On Aaron Judge's pursuit of a home-run record
I’m beginning to write this report Monday morning without knowing when or how it will end. That’s because baseball, alone among major sports except golf and its ancestral cricket, is sedentary enough to be played every day. Hockey players regularly beat the shit out of each other; football players need a full week to recover between brutal contests that leave many crippled for life; basketball teams dash back and forth so endlessly and grapple so fiercely that back-to-back games are kept to a minimum; soccer players never stop moving; even tennis players seldom compete two days running and I do mean running. But in baseball only pitchers are required to overexert themselves, so that in recent years good arms have become so precious and expensive that even strong starts end before the eighth inning and even workhorse relievers don’t pitch three days in a row. On defense fielders stand alert until a batter hits the ball and then scamper, sometimes at high speed; on offense it’s a good inning when five or six batters even come to bat as their teammates cram the bench. No wonder they can play every day. No wonder the season stretches 162 games over six months. No wonder adrenaline junkies think America’s designated national pastime is boring.
Only this year not so much, and by now most of America knows why: Aaron Judge, who not only plays for the Yankees I’ve rooted for since I was seven but moved up to my favorite Yank when gutsy utility man Gio Urshela was traded last winter. I’m still not convinced dealing Gio was the right move, but it obviously isn’t on Judge, a joy since his first full season—2017, when it became apparent that the six-foot-seven 25-year-old wasn’t the oversized galoot I’d feared: 52 home runs plus he hit .284, more than solid in this post-.300 era even if he did strike out too much. Judge could also run and throw and cover the outfield, and he had a way about him: diffident without being self-effacing, as at 6-7 who could be, always calm but always intent, with an easy shrug and a toothy grin.
The Red Sox having ended the Yankees’ 2021 by crushing them in a gruesome wild card game, my team’s 2022 season began miraculous—going into July’s All-Star Game, where Judge’s fellow slugger Giancarlo Stanton was MVP, they were in first place by a huge 13 games. I didn’t swallow many games whole, but kept track of them via MLB’s pitch-by-pitch Gameday utility as I wrote in my office or watched TV with my wife while following John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman’s WFAN play-by-play via radio earpiece. It felt like they couldn’t lose—more than once we switched from Netflix to the Yankees’ YES Network to watch a tight endgame suddenly resolved by a Judge or Stanton home run. But in August they imploded. The bullpen unknowns who’d emerged after it became clear that mad flamethrower Aroldis Chapman had lost his mojo lost mojo of their own; surprise aces like dumpy-looking sneaky-fast Nestor Cortes and contained Jameson Taillon, both of whom I’d seen take no-hitters into the seventh or beyond, proved mortal; injuries mounted on injuries mounted on injuries. I nearly lost track as my guys faltered—it was too painful. But I did notice one thing: Judge, who’d been carrying the team like no one else, was actually slumping, his near-.300 batting average sinking toward .280. That unreal first-place lead dipped below 10 games and then five and then less than that. This was a team that in June seemed ready to dominate the World Series; now there was no doubt that the rampaging Dodgers and our cheaty archrivals in Houston would wind up with better records.
Only then Judge began to hit again, home runs especially but by no means exclusively, his batting average rising to .300 and eventually over .310, which in this muscled-up era is enough to lead the league. And despite a plague’s worth of injuries—power DH Matt Carpenter, first/second/third baseman DJ LeMahieu, slick-fielding home-run-hitting Anthony Rizzo at first, slick-fielding line drive specialist Andrew Benintendi in the outfield, Stanton and his aching Achilles, even two paternity leaves—the Yankees hit the road to Toronto one win away from clinching their division. It’s a three-game series. In under two hours on what is now late Monday afternoon I’ll be watching.
Which finally gets us to the 60 home runs thing. Or do I mean 61 like Roger Maris in 1961, which every sportscaster assumes is a when-not-if certainty and they’re probably right because the Yankees have 10 games left on their schedule and Judge’s longest homerless streak of 2022 is nine. Nor does Judge look as if he’s pressing, although since he never does I assume he’s feeling the moment—the Judge family is there, the Maris family is there, plus there’s this Triple Crown bid I haven’t gotten around to mentioning. Sunday night’s Yankee Stadium game against the out-of-the-running but always rivalrous Red Sox was called after six innings with Judge due to lead off the seventh when it became clear that the rain just wasn’t going to stop. I was sorry, sure. But I was also relieved they’d won because I have the World Series on my mind as you can bet they do and the more time they have to rationalize their unkempt bullpen the better—can it be that even Wild Man Chapman will be in the mix after recovering from his, yes, tattoo infection? Which brings me by a not too circuitous route to Judge’s 60th home run.
