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Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees takes to the field at Yankee Stadium to play the Toronto Blue Jays on May 2, 2017. (<240>Elsa/Getty Images)
Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees takes to the field at Yankee Stadium to play the Toronto Blue Jays on May 2, 2017. (<240>Elsa/Getty Images)

Kelly: Yankees breakout star Aaron Judge is assuming Mickey’s mantle Add to ...

When Aaron Judge first joined the New York Yankees, he wanted his habitual No. 44 jersey. A small problem – that was Reggie Jackson’s number. It’s been retired.

Instead, Judge had to settle for 99. Since everyday players tend to wear lower numbers, this is the Outer Hebrides of digits.

“You don’t really get a choice,” Judge shrugs. “And who would turn down a jersey from the Yankees?”

In very recent years, possibly a few people.

The Yankees haven’t been terribly good and, weighed down by ill-advised, long-term contracts that have become budgetary anchors, they haven’t been burying people in ski hills of money. When they signed veteran Matt Holliday to a one-year, $13-million (U.S.) deal this past winter, it was emblematic of their new approach.

But the aspirational result of that financial caution and temporary acceptance of a very un-Yankee-like mediocrity is embodied by Judge. Quite literally.

There are a few very big people in baseball, but none anywhere close to imposing as this one. Big ballplayers tend to be galumphing men. They don’t walk. They lumber. And most of them don’t lumber much further than the pitching mound.

Judge, an outfielder, is a LeBron James sort of big – 6-foot-7, 282 pounds. Though enormous, he is as trim and spritely as a sprinter. He’s the sort of person who looks as if he’s running as he slowly moves from his locker to the bathroom.

There are plenty of very good players in baseball, most of whom have the charisma of a carp. They all look the same. Everything about Judge works in defiance of that tendency toward conformity – the scale of him, the gap-toothed smile, the charming goofiness. Plus – at least so far – he’s good. Mickey Mantle good.

Two months ago, he was a curiosity. Today, he’s the second-leading vote getter for the American League all-star team (behind the king of baseball’s bland brigade, Mike Trout). Only a few weeks into his career, and owing a huge debt to where he plays, Judge is poised to become the most recognizable face in the game.

They still aren’t going to give him a new number. That’s one of many aspects of the Yankee way – humility, above all else.

Despite a very small bit of grumbling in the press, Judge is bringing himself around to the idea. It is suggested to him that 99 is actually an epic number, especially up here in Canada.

Judge nods slowly at the idea, waiting for more information. You nod with him, hoping he gets there without prompting. You’re both standing there for a long while, nodding at each other like a couple of monks on the path to enlightenment.

“Because of … because of … the hockey?” Judge says finally.

Canada, hockey – this is every American’s safe conversational harbo(u)r.

Yes, because of the hockey! Because it was … you know … it belonged to … help me out here.

Judge is not getting there.

Because it was Wayne Gretzky’s number.

Judge lights up – “Right!”

Are you familiar with him at all?

Judge starts fumbling around for something nice to say, “Um, not really. I don’t know much. I’ve heard stories about him and they’re great. It would have been cool to meet him.”

Apparently, Judge thinks Wayne Gretzky is dead.

Judge feels badly about all this. He knows he hasn’t given you what you’d hoped for. He’s 25, still young by the standards of this sport and in every other sense as well – eager to please, especially with strangers.

As you turn to leave, he does something odd in a baseball context. He reaches out and touches you on the shoulder. He extends a hand for shaking and says, “Sorry, what was your name again?”

Cathal.

“It was really nice to meet you, Cobal. Thanks for talking to me.”

Oh no.

Does this mean I have to start liking the Yankees?

You could hate the Yankees, but you were also compelled to respect them

In the early aughties glory days, the New York clubhouse felt like the most baseball-y place in baseball. That was largely down to the example of Derek Jeter.

Jeter was not a warm person, but he was regal in an approachable way. He floated into a room and pulled all the attention in it toward himself without ever seeming to try.

He would talk to anyone and give them his full attention – a rarity at that level of stardom. Even as he crept into his mid-30s, Jeter had the habit of calling everyone he spoke to, even those much younger, as “Ma’am” or “Sir.” He called his manager “Mr. Torre.” He looked you in the eye at a staring-contest level of intensity.

In baseball more so than in other sports, the best player in the room sets the standard and everyone else strives to meet it. Every sort of standard. Jeter’s behavioural lead made the Yankees’ room simultaneously the most relaxed and most professional place in the game. Players who had been surly and suspicious elsewhere suddenly transformed into easygoing raconteurs once they put on the pinstripes. The result of that ease was seen on the field.

