TAMPA, Fla. -- At 1:35 p.m. ET on an 85-degree day at George Steinbrenner Field, the greatest pregame show on earth kicked off its inaugural season.
With a crowd of 1,500 or so spring training die-hards on hand, it took 28 swings between Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton before one of them hit a ball over the fence, a low liner from Stanton to right field. Judge finished with two home runs and Stanton four in 53 combined swings.
“The moment we touched the dirt, the fans were buzzing,” Stanton said. “That was pretty cool. Nothing like I’ve experienced before in spring training.”
Neither put on a display that resembled last year’s memorable Home Run Derby. In fact, both looked a little rusty as they tried to stick to their normal batting practice routines. Judge said he was just happy to get outside after hitting inside in the cages. When he fouled back his first two pitches and popped the third one up into the netting, one fan shouted, “Relax, buddy” while another yelled at him to keep his front shoulder in.
Judge acknowledged one fan who shouted “All rise!” when he popped out of the dugout. “It’s been a while since I heard it. It was pretty funny, so I had to give him a little wave,” he said.
Otherwise, Judge said it was easy to block out the fans and it felt like a normal first full-squad workout. Still, he struggled his first couple rounds, hitting several balls into the net and some weak fly balls to right-center. He took 21 swings before he hit one out.
Stanton also joked that, “I was playing pepper with the cage.” Neither said there was any pressure to hit home runs or impress the fans.
“I know they’re here for the entertainment, but we have to get our work in too,” Stanton said. “The main entertainment [comes later]. This six weeks is set up for the 162-plus entertainment.”
Two of the fans in attendance were Mike Beagle and his son, Trevor. They were on vacation from Bay City, Michigan. Mike has been a Yankees fan since Reggie Jackson hit three home runs in one game in the 1977 World Series, and his son had no choice except to root for the Yankees.
“I’m pumped for this season. More than I have been in a long time,” Mike said.
The prediction from Mike and Trevor: 110 home runs for Stanton and Judge, 55 each. Tom Wibirt from Holiday, Florida, had an even bolder prediction: Judge, Stanton and Gary Sanchez will combine for more home runs than the Marlins, Tigers and Rays will combine for victories.
The two sluggers played catch during warm-ups and hit in the same group along with Sanchez and Jacoby Ellsbury. The early returns are that the two will bond together. Stanton admitted that he is a deer in the headlights in his first spring training with the Yankees and is using Judge as a guide on how things work around his new organization.
They’ll have to get used to all the hoopla over what they do -- or don’t do -- in batting practice, at least until the games begin.
“It’s going to be a show all year long," manager Aaron Boone said. "The Steph Curry thing seems like it’s been pretty cool to watch, and it’s taken on a life of its own the past couple of years, but I think there’s something really cool and sexy about seeing the long ball in practice."
As for their teammates, it was just another day of work and preparation. Dellin Betances said he’ll have plenty of time to see the two big guys take batting practice during the season, when he’ll be shagging fly balls in the outfield. Brett Gardner said, “It’s early. We’ve got all year to watch them take BP and measure things up. I got to watch Judge take BP all last year, and it’s something. I just wish I could feel like they feel when they hit a baseball.”
Each connected for a home run that drew oohs and ahhs from the fans, with Stanton hitting one off the scoreboard in left-center and Judge hitting one out of the ballpark.
Judge gave first-day honors to Stanton. “That was pretty nice,” he said. “He’s busting through the wind on the first day. Impressive. We’re all feeling good.”