TAMPA -- When Aaron Judge arrived at Los Angeles International Airport for his flight to Tampa on the morning of Jan. 26, he noticed the thick fog. Those hazy skies are common in L.A. so he didn't think much about them. But that changed when Judge's plane landed. Once Judge turned on his phone, the activity in the air above L.A. was all he could think about.
Text messages filled Judge's phone with the most horrific of news: Kobe Bryant, his daughter, Gianna, and seven others had perished in a helicopter crash in southern California. Judge was endlessly distraught when he learned that John Altobelli, a college baseball coach who had coached him in the Cape Cod League, and Altobelli's wife, Keri, and daughter, Alyssa, were also killed.
"I was hoping," Judge said, "it wasn't real."
It was the first full squad workout for the Yankees and Judge, who didn't participate in batting practice on Tuesday because of what the team described as a "cranky and sore shoulder." The 27-year-old right fielder spoke enthusiastically about the new season, but as Judge pulled on his socks and sneakers at his locker, he also discussed Altobelli in a voice filled with reverence and sadness.
"Look at all the people's lives he touched and you'll know what kind of man he was," Judge said. "He was incredible."
Altobelli coached Orange Coast College for 23 years and his career intersected with Judge's career during the summer of 2012. Judge had completed his sophomore year at Fresno State and was offered a spot on the Brewster Whitecaps. He was a little tense, a little nervous and was hoping to impress Altobelli and the droves of Major League scouts who flock to the Cape, but Judge had an inauspicious start.
"I was a young kid from Fresno State and I was going up against some of the best college players around," Judge said. "The first game I played, I think I struck out once and I rolled over a couple of balls. I didn't get the ball out of the infield. I felt like I didn't belong."
That's when Altobelli, a smart and thoughtful coach who barely knew Judge, offered some sage advice that has stayed with Judge until this day.
"He came up to me," Judge explained, "and said, 'You need to relax. Good things happen when Aaron Judge swings the bat three times.'" Judge paused to let Altobelli's memorable words sink in and then added, "That worked. That really resonated with me and helped me relax."
Judge relaxed and performed so well that summer and in his next year with Fresno State that the Yankees drafted him in the first round in 2013. As Judge ascended through the Yankees farm system and eventually made his Major League debut in 2016, Judge never forgot Altobelli's strong and reassuring words: "Good things happen when Aaron Judge swings the bat three times."
After their Cape Code connection, Judge remained in touch with Altobelli and would see the coach every time the Yankees played the Angels in Anaheim, California. Judge knew Altobelli was sitting in some premium seats along the third base line at Anaheim Stadium when the Yankees visited in June of 2017. So, after Judge clubbed a homer, he rounded third base, locked eyes with Altobelli and offered a distinctive thank you message to his old coach.
"Good things happen when Aaron Judge swings the bat three times," Judge yelled to Altobelli, which caused both men to smile, a memory that Judge will cling to forever.