TAMPA, Fla. — As Aaron Judge saw a group of reporters approaching his locker Thursday morning, he smiled sheepishly and asked: What do you got?
Like a 3-0 fastball, he knew what was coming.
The day before, Judge had remarked after the New York Yankees’ game against Baltimore that he had done some lobbying of Orioles star Manny Machado, who grew up admiring Alex Rodriguez and will be a headliner of next winter’s free-agent class.
After making small talk with Machado about how his offseason went and how his move to shortstop from third base is progressing, Judge hit him with a pitch: “I told him, ‘You’d look pretty good in pinstripes, too.’”
That drew some finger-wagging from Major League Baseball, which pointed out that players — like managers, general managers and other team officials — are prohibited from tampering with players under contract to another team.
“We have been in contact with the Yankees,” the league said in a statement. “They communicated to us that Mr. Judge’s off-the-cuff comments were not appropriate and not authorized by the club. They will speak to him to make sure that this does not happen again.”
According to MLB Rule 3(k): “There shall be no negotiations or dealings respecting employment, either present or prospective,” between players, coaches or club representatives unless they have written permission to do so. Under a broad interpretation, Judge’s comments could be construed as impermissible indirect contact for which the Yankees could be held responsible.
Player tampering has become a pressing matter in the NBA, ever since LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined up with Dwyane Wade on the Miami Heat in 2010, culminating a plan that was hatched during their time as teammates on the U.S. national team. With so many of the league’s marquee talents forging alliances and changing teams, player tampering has come under greater scrutiny.
MLB did not go beyond issuing a warning because the league believed Judge’s comments to Machado were lighthearted, and they were not orchestrated by the Yankees, according to a baseball official who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
The absence of any punishment is also an acknowledgment of how difficult it would be to police such conversations that routinely occur among players. Baseball took a similar stance two years ago when David Ortiz, with his retirement impending, remarked at the All-Star Game that Edwin Encarnacion would be a good replacement for him in Boston.
There were no repercussions in 2012, when Bryce Harper took to Twitter to pitch Giancarlo Stanton, then with the Miami Marlins, on joining him in Washington. “You can always play for the Nats!” Harper wrote in a tweet to Stanton. “We will take you anytime! Get some red, white and blue in your life!”
Stanton responded humorously: “Dang bro,” he wrote. “If only my last name backwards wasn’t NotNats!”
Good humored or not, the Yankees are particularly sensitive to suggestions of tampering since they are so often linked to superstar talent — as they have been for several years with Harper and Machado — and there is the perception it would be in baseball’s best interest to have the marquee players in Yankees uniforms.
“I’m just glad they didn’t catch Manny recruiting Judge,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter quipped Thursday to The Baltimore Sun.
Judge said Thursday he did not know that discussions like the one he had with Machado were prohibited. The day before he said that he made a similar plea last year to Stanton when they met at the All-Star Game last summer.
But he got a call Wednesday night from general manager Brian Cashman, who relayed the message from the league.
“Now I know,” Judge said. “Got a little refresher — learn something new every day.”
Cashman, who this week prohibited Clint Frazier from speaking with the news media while he recovers from a concussion, said he expected Judge — who often pauses and carefully considers his words with the news media — to remain a reticent speaker.
“I think Aaron Judge brings his A game every day,” Cashman said of Judge’s interactions with reporters. “You can’t throw a perfect game every day, either.”
“We’re covered so much and so extensively that you can’t be perfect and understand everybody’s issues,” he added. “Simple conversations are more complicated than when they play elsewhere.”