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How Aaron Judge’s small town prepared him for the Big Apple

Will Amberg, of Linden, and others watches home town hero, Yankees player Aaron Judge, 25, at bat during the All-Star Game on the television at Silver’s Bar in Linden, Calif., on Tuesday, July 11, 2017. Judge, a rookie outfielder for the Yankees, won the All-Star Game’s Home Run Derby on Monday. (Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group)

LINDEN — Here amid the walnut trees and cherry orchards, driving directions are easy. There are no stoplights. The lone pizza joint is next to the post office, which is across the street from the library.

“Sneeze and you’ll miss it,” one Linden native said.

Aaron Judge’s hometown isn’t even a town. It’s technically listed as a census-designated place, with a population of 1,784 (as of 2010).

This tiny San Joaquin County community managed to produce the biggest thing in baseball, literally and figuratively.

And when Judge, the 6-foot-7, 282-pound New York Yankees slugger, won the Home Run Derby on Monday night, on the eve of his first All-Star Game, his neighbors took as much pride in his polite television interview as they did in his gargantuan home runs.

“It’s a small town, and everyone here is humble. We say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and we don’t act rude to each other,” said Shawn Summers, who played football with Judge at Linden High School.

Judge, 25, was born and raised here. Presumably, Judge was also a little kid here, although no one on here Tuesday recalled anything about Judge being little.

“He was 6-foot-6 and playing wide receiver,” Mark Miller, his Linden High School football coach said. “The other team would have some little 5-foot-nuthin’ cornerback trying to guard him. It should have been illegal, but it wasn’t.”

Judge is still making everybody else look puny. In winning the Home Run Derby in Miami on Monday night, the right-handed hitter walloped 47 home runs during the course of three rounds. Many of them had orchard-clearing distance: StatCast measured the combined length of his homers at 3.9 miles.

Judge’s barrage included a 513-foot showstopper, the longest home run by any player in the competition. The exit velocity of that blast was 118 mph.

The entrance velocity into Linden, through Highway 26, is 40 mph speed limit. It’s a well-worn path these days because of what Linden’s native son is doing. It’s not just what he’s accomplished as a rookie (Judge leads the majors with 30 homers) it’s also where he plays. New York is the media capital of the world, and pesky scribes can’t get enough of the record-setting rookie.

As a result, this town known for its cherry festival is getting its fill of the Big Apple. So many reporters have called or visited here in recent months that even the supermarket checkers at Rinaldi’s are feeling overexposed. Nancy, who no longer gives her last name, said Tuesday that this was her third interview about Judge.

She’s become the go-to source because her daughter played tee-ball with Judge and the kids grew up through school together. So in this exclusive middle-aisle interview, Nancy kept it short: “He’s always been super nice and we’re really, really proud of him.”

It helps that Judge is also proud of where he came from. He returns to Linden often. A New York Daily News story recently quoted the right fielder describing his home as if it were a Jimmy Stewart movie set.

“Everywhere you go, you see someone you know on the corner,” Judge said. “That was the cool thing about growing up there is I knew everybody. Everybody was my friend, everybody was looking out for each other and there’s no better place to grow up.”

John Pile, who lives across the street from the Judge family, remembers that the kid was always playing something in the yard. Pointing over to the Judge homestead, he said he most remembers the dribble-dribble-swish when Aaron was shooting hoops in his driveway.

Judge was a three-sport star at Linden High, where he played football (and set the school record with 17 touchdowns), basketball (a team-high 18.2 points) and baseball (where he augmented his power at the plate with an 0.65 ERA as a pitcher).

Pile said that when New York were in town to play the A’s in mid-June, the Linden native managed to zip home for a coveted dinner date — a booth at Pizza Plus with a couple of Yankees teammates in tow.

“It’s unbelievable,” Pile said. “From a small community like this to see a kid do so well. He’s such a humble kid. He’s so level-headed. His mother and father were both school teachers and they did a good job on him.”

Linden went to see him in Oakland, too. The local booster club chartered a bus to take a group out to the Coliseum for a weekend game.

“When the bus was full, they could have filled another one,” Miller, the football coach said “But so many people drove down there in cars that they filled up a whole section out in right field — a whole section.

“And between innings, (Judge) would sometimes come and throw the ball he was playing catch with into the Linden crowd. He doesn’t forget his roots. He’s just … my gosh.”

In an alternate universe, Judge could have been playing at the Coliseum all the time. The A’s drafted him out of high school in the 31st round of the 2010 draft. But Judge opted to attend Fresno State instead.

Summers, his old football teammate, said Judge always valued education, which makes sense. Residents here are quick to praise the work Wayne and Patty Judge did with their son. Both are teachers and active members of the community.

“His parents are just good people,” Miller, the football coach said. “Aaron Judge, to me, is what professional sports should be like. What positive thing to represent Linden. You couldn’t have asked for a better ambassador.”

The Yankees wound up getting Judge with the 32nd overall pick in the 2013 draft, throwing a curveball to a community long loyal to the Giants and A’s. Now, there are New York jerseys popping up around Linden.

Over at Rinaldi’s, the supermarket founded in 1948, there are now TVs above the registers so that customers can keep an eye on their favorite player.

Heck, even the umpires here love him.

“He’s one of the favorite kids I’ve ever dealt with,” said Steve Roberson, a regional sportswriter who also officiated games on weekends. “Just first class, no attitude, no ego. It’s just an amazing story.”

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