Judge, a ris­ing star of ex­tremes and mys­tery, takes US by storm

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New York Yan­kee has smashed record for home runs by a rookie and slumped spec­tac­u­larly too

Mas­ter blaster The 6ft 7in Aaron Judge hit 52 home runs in the MLB reg­u­lar sea­son and en­ters the Amer­i­can League se­ries tonight with the Yan­kees against Hous­ton

Jim McIsaac/ Getty Im­ages

geese turned out to be swans or, in Judge’s case, some larger beast. He is 25, a lit­tle old for an overnight sen­sa­tion, but he went to col­lege first and put base­ball sec­ond. In a way, he seems age­less. In some lights his face looks baby­ish; in oth­ers, as though it has been chis­elled out of Mount Rush­more.

There are as­pects of his game that might be re­garded as im­ma­ture. Along with the home runs have come their po­lar op­po­site: a record num­ber of strike-outs (“three strikes and yer out”), re­garded by griz­zled old pros as a hu­mil­i­at­ing kind of exit, akin to be­ing bowled mid­dle stump. In this, he has al­ready bro­ken the post-sea­son record, 30, with con­sid­er­able power to add against Hous­ton and maybe be­yond.

Home runs are great for show, but for dough – the con­ven­tional wis­dom has it – front­line bat­ters such as Judge are meant above all to keep the ball down, get it through the in­field, reach base and hus­tle like hell for runs. But in all of this, Judge is lead­ing a trend: the to­tal num­ber of Ma­jor League home runs in 2017 smashed the pre­vi­ous high of 5,963, set in 2000, the height of base­ball’s sub­servience to the il­le­gal phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal in­dus­try. To­tal strike­outs were also a record, pass­ing 40,000 for the first time.

No one has ad­e­quately ex­plained the rush of homers, though there are whis­pers that the drug­gies might again have found a way to thwart the au­thor­i­ties, who were un­be­liev­ably slow in wak­ing up to the power of steroids. There is no ev­i­dence for this, yet. It may be more pro­duc­tive to note the anal­ogy with cricket, which also now prizes hit-and-hope above its old ver­i­ties. Base­ball, though, re­mains recog­nis­ably the sport it al­ways was and not a mar­ket­ing-driven mish-mash.

And Judge is quite clearly an ex­cep­tional, if mys­te­ri­ous, spec­i­men. Even his eth­nic­ity is a mat­ter of in­ter­net spec­u­la­tion: he was adopted – into a no­tably proud and to­gether fam­ily – as a baby and has no knowl­edge of his bi­o­log­i­cal parent­age.

His bat­ting form, how­ever, is again a mat­ter of con­cern. He has suf­fered the strike-outs all right, but against Cleve­land man­aged a soli­tary hit in 20 at-bats. The star­ring role with the bat was played by an­other up-and-comer, Didi Gre­go­rius from Cu­ra­cao, the much-de­rided re­place­ment at short-stop for the great Derek Jeter. Gre­go­rius hit two homers in the first three in­nings in the cru­cial con­test in Cleve­land, and no one’s de­rid­ing now.

But it was the Judge catch that broke Cleve­land hearts. It did, how­ever, have an ex­tra di­men­sion that caused a rip­ple of sat­is­fac­tion across the game. The pho­tos show Judge grab­bing the ball inches away from the out­stretched mitt of a yel­low-shirted spec­ta­tor, ap­par­ently a teenaged in­no­cent sadly de­prived of the catch of this life. Skilled ob­servers, how­ever, recog­nised him as 40-year-old Zack Ham­ple, au­thor of How To Snag Ma­jor League Base­balls, and de­scribed by Busi­ness In­sider as “a no­to­ri­ous ball­hawk”. Base­ball cus­tom dic­tates that balls hit into the crowd be­long to the catcher, and at­ten­tive reg­u­lars may col­lect one or two in a life­time. Ham­ple re­put­edly has 10,000.

He does ap­pear to have his own su­per­hu­man knack for be­ing in the right place at the right time, and to raise money for char­ity rather than him­self. Against that, he has been ac­cused of knock­ing chil­dren out of the way to feed his col­lec­tion. Ah well, as the say­ing goes, judge not that ye be not judged.

A group of Yan­kee fans have turned up in judges’ wigs and car­ry­ing gavels

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