How Aaron Judge signing with Yankees brought end to Giants' dream


How Judge signing with Yankees brought end to Giants' dream originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

SAN DIEGO -- "What does it mean?"

That is a question the Giants asked themselves over and over again for the last month, through endless rumors, eye-popping quotes in a magazine article, a misspelled and misinformed tweet, and a 13-second video that rocked the baseball world a few days before Thanksgiving.

For months, the Giants had prepared to make their best pitch to try to bring Aaron Judge home, but as he received a tour of Oracle Park and the Bay Area, many within the organization found themselves asking each other that question.

The Giants did not intend for Judge's visit to become public, and they didn't even acknowledge it had happened until the MLB Winter Meetings started this week in San Diego. After landing in Oakland on the afternoon of Nov. 21, Judge and his wife, Samantha, had lunch with team officials and then were given a tour of potential future homes before being whisked across the Bay Bridge for a dinner at Oracle Park and a night in the city.

The plan was to sneak him into the St. Regis hotel, but at the last second, Judge's side decided he would get out of the car and go through the lobby. A woman was waiting with a cell phone, and soon, the entire industry knew Judge was in San Francisco to meet with the Giants.

As they talked about the audible, people within the organization kept coming to the same conclusion. Regardless of why or how it happened, it was not a good sign for the Giants.

In their most high-profile pursuit of a free agent in three decades, the Giants always knew they were fighting an overwhelming favorite. They were asking the reigning American League MVP to leave the sport's most storied franchise and biggest market.

A Giants organization that for years built its culture around a homegrown superstar was asking a similar type to leave the New York Yankees, and despite those long odds, there were moments when the Giants believed they would be successful.

The dream came crashing down around 5 a.m. on Wednesday. President of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi, armed with the knowledge that Judge was closing in on a decision that would alter the next decade for two franchises, couldn't sleep. As he tossed and turned in his San Diego hotel room, Zaidi heard his phone buzz. He saw a new message from Judge's agents, Page Odle and David Matranga.

"The phone buzzing at 5 a.m. is rarely good news," Zaidi said a few hours later.

Odle and Matranga informed Zaidi that the outfielder would return to New York. Within minutes, the news hit social media. Judge had agreed to a nine-year, $360 million contract -- a record salary for a position player.

On Wednesday afternoon, as he sat high above the San Diego harbor at the Manchester Grand Hyatt, Zaidi said the end result was disappointing for a franchise that hoped to build around a superstar who grew up rooting for the Giants.

"That was a pretty strong force that we were up against," Zaidi said of the Yankees. "We're really disappointed that we weren't able to overcome it, but you can understand it. We have to obviously move on to other things, but sure, there's a sense of disappointment, but you always know it's a possibility."

Zaidi said he was "really happy for Aaron and his family," which includes relatives who still live in Linden, a two-hour drive from Oracle Park. He believed the communication from Judge and his agents was strong throughout, and thanked them for the way they went about their business.

Zaidi believed Judge's camp operated in good faith. He disagreed with the notion that the Giants might have been used just to drive up the price on the Yankees.

"I don't see it that way," Zaidi said. "Any time you're pursuing a free agent, they don't owe you anything. They are entitled to evaluate different options.

"This kind of decision, I think there's a perception that you can buy this decision, but really you're trying to sell the decision, you're trying to sell yourself as an option. I think you go into this, when a player has been with one organization his whole career and wants to continue there, if you make a run at that player, you know what you're up against. I don't feel [used] at all.

"I think they gave us an opportunity to sell ourselves, our situation, our organization, and they just made the right decision for them."

The Giants always believed Judge was genuine in his interest, and for much of the first two days of the winter meetings, sources throughout the industry called it a true coin flip between the Giants and Yankees. In the end, though, the Giants' best offer ended up setting the price.

According to multiple reports, Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner spoke with Judge late Tuesday night and raised his offer to $360 million. A source familiar with negotiations said the Giants were just about in the same spot with their final offer.

The end came quickly but also with one last bit of drama. Late Tuesday night, the Giants heard that Judge had flown into town to meet with the rival San Diego Padres, who apparently were willing to go closer to $400 million. Some in the organization spent the minutes leading up to midnight looking at the Padres' payroll commitments and wondering if they would add yet another superstar, but that pursuit was short-lived.

