I had a number in my head that I had to beat. So then I started trying too hard and fell short.”
The winner was a catcher from Western Carolina University named Adam Martin. Martin — who is now a travel ball coach and part-time professional disc golf player in Georgia after spending some time in the Mariners’ system before that spectacular career pivot — admitted that some of the young players he has coached have teased him about the derby from time to time.
“They’ll be like, ‘Hey, coach, you beat Aaron Judge in a Home Run Derby and couldn’t even make the big leagues?’” Martin said with a laugh over the phone. “They give me a hard time about it. It’s cool, though. All my buddies know about it, and it’s just a great story to tell now that he is what he is.”
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A longtime coach named Jerry Hardin was the hitting guy for the Glacier Pilots that summer. Hardin, who spent years scouting for the Reds before becoming a head coach at a Seattle-area junior college, is the kind of baseball lifer who has seen it all and done it all. His stories have stories.
But of the hundreds and thousands of ballplayers with whom Hardin has crossed paths, few stood out quite like Judge.
“He was a boy in a man’s body, and jeez, the ball just flew off his bat,” Hardin recounted over the phone. “When a ball hits the screen, and that screen jumps at you, that guy’s got something special. And while you didn’t always see his talent on the field or while he was hitting in a game, you still knew he was special.”
Hardin says that process-wise, Judge did all the right things, exhibited all the mental skills necessary to mold his mountains of talent into something spectacular. There have been many physical specimens in baseball history, and there will be many more, but according to Hardin, Aaron Judge became Aaron Judge because of his work ethic, commitment and mentality off the field.
“I’m not here to tell you that I knew he was going to be the player he is now,” Hardin admitted. “But I knew he’d have a chance at the next level. And if you get a chance, that’s half the battle. And I knew he’d have that chance.”
“I’ve been around a lot — let me tell you — a lot of kids, and he was one of the best to deal with. I never, ever had a problem with him or anything that he did.”
That’s a sentiment Judge’s former teammates echoed. While few kept in touch with the All-Star slugger as he journeyed up the ladder, all remembered him as a good teammate and as a friendly and kind-hearted person.
“The first impression, the main impression that still sticks with me to this day,” Cederquist said, “is how much of a stand-up guy he was. How humble he was. He actually asked questions to people and wanted to get to know his teammates. You had this unbelievably huge specimen who was just so soft-spoken and so nice and kind.”
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Judge’s time in Alaska isn’t a story about how he found himself as a baseball player deep in the wilderness, allowing him to take a huge developmental leap, even if we wish it were.
Before his summer with the Glacier Pilots, Judge hit four homers. The season after, he hit five. There was no bear wrestling, no epic treks across the frozen tundra, no backwoods salmon-fishing trip that turned him from a boy to a man. Really, it was a bunch of late-night baseball games played under a lingering sun.
But it was a stepping stone, one of many in a remarkable journey that has taken Judge from an overlooked three-sport high school athlete to one of the best baseball players on the planet. Looking back on his experience, Judge believes his time in Alaska not only provided him with much-needed reps but also allowed him to experiment without fear of failing and empowered him to tinker with his swing in ways he never could have during the college season.
And perhaps more than all that, it seems that Judge, a figure who is now a household name and one of the most recognizable faces in the largest city in America, genuinely enjoyed his time playing ball in a far-flung corner of the world.
“My roommate was a big explorer,” he said. “We’d get on glaciers, go do hikes. We were pretty active and just tried to make the most of our experience because we didn’t know how many times in our life we would get the chance to go back to Alaska.”
“It really was such a beautiful place.”
Jake Mintz is the louder half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He’s an Orioles fan living in New York City, and thus, he leads a lonely existence most Octobers. If he’s not watching baseball, he’s almost certainly riding his bike. You can follow him on Twitter @Jake_Mintz.
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