It was 61 years ago that Roger Maris became baseball’s home run king, dethroning Babe Ruth on the final day of the 1961 season.
The record-setter came against the Red Sox.
In the Bronx.
Fast forward to Thursday night, and there was Aaron Judge, sitting on 60, with the Red Sox visiting Yankee Stadium for the next four games.
Consider this weekend worth the wait. As anxious as everyone was for Judge to make history against the pitiful Pirates, especially after he tied the Babe with Tuesday night’s Ruthian 430-foot moonshot into the leftfield bleachers, it’s far more fitting that he’s lined up to accomplish the feat with the Red Sox in town.
And Judge came within a few feet of tying Maris in what also would have been a walkoff home run in the ninth inning. To that point, Judge had walked three times and whiffed once. But with one out, and the crowd of 43,313 on its feet -- cellphone cameras aloft -- Judge hammered a fastball from Sox reliever Matt Barnes, launching a majestic 404-foot shot that hung in the air for a while before being caught at the warning track.
A couple of steps from where the Maris plaque hangs below the centerfield netting.
“I thought it would have been pretty showy to drop it off at Monument Park,” manager Aaron Boone said. “Cool night, felt like fall. That might have been a little factor [keeping it] in there. But put together a really good at-bat. Probably just under it enough.”
Just about everyone in the building thought it was gone, but the disappointment didn’t linger as the Yankees rallied in the 10th, with Josh Donaldson’s RBI single delivering a 5-4 victory that clinched a playoff spot (their Magic Number is now 6 to lock up the AL East). Earlier, Judge helped keep the Yankees alive for extras by cutting down Tommy Pham trying to stretch a single leading off the ninth. He played it calmly off the wall, then spun and fired a perfect on-the-fly throw to second.
Later, Red Sox manager Alex Cora described that play as what MVPs do, a not-so-subtle endorsement from a bitter rival.
“I got a lot of respect for the guys over there,” Judge said. “That means a lot. But I’m just trying to do my job like anybody else. I’ve been watching [Oswaldo] Cabrera go out there and do that for a couple months now. I’m just trying to keep up with him.”
That will have to do as the Judge Watch continues for another day. Because whatever memorable moment the Yankees can hang on their ancient rivals from Boston, it’s just that much better because they’re in the building.
Ruth was a Sox slugger before he put on pinstripes to hit 60 homers and establish the single-season home-run record before Maris broke it 34 years later, taking Red Sox righthander Tracy Stallard deep over the rightfield wall at Yankee Stadium.
Some would suggest that the baseball gods must appreciate the cosmic symmetry of teeing up Judge to overtake Maris in this exact scenario. As for that ninth-inning showdown with Barnes, the Sox reliever didn’t back down -- and nearly paid the price for it.
“With all due respect, Aaron Judge is a great person and he’s having an unbelievable season,” Barnes said. “I’m trying to get him out. I frankly don’t care about history.”
This hasn’t been your typical late September in the Bronx, that’s for sure. When a midweek game against the last-place Pirates draws 46,175 and every fan is on their feet the moment Judge appears in the batter’s box -- booing every pitch outside the strike zone -- it speaks to the magnitude of the event. Now add the despised Red Sox to the formula, and the Bronx is going to be next-level, with October still another week away.
“I didn’t come here for vacation over the weekend,” Cora said. “I’m not just at the palace to hang out. I’m here to put these guys in situations to be successful and we’re going to go about it the way we always do.”
Before the game, Cora was asked how Judge’s pursuit of Maris compared to Barry Bonds at the height of his powers and the manager described having a close-up view playing for the division-rival Dodgers from 2001-04. As for Judge’s “clean” approach meaning more, Cora didn’t disagree with that notion.
“He’s doing it in an era that it’s very tough to hit, let’s put it that way,” Cora said. “I’ll leave it at that. He’s been very good. The separation between him and the rest of the players is huge.”
Judge stood two home runs away from passing Maris on Thursday night. The last time he faced the Red Sox, at Fenway Park only a week ago, Judge went deep twice in one game. And now, it just feels meant to be.