Hours later, Giants officials and players woke up to alerts that Judge had made a decision. It was a gut punch for many who had tried not to get their hopes up after so many close calls.

The fears of another second-place finish were based on recent history. Ownership pushed hard for Giancarlo Stanton in 2017, only to watch him force his way to the Yankees. That same offseason, the Giants sent a large group to Los Angeles to try and convince Shohei Ohtani to play in San Francisco. Those back-to-back misses stung a front office that in previous winters watched Jon Lester and Zack Greinke pivot to other choices at the last second.

Zaidi took over after the 2018 season, and while the initial months of his tenure were dominated by moves around the margins, he tried to go all-in late in that offseason. The Giants offered Bryce Harper a $310 million deal but finished in a now-familiar second place to the Phillies.

Zaidi spent the subsequent years clearing payroll and maintaining flexibility, and when Judge turned down a $213.5 million contract extension before the start of the 2022 season, the next target for the front office had become a potential reality. As he chased the AL home run record, Judge was a frequent topic of conversation for Giants employees and players.

Zaidi had led that Harper chase, and said he took lessons from that into the pursuit of Judge. Three years ago, when Zaidi, CEO Larry Baer and then-manager Bruce Bochy flew to Las Vegas to meet with Harper and agent Scott Boras, they were armed with a 25-page PowerPoint presentation that outlined the depth chart, farm system and plan. Harper was interested in all of that, but as Zaidi looked back on that time, he felt that a more relaxed and organic conversation -- one led by the player -- would be a better approach.

"I think just generally you want to make it as interactive as possible," Zaidi said Monday.

The Giants had more than two dozen team employees involved in preparing for Judge's visit on some level, but most of a two-day meeting was based around simply having conversations with the slugger, who surprised team officials with how detailed his questions were.

While Harper had spoken to the Giants in his hometown of Las Vegas, Judge's background allowed the organization a home-field advantage this time. They flew him home just in time for the holiday and pulled out all the stops over two days in San Francisco.

The first night included a group dinner at the Gotham Club with a private chef, a sommelier from Napa, a tour of the ballpark and a surprise visit from Rich Aurilia, Judge's childhood idol. After hours of wide-ranging conversation the next day, Judge was put in touch with Steph Curry, who joined the recruiting process via text.

The Giants believed the visit went about as well as it could, and many in their large traveling party arrived in San Diego on Monday feeling they were in a dead heat with the Yankees. The industry started to shift the odds in San Francisco's favor Monday, but Zaidi said he never got caught up in expectations.

"This whole time, we were just dealing with a lot of uncertainty," he said. "I know there were rumors at times that we felt more or less confident. I can say for myself that was never a reflection of how I felt. I always knew that there was a lot of competition."

For a brief moment Tuesday, the competition appeared to be over. Jon Heyman of the New York Post tweeted that Judge had chosen the Giants, sending a tidal wave through the Hyatt lobby.

On the second floor of the building, as he prepared for a TV interview, Giants manager Gabe Kapler was surrounded by writers looking for confirmation and a few others ready to offer congratulations. He said there was nothing new to report. Asked one day later what he did when he saw that news flash across his phone, Zaidi paused.

"Correct it," he said. "Obviously, I knew it wasn't accurate."

RELATED: Why Giants view Haniger as big piece to overhauled outfield

Zaidi went to bed a few hours later with the sense that a real decision was imminent. In the middle of the night, he finally received word that the Giants had fallen short, bringing an end to a free agency that was masterfully handled by Judge's side.

Earlier Tuesday, team employees had passed around a Time magazine story that included juicy quotes from Judge, who generally has tried to follow the non-controversial path set by the previous Yankees captain, Derek Jeter. The quotes raised eyebrows across the industry and hopes within the Giants organization, but that didn't last long.

As he digested it all, Zaidi didn't at all sound like a man who held any bitterness. He spoke highly of the character of a player who had just decided the Giants weren't the right fit, even if there was so much indicating that they could be.

"People in the Yankees organization all talk about [Judge's] character, and part of that is loyalty," Zaidi said. "It's loyalty to an organization that he's been with, the fans, teammates, and so part of what we really liked and valued about him was something that was probably going to create this draw to stay with the people he's been with over the years."

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