By the end of this chase, when Aaron Judge finally launched No. 61 Wednesday night against the Blue Jays, earning him a share of the Yankees’ hallowed single-season homer record with Roger Maris, something else came to mind.
Catching Maris, a monumental task in itself, is only part of Judge’s epic performance this year — one that already is considered among the greatest offensive seasons baseball has ever witnessed. Not only does Judge have the Triple Crown within his grasp, a summit that’s been reached only 12 times by 10 players since 1920, but his dominance at the plate has far outpaced the rest of the sport.
The pursuit of Maris has served to amplify that separation, for a number of reasons. Judge is the first Yankee, and American League player for that matter, to equal Maris’ feat in 61 years. To put that in context, that’s nearly twice as long as Babe Ruth’s mark stood — he hammered his 60th in 1927 — before Maris hit the record-setter off Red Sox righty Tracy Stallard on Oct. 1, 1961, at Yankee Stadium.
That year, Maris had to beat out teammate Mickey Mantle, who finished with 54 when his season was ended by a bad reaction to a dubious medical injection for varying ailments. The next three on that home run list were tied at 46.
“Getting the chance to be associated with one of the Yankee greats, one of baseball’s greats, to be enshrined with him forever, words can’t describe it,” Judge said. “That’s one thing that’s so special about the Yankees’ organization — all the guys that came before us, and kind of paved the way, played the game the right way, did the things the right way, did a lot of great things in this game. Getting the chance to be mentioned with those guys now . . . it’s an incredible honor, that’s for sure.”
With Judge going deep Wednesday for No. 61 in the seventh inning, blasting the eighth pitch of the at-bat off Jays lefty Tim Mayza — of course, yet another full count, this time a 95-mph sinker that stayed up — you need binoculars to find his closest competitor, which is the Phillies’ Kyle Schwarber at 42, followed by the Mets’ Pete Alonso, who has 40. In the American League, the Angels' Mike Trout is second with 38.
Whatever your opinion of the baseball’s composition — juiced, de-juiced or just plain fair overall — Judge is smacking homers at a pace that hasn’t been done since Barry Bonds (73) and Sammy Sosa (64) at the height of the Steroid Era in 2001 (MLB began testing two years later).
Which leads us into another debate regarding Judge as Maris’ heir to the throne of baseball’s “clean” home run champ, theoretically supplanting Bonds’ number on the books (no asterisk attached). Earlier this month, when Judge smacked No. 60 off Pirates reliever Wil Crowe — an awesome 430-foot laser into the leftfield bleachers at Yankee Stadium — I mentioned that he could do the commissioner’s office a huge favor by taking down Bonds over the final 15 games of the season.
Judge passing Bonds was MLB’s improbable dream, and it soon was rendered virtually impossible when he went homerless over the next five games of the team’s stay in the Bronx before going north of the border this week. Still, for those who clung to Maris as their ideological home run hero, Judge can play that role, but officially, if and when he hits No. 62, he'll be only the franchise and AL leader.
Some, like Roger Maris Jr., believe Judge should be elevated above that once he smacks his next one.
“One thing that means a lot — not just for me, I think it means a lot for a lot of people — is that he’s clean, he’s a Yankee, he plays the game the right way,” said Maris, who saw Judge tie Ruth in the Bronx before attending the series in Toronto and witnessing No. 61. “I think it gives people a chance to look at somebody who should be revered for hitting 62 home runs and not just as a guy who did it in the American League. He should be revered for being the actual single-season home run champ.
“That’s really who he is. If he hits 62, I think that’s what needs to happen. I think baseball needs to look at the records and I think baseball should do something.”
Who knows what the future holds for Judge from here? No one imagined that someone eventually would topple Maris in this age of PED testing (Giancarlo Stanton got to 59 in 2017, hitting two homers in Game No. 159 before failing to go deep in what were his final three games for the Marlins).
Now that Judge has crossed that 61-year-old threshold, the four-time All-Star is in a world by himself, even if he doesn’t come across that way. Maris was famously haunted by his 1961 pursuit of the Babe, as fans either didn’t want him to pass the beloved Ruth or, if the record had to fall, they preferred to have the iconic Mantle own it. On the day Maris hit No. 61, there was a crowd of 23,154 on hand, well short of Yankee Stadium’s 67,000-plus capacity.
Judge’s experience has been very different. The Bronx was bursting with fans over the last week, including sellouts against the Red Sox, and he was greeted with wildly enthusiastic applause each time he strolled to the batter’s box. Of those 26 plate appearances, only one resulted in a home run — his average is one per 11 this season — so it was safe to assume that Judge was feeling a little extra pressure to go deep during the homestand with the Maris family and his own family watching from their suites. When asked, however, Judge shrugged off such thoughts in typical fashion with his easygoing smile.
“It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “Just trying to soak in every day with these guys, every single moment. This is stuff you dreamed about as a kid, so it’s always fun.”
When the Yankees hit the road for Toronto this week, the prospect of smacking No. 61 at a retractable-roof dome, in front of Blue Jays fans, didn’t carry the pinstriped aura of doing it at the packed Bronx ballpark. But the record is the record, and no one could blame Judge if he was getting impatient about joining Maris (his homerless streak had reached seven games — two short of his longest drought this season — before Wednesday’s record-breaker).
“Definitely some relief, getting to 61,” said a smiling Judge, who needed 34 plate appearances to do so after tying Ruth. “You try not to think about it, but it creeps into your head.”
Now that Judge has made history, up next is the Triple Crown, the playoffs and the AL MVP trophy. Beyond that? Probably a contract north of $300 million, with the Yankees or elsewhere. Either way, Judge is now cemented in franchise lore, standing beside the greatest Yankees to ever put on the uniform.
That’s the significance of catching Maris, and Judge doesn’t seem to be done yet.