Soto, Judge were almost teammates … in San Diego

SAN DIEGO − Aaron Judge entered Petco Park early Friday afternoon, and couldn’t help but think how close he came to walking into the home clubhouse and wearing a San Diego Padres uniform.

Judge, who homered for the third consecutive game in the New York Yankees’ 8-0 victory over the Padres, was a free agent two years ago. Talks with the Yankees were stalled. Padres owner Peter Seidler picked up the phone in December 2022, and wanted to talk.

Judge and his agents secretly flew into San Diego on Dec. 6, met three hours with Seidler and Padres GM A.J. Preller at Petco Park, and were informed they were willing to offer at least a 10-year, $400 million contract.

Judge listened intently, was flattered, returned home, and a day later signed a nine-year, $360 million deal to remain with the Yankees.

“Oh yeah, I thought about it when I drove in,’’ Judge told USA TODAY Sports. “It was a long time ago. I tried to keep it quiet, but when I walked around the streets, a couple of people got wind of it. It was tough to hide.

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“But man, I was very impressed by [Seidler]. If we weren’t coming from the Yankees and the situation we have here, you never know. Just how he treated me and my family. Just a couple of hours meeting him, I was like, ‘This is what it’s all about. This is a true owner. This is a guy who cares about every single person from the cooks to the guy they’re trying to sign.’

“He’s definitely missed over there.

“A very special guy.’’

Seidler died last Nov. 14 at the age of 63, but if he were still alive, Juan Soto may still be wearing a Padres’ uniform, too.

Soto might have been locked up to a long-term contract, too, instead of hitting his 14th homer for the Yankees Friday, and now batting .315 with a .994 OPS as the leading contender for the American League MVP award.

“Peter Seidler talked throughout his illness about Juan,’’ agent Scott Boras told USA TODAY Sports late Friday night. “He kept saying, ‘We’re going to sign him. We’re going to get that done. We know what he means to us.’

“From everything Peter said to me, there is no way he would have traded Juan Soto. I don’t think that was in his DNA. It was very personal to him.

“Peter talked to me about Judge, too, and how serious he was inquiring about him. He was very secure in his thinking about the game. The only cost he worried about was building a statue for him.’’

Soto, 25, who was traded to the Yankees in December, reminded everyone in San Diego about his talent. He was heavily booed in his first at-bat, struck out, and then hit a 423-foot home run into the right-field seats in his second at-bat, doubled, and was robbed of another homer by right fielder Fernando Tatis Jr.

“It was electric, fun, definitely fun,’’ Soto said. “It was just great. You see right field, they were fighting with each other saying, ‘Let’s Go Yankees, Let’s Go Padres. Great energy out there.’’’

Soto reiterated before the game in a press conference, and again afterwards, just how much he’s enjoying being a Yankee. He loves his time in the Bronx, and the fans love him back.

“This is more than what I expected,’’ Soto said. “It’s been unbelievable so far.’’

Yet, while Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner says he wants to sit down with Boras and Soto and talk about a potential contract extension, Soto certainly is in no rush with free agency around the corner. Soto has had numerous conversations with Boras about a contract, according to Boras’ notes, and several chances to sign long-term extensions with the Washington Nationals and Padres, but is willing to wait until everyone can bid on him.

“This is a generational talent who is 25 years old,’’ said Boras, who plans to visit Soto and attend Saturday’s Yankees-Padres game. “We know what Juan Soto can do from 19 to 24, and now we’re just starting to learn what Juan Soto can do for the next eight or nine or 10 years in the prime of his career.

“Juan knows this. We talk about Juan as a player, but don’t forget about his intellect. He put himself in this [free-agent] position with his decision making. You don’t make the decisions he’s made unless you have a high intellect caliber.

“If Juan didn’t make these difficult decisions, he’d still be in Washington. Or he’d be in San Diego. These are Juan’s decisions.’’

So, yes, he’s willing to wait for free agency, and even with Steinbrenner declaring this week that a $300 million player payroll may not be sustainable, Soto and Boras shrug.

“When you have generational talents … ’’ Boras said, “They’re not really a part of the budget. They are part of how you grow assets. They are a different breed.

“The only cost concern is the cost of the monument.’’

In the meantime, well, enjoy the show, with Soto, Judge and Giancarlo Stanton hitting 1,249 feet of home runs in a span of five pitches in the third inning off Padres ace Yu Darvish, combining for 43 home runs this season.

The Yankees are now 36-17, and on pace to go 110-52 for their greatest season since 1998.

Yep, the year they swept the Padres in the World Series.

“Right now, I’m focusing toward 2024,’’ Soto says. “I’m a Yankee right now and my goals are really clear. That is to win a championship.”

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