It came at Yankee Stadium in the ninth inning of a game the Yankees should have been done with only instead the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates had put up a disgraceful 8-4 lead. Judge led off and on a 3-1 count made it 8-5 all by himself. Did the crowd go wild as he tied the record Babe Ruth had dared the world to equal back in 1927? You bet. Did he leap and high-five? Sure. Tip his hat to the cheering multitude on a curtain call? It would be bad manners not to. But to me it seemed he kept things short nonetheless. And then, just a few minutes later, the even more unlikely happened—the Yankees loaded the bases and the slumping Stanton parked a laser shot in the left field seats. The Yankees had come from four runs down in the ninth to win 9-8 and everybody was jumping up and down, no one higher than the 6-7 Judge, who looked looser and more ebullient by far than he had celebrating his own feat. As has been said uncountable times, Judge is a genuine team player—a prince. And for just that reason it’s a lock cinch that the Yankees’ impossible win had liberated him to fully enjoy a triumph it would have been awkward to make too much of with your comrades humiliated by the damn Pirates.
In several ways, I should add, it’s more awkward than anyone—especially including the entire Judge and Maris clans, who’ve gotten to know each other fairly well since 61 was on the table as both wait collegially for the supposedly inevitable next one and even 62—can be expected to fully grasp. To start simple, this is not an MLB record. It’s an American League record that Maris set in the 162-game season of 1961 whereas Ruth’s 60 took place in 1927’s 154-game one, and was surpassed several times in the National League by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, all of whom are discounted because both were on steroids, and also by Barry Bonds, who hit 73 home runs in 2001 and is also credibly suspected of steroid abuse although unlike McGwire and Sosa he never admitted using or tested positive. Like such fellow suspects as Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, and Alex Rodriguez, all three juiced-up home run behemoths have been passed over for Baseball Hall of Fame membership by the sportswriters who do the voting, and I’m not going to pretend to unravel the ethical ramifications of these factual inconveniences. But for sure one reason Aaron Judge is winning such hosannas is that he seems totally free of them. His amazing body clearly came naturally. And he’s clearly a nicer guy than any of the above-named including Ruth but maybe not Maris, who we’ve been reminded many times told the fan who caught number 61 he could keep the ball, which said fan traded in on a house, thus changing his family’s economic trajectory in perpetuity.
Before I go on I should note that it’s been pregame Tuesday for many words now. Monday night the Yankees lost a 3-2 extra-inning squeaker to their Eastern Division rivals the Toronto Blue Jays. Judge singled in the first and scored; ultimately he also walked twice, struck out looking on a pitch that was clearly low (when you’re six-seven that happens too much, as Aaron Boone has been ejected for pointing out), and nudged up his lead over his batting-title rival Xander Bogaerts in his Triple Crown quest, where home runs and RBIs are no longer a contest. Every time he batted Yankee announcer Michael Kay welcomed all the out-of-town stations who’d interrupted their programming to watch him go for 61 on the YES Network, and I found myself getting annoyed. As I write I’m worrying just how hard this must be for Judge, and am proud he laced that single in the first. I’m also perturbed that Boone didn’t intentionally walk Vladimir Guerrero, who drove in Toronto’s winning run. One victory over Toronto and first place belongs to the Yanks, which will give them time to get a bead on the bullpen. Also, if and when Judge hits number 61 he’ll be under pressure to pass Maris at 62.
And now, finally, it is postgame Tuesday and the Yankees have won the East in a not unduly excruciating 5-3 game where, with his mother and Roger Maris’s son seated side by side after flying up from New York just to be there, Judge walked four times in five at bats and scored twice, two runs that as it happens proved the Yankees’ margin of victory. Personally, I feel my usual tremendous relief that my guys have won their division and wonder now whether that piece of business will help Judge relax, a boon that for all his unshakable plate discipline, dedicated fielding prowess, and implacably good-humored calm I find it impossible to believe has been coming quite as easy as is his spiritual wont. When last seen he was soaked with the beer and champagne that baseball champions squirt and pour and spill a lot more freely than they guzzle and telling YES’s Meredith Marakovitz that the secret of this team was that every one of them “left their ego at the door.” The Yanks play the Blue Jays today and have the day off Thursday, and YES’s talking heads were wondering whether Boone would rest him. Personally I doubt it. Maybe 61 is inevitable and maybe it isn’t—if it happens it was, if not then it wasn’t. Should 61 come I’ll root just as hard for 62, which would be so clarifying. Aaron Judge is a baseball version of one of those pop heroes who grace the lives of those willing to believe from time to all too rare time. He deserves any good thing that comes his way and we should only hope that we deserve him.