I was born a New Yorker and grew up a New York Yankee fan. Born to be, might be a better way to express it. Aaron Judge is the latest Yankee slugger with his record setting 62 home runs in the 2022 season. I saw Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris chasing Ruth’s 60 home runs in 1961 with Maris actually surpassing Ruth with his 61st home run — and no asterisk please. He did it! I don’t care how many more games Maris had to do it! And as chance would have it, I was in North Dakota (Roger Maris’ home state) when Judge hit No. 62.
Roger Over And Out
Aaron Judge and his 62 —
And we were in
Killdeer, North Dakota
to catch it — WJH
So, I'm headed to Pasadena and Los Angeles, to sightsee and swim, swim in the Pacific Ocean. But long before that, off 99 South, Linden, CA, hometown of New York Yankee Aaron Judge. Excited, passed it several times; now’s the time to take it in, talk to some locals about the local boy makes famous. Sandy Koufax, Curt Flood, Jackie Robinson would get me to turn off the highway. The special ones.
I’m guessing Linden is Steinbeck, farming, hot and dry off 99 South, not all that south of Sacramento where I live. Got my New York Yankees shirt on to give me free access to Aaron Judge’s hometown even though this is San Francisco Giants country. I’m ok, I’ve lived here in Cali-north long enough to love the Giants and the A’s. Living is good. If someone had ever told me, Yankees, Linden, Cali. Good for me.
99 South is rough and ready for a face lift but maybe left as is, not the death row of interest on I-5.
These small American towns produce such athletes as Mickey Mantle from Commerce, OK, windblown and off most maps, Roger Maris from Fargo, ND. Whose been to Fargo other than me?
And now Aaron Judge, turning off 99 for Linden, CA, onto rural Rt. 26.
Aaron Judge, all 6’ 8” of him, a gentle giant, multi-multi-millionaire (good for him) married his high school sweetheart, MVP, home run leader, mythical early in his career, a most worthy successor to the Yankee tradition of greatness, i.e., Derek Jeter. If he happens to be in town, you’d definitely notice him. “All rise for the Judge!” the fans chant in Yankee Stadium — fans in judge’s robes, wigs, gavels, even a jury box-like section in the stands.
Off 99 onto Rt. 26, 10 miles into Linden and as suspected/expected, agricultural California, groves upon groves, cherries, peaches — in season — walnuts, all around. Cherries — just adds to the whole enchanted sweetness of the day because a sign off the road among the orchards, announces Linden, Population 1,800, Home of New York Yankee Aaron Judge in Yankee blue and white, the dusky Sierra Nevadas off in the distance. I’m feeling like I did when I drove into Fairmount, Indiana, James Dean’s hometown, farming, small, a Brigadoon feeling like the town only appears when you are there. Much like I’m feeling today, the Yankee living myth made truly real as this Linden, this Brigadoon appears.
On in past Linden High School, with its high sports lights, football and baseball fields, where Aaron Judge played his dreams of Yankee Stadium? I wonder.
Main Street Linden is as you would guess, just enough, not enough, some shuttered, some quaint, some rough and ready, brick standard thrift shop, Rinaldl’s Market on the way in all bright and newer, orchards all around, more brick and wooden buildings, nothing enormous or offensive, not as other central valley farming towns for sure. A long way from the lights of Broadway, New York, Linden could be tumbleweed and dust during drought. That’s an agricultural compliment.
Ah, the Linden Public Library. Simple pleasures. Closed. Nuts. I'll try this little battered grocery store, almost old west adobe. The manager is as Mexican as adobe. My pointing to my Yankee logo and asking, “Aaron Judge?” He’s confused. He’s new to it all, having crossed, having worked the cherry harvest? No problemo.
I passed what looked like a passable Berkeleyish café, The Wandering Fox. No ham and eggs diner in town. Too bad. But I have hit the jackpot in The Wandering Fox Café. I’ll stop right here to say I’m writing this section of Linden in the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel. So there. Told ya I was on my way to Los Angeles.
Three young ladies in the hippish Wandering Fox Café. Natives. I sit with Shana, rhymes with banana she tells me, country small town gal, complete with ball cap, lovely, friendly, comfortable. She went to high school with Aaron Judge. Let the games begin!
She’s open and honest all about Aaron. He was adopted. I did not know that; all the more wonderful. I’m full of wonder and questions. All answered. You had to be there. I had to be. You should. “When was the last time you saw him? Did you have an idea of the fame and fortune to come?” She’s proud of him and willing to show me around a bit, the other two young ladies equally proud of the native son and their ever-improving town — meaning they need and are pushing for a motel, but they have Shana’s boutique shop in a 1850s brick. Her shop, clothes and accessories, could be in Aspen, so Linden is leaning in and next door a delicatessen — magic words to a New Yorker — not to pick on anyone but once outside New York no delis measure up. Here the lady at the counter is most courteous and considerate, showing off the deli’s wares as I ask more about Aaron Judge. She tells me the guy in back went to high school with Judge so I get to share some good memories of him. Of course, I knew he was a good man and it’s all been verified, certified by all the natives so far.
