After circling the bases Wednesday night, No. 61 finally next to his name, Aaron Judge blew a kiss to his mom, Patty, and acknowledged Roger Maris Jr. right beside her above the Yankees dugout at Rogers Centre in Toronto.
From there, it was a waiting parade of smiles and hugs streaming from the bench, congratulating Judge more like a brother than a teammate.
“He’s as beloved as they come,” manager Aaron Boone said afterward.
What we already knew about Judge crystallized during this pursuit of Maris, a quest that was made so much bigger by the 6-7 slugger trying to reach a milestone that hadn’t been done by anyone unsoiled by PEDs in 61 years.
Handing the baseball to his mom outside the Yankees’ clubhouse, as if they were standing behind the backstop of a Little League field in his hometown of Linden, California. Sharing the moment later with the son of Maris himself, who followed Judge from the Bronx to Toronto to witness No. 61 in person.
For this generation, Babe Ruth exists as a grainy photograph, a Bunyanesque figure whose feats of strength have a mythical quality to them. Maris, who passed away in 1985 at the age of 51, lived on through a number that served both as a record and a tribute to a past era of pinstriped glory.
Judge now is the bridge to those Yankees immortals, the face of the most storied franchise in professional sports, and could not be more perfect for the role. Take all the analysts, have them punch in the data from Ruth to Gehrig to DiMaggio to Mantle to Munson to Jeter, and the result would be a package very similar to Judge, the embodiment of what the Yankees believe they are — or what their legacy proclaims them to be, in the 21st century. A respectful heir to Maris.
“He would be very proud of Aaron,” Maris Jr. said of his late father. “Because of the way he carries himself, the way he comes to the ballpark every day — mentally prepared, physically prepared. He’s all about doing the team thing. He’s all about winning. He’s trying to bring a world championship to New York City and put No. 28 on the wall.”
Those aren’t just words to Judge. Often, there’s a disconnect between the team-first cliches and actual behavior, but any observer, both inside the clubhouse and out, will confess to Judge practicing what he preaches. Judge has played in 151 of the Yankees’ 155 games — Gleyber Torres is next with 138 — and not only has Judge matched Maris for the American League home run record, but is on track to be the second Triple Crown winner in the last 55 years (Miguel Cabrera was the last in 2012).
The only thing more astonishing? That Judge could be down to his final few weeks wearing pinstripes, after turning down the team’s seven-year, $213.5 million extension offer on Opening Day. The idea of Judge leaving the Bronx at season’s end felt very real after those negotiations collapsed. But now?
The homegrown Judge already was part of the Yankees’ fabric, by far the team’s most popular player, without a close second. Can Hal Steinbrenner afford for something like a contract disagreement to diminish Judge’s place in the Yankees’ pantheon? For Judge’s part, he sounded like someone who appreciated standing alongside Ruth, and then moving up to Maris with Wednesday night’s rocket off Blue Jays reliever Tim Mayza.
“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.”
The 2022 Yankees appear to feel the same about Judge, and it’s not about just being good at hitting a ball over the fence. Boone maintained that Judge wasn’t negatively impacted by the building pressure surrounding No. 61 because his approach was simple: Concentrate on being a great teammate, try to win every day, period. There’s no better mantra for a clubhouse, and even if Judge’s attitude has yet to result in a championship for this group, Yankees history has shown it’s nearly impossible to get a ring without that type of leader.
“For his teammates, for himself, he tries his best to be the same every day,” Gerrit Cole said. “Tries his best to stay even keel and somehow finds a way to make an impact on somebody else’s day regardless of how his is going. There’s some special players like that around the league, and I can think of a couple that have had a similar type of impact — but nobody quite like Aaron.”
Once Judge hits No. 62, nobody will have done it like him, either — in the same pure, unassailable fashion. Maybe a retractable-roof dome in Canada wasn’t the storybook setting for Judge to join Maris with a number so steeped in Yankees lore, but there’s no better place than the Bronx for the record-breaker. The perfect stage for a slugger many would say is the next perfect Yankee.