Aaron Judge, the American League single-season home-run record holder and the TIME’s 2022 Athlete of the Year, will sign a nine-year, $360 million contract with the New York Yankees, the franchise that drafted him out of Fresno State University back in 2013 and called him up to the big leagues back in 2016. It’s the largest contract ever awarded to a free agent in Major League Baseball history. The deal allows him to continue his Hall of Fame trajectory for one of the most valuable franchises in American sports, and potentially join the pantheon of baseball greats—Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera—who spent their entire careers in the Bronx.
The deal, first reported by MLB Network early Wednesday morning and confirmed by TIME with baseball sources, capped off a wild 24 hours at baseball’s winter meetings in San Diego. Baseball’s “hot stove”—the term given to describe the sport’s annual off-season free-agent frenzy—overtook the NFL, NBA, and even the World Cup as the day’s epicenter of sports intrigue. And it was all about Judge.
On Tuesday, reporting emerged that Judge, who set a rookie home-run record for the Yankees in 2017, may or may not make an appearance at the winter meetings, ramping up speculation that his free-agency decision was imminent. Then reporters, pundits, and fans seized on twocomments Judge made to TIME in our Athlete of the Year piece, published early Tuesday morning. In our exclusive interview, which took place in early November, Judge expressed unhappiness that the Yankees publicly revealed, back in April, that Judge had turned down a seven-year, $213.5 million deal to remain in the Bronx. “We kind of said, Hey, let’s keep this between us,” Judge told TIME. “I was a little upset that the numbers came out. I understand it’s a negotiation tactic. Put pressure on me. Turn the fans against me, turn the media on me. That part of it I didn’t like.” (The New York Daily News ran a back-page headline—”Judge’s Verdict: Cashman Guilty!—based on the TIME report).
I also asked Judge if potentially coming home to play for the San Francisco Giants, his favorite team as a boy growing up in tiny Linden, Calif.—about 75 miles east of San Francisco—held appeal. He paused to consider, before admitting that it did. He even brought up a prediction he made in his senior of high school, to 2010, to his now-wife, Samantha Bracksieck. “I said, in 10 years, I’ll be married to Sam,” says Judge, “and playing for the San Francisco Giants.” Judge smiled. “I was like, that’d better not get out.”
It did. And the comment stressed out many Yankees fans. Chatter coming out of San Diego pointed to an imminent deal with the Giants. New York Post baseball columnist Jon Heyman fanned those flames when he reported that the Giants had offered Judge a whopping $360 million and then he tweeted, on Tuesday afternoon, that “Arson Judge appears headed to the Giants.” He quickly deleted the tweet (and with it the misspelling), then posted “Giants say they have not heard on Aaron Judge, My apologies for jumping the gun.” San Francisco Chronicle Giants beat reporter Susan Slusser wrote on Twitter: “Buzz in lobby is Judge is going to sign with the Giants.” She also tweeted, “Apparently decision made in the last 30 minutes.”
On New York sports talk radio, fans began to resign themselves to losing Judge. “I’m told there is no Aaron Judge decision … yet,” MLB.com reporter Bryan Hoch tweeted. “But where there’s smoke, there is sometimes arson.”
While the public was reading tea leaves, Judge held his cards close to his vest. Judge did fly into San Diego on Tuesday to decide between the Yankees, the Giants, and the San Diego Padres, ESPN reported and a source close to Judge confirmed. The Yankees increased their offer to nine years and $360 million. Judge has shared his desire to remain a lifelong Yankee. And in the end, it appears he meant it. “The money is going to be there no matter where I go,” Judge told TIME in November, quite correctly. “I want to go somewhere for the rest of my career. I want to finish out being in the World Series for quite few of those years, win championships and bring something special back to the city.”
New York awaits Judge’s parade. The Yankees open up their 2023 season on March 30. At home. Against the San Francisco Giants.