You could hate the Yankees, but you were also compelled to respect them. They had what has since become the most overused term-of-art in team sports – a good culture.

(Jeter is now in the midst of a stuttering attempt to buy the most hapless franchise in baseball, the Miami Marlins. It has become the generally accepted wisdom that this whole endeavour will end in tears. Having watched Jeter hold the Yankees together by force of will over nearly two decades, I rather doubt that.)

As Jeter faded as a Yankee player, Alex Rodriguez took over. That didn’t go quite as well.

Rodriguez wasn’t a bad guy – he could be every bit as welcoming as his infield frenemy – but he somehow transmitted bad vibes to the rest of the herd. Having been kicked around so often, he stopped caring what anyone thought of him. Like their new alpha, New York’s collective personality became feral and aimless.

The Yankees’ clubhouse was now a place like any other – clumps of guys scattered about in their cliques just trying to power through six months and see where that got them.

It wasn’t getting them anywhere and so, wisely, the Yankees management gave up trying. The team never got really bad, but they stopped mattering.

That was fun for a while – the New York Yankees on their heels, if never their knees. From our local perspective, the nadir came near the end of the 2015 season. The Jays went to New York with the division in the balance. On Saturday, Sept. 12, they played a double-header.

It rained sporadically through most of that day, causing multiple delays. The Yankees pooched it in the first contest – walking five men and hitting another in the 11th inning.

By the time the second game got going, Yankee Stadium was as empty as it has ever been for a first pitch. As it ended – another Jays victory that functionally put them over the top – there were perhaps 500 people left in the crowd. It was a humiliation.

Now there are humiliations and then there are humiliations. The Yankees would still get a wild-card spot that year. But whatever aura remained from the Jeter era dissipated that weekend.

The Yankees had been bending for a while, but the Jays broke them. They were no longer anywhere close to the class of baseball’s best division. In New York, all the front-runners had started shuffling over to the Mets’ side of town.

In 2016, they gave up in July, trading not only their two best relievers, but possibly the two best relievers in the game – Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman. They also traded veterans Ivan Nova and Carlos Beltran. That temporary surrender netted a dozen young players and turned New York’s farm system into the most admired in baseball.

Going into the year, they had seven of Baseball America’s top-100 prospects. Judge was ranked second-to-last of them – 90th over all. He currently leads baseball in home runs, and is near the top in most offensive categories.

New York also had last year’s breakout star, catcher Gary Sanchez. He’s struggled in his sophomore year – until Thursday night in Toronto. He hit two line-drive homers, prompting his manager, Joe Girardi, to deadpan, “The young man has the ability to make adjustments.”

The Jays enjoyed their May, particularly the latter half, feeding as they were on some of baseball’s roster chum. Thursday’s 12-2 shellacking felt different.

It will only grow more so as many of the players from the minor-league affiliates – 20-year-old infielder Gleyber Torres prime among them – begin their imminent graduation to the senior team.

(By contrast, the best player in the Jays’ system, 18-year-old Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., isn’t due to arrive at the highest level until at least three seasons from now.)

The Yankees room has changed again. It’s livelier than in years past; bright in a kindergartenish way.

Ahead of Thursday’s game, many of the Spanish-speaking players were engaged in some sort of game that involved softly bonking diminutive shortstop Reynaldo Torreyes on the top of the head. There was a lot of shoving and scampering about. It’d settle for a bit, then break out again, like cats play fighting. Everybody was enjoying themselves (except for Torreyes, who absorbed the gentle punishment with a lot of sighing and eye rolling). When the boss, Girardi, suddenly ambled into the room looking for an assistant coach, everyone got still and giggly.

The older veterans – Holliday, Chase Headley, Brett Gardner – didn’t so much tolerate this behaviour as they pretended it wasn’t happening. Like parents allowing children to be childish as long as they know when they can. It’s okay in the house. It’s not okay in church.

If the room has a focus now, and despite his callowness, it is Judge. His colleagues perk up when he enters. He makes a show of greeting everyone. His locker is a reception area.

Though there are enormous dissimilarities in age, experience, position, personal style and general presentation, New York fans are eager to cast Judge as Jeter’s heir.

In a recent interview, Jeter metaphorically laid his hands on the young Californian: “He’s a good person. He works hard. He has the right demeanour and attitude.”

Somehow, at 42, Jeter has transformed himself into the game’s wise old man.

You will note that nothing he said there has anything to do with baseball. Working from a distance, Jeter is trying to remind Judge that leading the Yankees is a lot more than playing well for the Yankees.

From the perspective of the rest of the division, it feels like a frightening return to form. It’s a reminder that if you want to do anything in the AL East, you have to go through the Bronx. And despite recent gentrification, 161st Street is a dangerous place again.

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