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Chicago Sun-Times

Here comes the Judge-ment: Anthony Rizzo is the leader the Yankees needed

It’s hard enough to hit a home run at Wrigley Field when the wind is blowing in. It can be even harder to do it when the wind is blowing out.

In case that sounds antithetical to the laws of physics, rest assured: It is. But temptations of the mind are another matter. On those days when Waveland and/or Sheffield beckons, it can be mighty difficult for batters to avoid violating an age-old baseball maxim: Don’t go up there looking for a homer.

“That is a psychological battle that is real when you’re on the Cubs,” said Anthony Rizzo, who spent nearly a decade on the North Side before being traded to the Yankees at the 2021 deadline. “The days it does blow out, you’re trying to hit a pop-up and you usually get jammed.”

The Yankees — off to a sensational 24-8 start — are in town for a four-game series against the White Sox. Rizzo, who never hit more than 32 homers as a Cub, showed up with a hefty nine of them already. Teammate Aaron Judge walloped his 12th — the most in the majors — in the second game of the series Friday.

On the best team in baseball, the Judge-Rizzo combo has become a driving force. Rizzo follows the towering superstar in the lineup, has befriended him inside the clubhouse and away from the ballpark and regularly talks his ear off in the dugout. Judge, a pending mega-free agent after this season whose relationship with the front office has become strained — an experience Rizzo had in Chicago — has gotten a lift from the camaraderie.

“Having a guy like that who’s had his success, he could be an a-hole to everyone in this room,” Judge said in the visitors’ clubhouse at Guaranteed Rate Field, where he and Rizzo occupied neighboring lockers. “But he’s one of the most welcoming leaders I’ve ever been around.”

Five homers into his season, Rizzo complained to Judge — and not for the first time — that he’d yet to benefit from a cheapie over the famously short porch in right at Yankee Stadium, where the wall meets the foul line a mere 314 feet from home plate. Judge heard the same complaint all last August and September after Rizzo joined the team. Shaking his head and smiling at the recollection, Judge launched into a Rizzo impersonation:

“ ‘Everybody talks about this short porch, man! I never get any cheap home runs here!’ ” Judge said.

“I finally told him, ‘Just watch. You’ll get one soon. You’ll just miss it — pop it up — and it’s going to bounce right on top of the fence at the 314.’ ”

Sure enough, on April 26 — Judge’s 30th birthday — in the Bronx, in the eighth inning of a game against the Orioles, Rizzo came to the plate against lefty reliever Alex Wells. Judge had just taken Wells deep to left for a three-run lead. Rizzo, having a banner night, had already parked homers No. 6 and 7 into the bleachers in right-center.

With a chance for the first three-homer game of his career, Rizzo pulled a lazy, sky-high fly down the line and — mistaking it for a foul ball or, if not, an easy out — stood there holding his bat with a sour look on his face until the ball curled back inside the foul pole and barely cleared the wall above the 314 sign. Judge had predicted it almost exactly. Rizzo dropped the bat, gave a shocked look toward the dugout and said, “Oh, my God” as he started his trot.

In a jubilant dugout, every Yankee high-fived Rizzo except for a beaming 6-7, 282-pound birthday boy, who shouted, “I told you!” and shared a forearm bash with his pal.

Rizzo has made connections with the team’s biggest stars — Gerrit Cole and Giancarlo Stanton, to name two — and, according to Judge, everyone else from manager Aaron Boone to the lowest teammates on the totem pole. With the Cubs, Rizzo’s leadership qualities eventually came into question from the front office. With the Yankees, they’ve been greatly appreciated.

“He is just so calm, cool and collected,” Judge said, “and when you bring that in here — into a hostile environment in New York — it really helps. I honestly think it’s one of the biggest reasons we’ve had a lot of success in games where we’ve come back. He keeps everybody loose. We’re down 3-0 in the second or third inning? ‘Hey, this is a game. We’ve got a really good team.’ It doesn’t matter how many runs we’re down, he always likes our chances and just puts confidence in guys.”

Rizzo left a piece of his heart in Chicago — there’s no doubt about that — but he’s not complaining about playing for what he calls the “biggest sports franchise in the world.” Great friend and mentor Jon Lester impressed on Rizzo long ago that experiencing success in two of the league’s top markets can be a wonderful thing.

Now, Rizzo simply has to make the most of it. So far, so good.