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Baseball-Judge poised to make history in the Bronx in home run race

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Reuters

NEW YORK — Yankees slugger Aaron Judge arrives back in New York with the hopes of hometown fans on his shoulders, after equaling the American League single-season home run record on the road, with the chance to break Roger Maris’ 1961 mark in the Bronx.

He equaled Yankee legend Babe Ruth’s best single-season performance of 60 last week, and there was palpable relief among Yankees fans on Wednesday as he notched homer number 61 in Toronto after seven straight games and 33 plate appearances without a home run.

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The seventh-inning blast over the left field wall set up a tantalizing possibility of making history inside Yankee Stadium, when the Bronx Bombers kick off a three-game series on Friday against the Baltimore Orioles.

“Looking forward to taking it back home,” Judge told an on-air reporter on Wednesday night. “I’m playing a kids game, I love this, I love these moments.”

The overall Major League Baseball (MLB) record belongs to Barry Bonds, with 73 homers hit for the National League’s San Francisco Giants in 2001. Bonds is among the many of MLB’s great sluggers tainted by doping accusations in the so-called “Steroid Era.”

While Judge is exceedingly unlikely to break the overall mark, his run for the American League record has nonetheless created a compelling storyline for a league that has struggled to captivate younger fans. Other broadcasts, including even some college football games, have been cutting away to show Judge at bats.

“He’s setting the American League record and he’s beating Roger Maris and he’s beating Babe Ruth. That’s enough. He doesn’t have to do any more than that,” baseball historian Peter Golenbock told Reuters.

“What Aaron Judge is doing right now is astounding, especially considering that unlike back in 1961, every single pitcher who’s throwing at him is throwing 95 miles an hour.”

CHARISMATIC TITAN

With movie-star looks and a mega-watt smile, the six-foot seven-inch (2.01 m) outfielder is a charismatic titan tailor-made for the bright lights of New York City. And his stats this year have been no less dazzling.

As of Thursday, he boasted the best batting average, the most RBIs and by far the most home runs in the American League, putting him in contention to clinch an elusive “Triple Crown,” a feat last accomplished by the Detroit Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera a decade ago. The last Yankee to win the Triple Crown was another iconic slugger, Mickey Mantle in 1956.

The only player in Major League history to have a bigger home run lead over the player in second place was Ruth in 1928.

Manager Aaron Boone said that Judge, who grew up rooting for Bonds’ San Francisco Giants, is not motivated by personal glory.

“What he cares about is being a great teammate and winning,” Boone told reporters. “When, at your core, that’s what your desire is, it kind of keeps things simple. He’s not out there to be the hero.”

But a hero’s welcome is exactly what Judge and his teammates can expect Friday, coming home from Toronto having clinched the AL East division title.

Judge’s performance this season has already earned him a spot in the pantheon of Yankees greats, said Golenbock, whose own interviews with the late Maris feature in his most recent book “Whispers of the Gods.”

“I’ll tell you exactly where he fits: You start with Ruth. And then you got Gehrig and you got DiMaggio, and then you got Mantle, and then you got Derek Jeter,” he told Reuters.

“And now you have Aaron Judge. Just like that.” (Reporting by Amy Tennery in New York; Editing by Bill Berkrot)