310 feet to left field at the Linden High baseball field. I bet Aaron Judge dropped a few over the 310 feet, he was in the 6’5” range then? What a sight, the field empty. But for me, echoes of heroics past on his way to Fresno State.
Now for the High School, scene of the climb, compact, simple pleasures. I’m trying for some of Aaron Judge’s teachers. I get it from a gentleman in the parking lot that a Mark Miller who coached Aaron Judge may be having breakfast in the gym. So, as Brigadoon would have it, the school’s teachers and staff are having a get ready for the coming season with a sit-down breakfast in the school’s Hoosiers-like gym.
A gem of an occasion, dozens and dozens of folks who know him, who taught the Yankee. I inquire of a gentleman in the food line who appears old enough to ask. “No, but of course I know him.” A younger guy with him tells me he played football against him. Had no idea what was to come. What is about to come still has my head spinnin’.
The gentleman tells me Aaron Judge’s mother-in-law is in the food line. What!? He points her out, blue sweatshirt. She's seated with her meal. I sit down beside her and catch my breath. Unexpected, to say the most.
“Uh, you are Aaron Judge’s mother-in-law?” pleasantly, not too imposing, showing off my Yankee logo and introducing myself as a writer, writing an article on Aaron Judge’s hometown of Linden.
Karen, she’s all in. She’s a wisp of a woman, as sun browned as fine rawhide leather, looking the part, wrangler that is, a hardworking ranch hand, with all necessary courtesy attached. She’s the school’s janitor or if we needs be woke, Custodial Consultant.
Our conversation is straight forward, give and take, comfortable, my head spinnin’ from the comfortable, telling her how heart-breaking it would have been had Judge left the Yankees for the Giants. She understands. I would have closed the door on the Yankees if they’d let Judge get away. I’ll keep most of our conversation to myself, careful not to tread too too, at a small risk. But one thing I’ll share — everyone has said what a good guy Aaron Judge is. Again, I’m asking everyone if they could have envisioned him becoming the player he has become.
Karen, his mother-in-law, tells me she only wanted this fine young man to be with her daughter, Sam. She tells me of Aaron’s football stadium half-time marriage proposal? I think I’ve got that right. Right enough. She tells me how she watches her “son”-in-law at bat — through her almost open fingers sort of sideways. I can only imagine. She tells me she went to Anaheim to see Aaron play but he was out with a bum toe. She’s not been to Yankee Stadium, yet. I’m going to correct that a bit. I’m sending her a little scale model of Yankee Stadium and booklet on its history. I think that’s enough of our shared conversation, with others at the table also, one lovely lady is going to purchase my novel ‘Yellowstone’ on Amazon Books. Wonderful.
Outside the school’s compact swimming pool almost Greek in its blue and white building, the Linden Lions Blue and Gold.
Rinaldi’s Market, fresh and clean, just missed Aaron Judge’s mother, the store manager tells me. Small town dignity, possibilities.
Pizza Plus Parlor, a mix of saloon, almost a perfect barn, with that cozy New Yorky pizza parlor like it was a parlor in a fine ranch house. It definitely works with a large Aaron Judge at bat on the wall — God Goliath if I may be careful with the cliches. Lovely, young Victoria, just me and her on a Wednesday afternoon, tells me how the media crowded in when Judge was up at bat for No. 62. Victoria is as full of the local enthusiasm as anyone I’ve met. Delightful, Delights, Full.
I’m back, two days later for a televised Yankee game. No Aaron Judge in the lineup. Nuts. But the library and the Wandering Fox Café fill in the blanks and then sitting in Pizza Plus enjoying a Salami sandwich and the game against the dastardly Astros as much as I can without Judge in the lineup. No free lunch, with local visions of Yankees and Giants in World Series. Could happen…
Stopped in the local bar 26 for Rt. 26 — me and the barkeep on a Friday afternoon in the real, real place, the barkeep searching for the game, more local coloring book, then after a cold one, driving through the shady lane neighborhoods, simple/ample homes and a similar lawn subdivision. A bit jarring after the shady lanes, as quiet as the somewhat Spanish Mission Catholic Church, some Spanish California red roof tiled homes.
Bought some peaches at Rinaldi’s Market — in season, namesake cherries all out of season. Stopping in Orlando’s Market and short bar just for a look, and there’s lovely young Victoria for a nice send off, right after I ask two Linden High School cheerleaders all in uniform for permission to take their picture. Permission granted.
Aaron Judge and Linden, CA, all cherries on top of my peanuts and crackerjacks.