Whenever Mike Batesole welcomes a recruit and his family on a visit, or answers a call on his cell phone from a New York area code, the name on everyone’s lips is always the same:
“They’re all over it,” Fresno State’s baseball coach said. “That’s the first thing mom and dad and the kid ask about. They want to know which one was Aaron Judge’s locker.”
Batesole, of course, is only too happy to answer all Judge-related queries, whether they come from mom and dad or the New York Post, ESPN Radio or Fox Sports (“Who haven’t I talked to?”) or even some passerby. Because his thoughts and reflections on the New York Yankees outfielder also reflect well on his program.
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And when one of your former players leads the American League in batting average and home runs, not to mention the all-star balloting, and does so as a rookie in the country’s largest media market while making 450-foot dingers de rigueur, there’s plenty of shine to go around.
Having someone like Aaron Judge from your program makes people want to go to Fresno State.
Fresno State baseball coach Mike Batesole
In a year when Fresno State didn’t experience a whole lot of competitive success, Judge’s rapid ascension to MLB’s newest superstar gives fans reason to puff out their chests. That 6-foot-7, 280-pound athletic freak is one of ours, and don’t forget the #BulldogBornBulldogBred hashtag.
Combined with Derek Carr, the Oakland Raiders’ Pro Bowl quarterback, and Paul George, the Indiana Pacers’ all-star small forward, former Bulldogs now populate the upper tier in all three major professional sports leagues.
Certainly Fresno State has served as a launching pad for dozens of pro careers. But never three rising stars in all three major sports at the same time.
“I don’t think there’s a school in the country that can top it,” Fresno State athletic director Jim Bartko said. “You take those three players, probably three of the top 10 in each of their sports, and they’re all Bulldogs. It shows that you can go to Fresno State, have success and then take it to the highest level.”
While it’s great to bask in the glow, this kind of confluence doesn’t come along too often and therefore represents a rare opportunity.
While it’s great to bask in the glow, this kind of confluence doesn’t come along too often (Bo Jackson and Charles Barkley were at Auburn together in the mid ’80s, followed closely by Frank Thomas) and therefore represents a rare opportunity.
Fresno State should be asking itself what it can do to take advantage.
The only way the Carr-Judge-George convergence could be tidier would be if all three had been on campus simultaneously.
Shucks, no. While Carr’s time at Fresno State (2009-13) overlapped the other two, George and Judge just missed each other. When the Pacers drafted George at No. 10 overall on June 24, 2010, Judge had just graduated from Linden High. The future Yankee had already signed but wouldn’t officially become a Bulldog till August.
“What makes this so great is all three of them are such great people off the field,” Batesole said. “Derek Carr and Paul George both have that same big, beautiful smile that Aaron Judge has. You don’t see them frowning and scowling. It’s unique, and I think that’s a big part of their popularity.”
There’s certainly a branding benefit to having three smiling all-stars attached to your university. Particularly when all three are such great ambassadors for it. And Batesole has certainly noticed a Judge Effect with respect to recruiting.
But aside from welcoming them back in some celebratory capacity, whether as honorary captains or for jersey retirement ceremonies, how else can Fresno State benefit?
The obvious answer is donations – pro athletes make heaps of money – but that’s a different type of playing field.
Yes, the artificial turf at Bulldog Stadium was donated by Logan Mankins and family. And George has twice bought all the tickets at Save Mart Center so fans could attend free. But by and large, Fresno State’s largest financial contributors have been ex-Bulldogs who went on to success in some other field.
“Pro athletes have a lot on their plates, a lot of people are asking them for stuff,” Bartko said. “They need to know we care about them even if they don’t give money and that they’re always welcome back. If they want to support us financially, they will. But we have to make sure when we contact them it’s not, ‘Hey, Jim’s calling. He’s asking for money.’ ”
They need to know we see them as more than just a checkbook that’s giving us money. We care about them as people.
Fresno State athletic director Jim Bartko
Does that mean there will be no rubbing of hands at Cedar and Barstow once Carr and the Raiders agree to a new contract, which should rank among the richest in NFL history?
“Absolutely not,” Bartko said. “Derek is a great supporter of the Bulldogs, and we’re proud he’s going to get a new contract. It’s well deserved. There’s no athlete I’ve been around that’s such a class act on and off the field. I’m thrilled he’s having success, and he’s always welcome back here.”
Time is on Fresno State’s side here. George is 27 years old, will be an unrestricted free agent next summer and reportedly “hell-bent” on playing for the Lakers. Carr is 26 and about to become a franchise quarterback in every sense. Judge is 25 and already being anointed the Next Great Yankee after Derek Jeter.
Amazing to think about, really, how three Bulldogs from earlier this decade now rank among the biggest stars in their respective sports. Now it’s up to Fresno State, whether in public or in more subtle ways, to make sure it gleans some of that glory.