Sixty-one years ago when Roger Maris hit his 54th home run in the Yankees’ 140th game, he did so by driving a Tom Cheney pitch into the home bullpen in right field while in the middle of Murderers’ Row.
Indeed, the hit that came on September 6, 1961, in the fourth inning of an 8-0 victory over the Senators, was immediately followed by a walk to Mickey Mantle, a two-run home run by Johnny Blanchard, a single by Elston. Howard and another two-run home run off the bat of Moose Skowron.
That was the way it was during the season in which the Bombers set a major league record with 240 home runs on their way to a 109-53 record followed by a five-game World Series victory over Cincinnati.
During the fabulous history of the franchise, there are 1961, 1927, 1998 and 1936. They represent the Mount Rushmore of Yankees seasons. This year is not those.
Six decades and a year later, Aaron Judge is chasing Maris’ American League record of 61 hits at the top of an order that has resembled Skid Row in recent weeks. The lineup was thinned out due to injuries and their repercussions to Giancarlo Stanton, Anthony Rizzo, Matt Carpenter, DJ LeMahieu and Andrew Benintendi and further diluted by poor performance.
It’s a good thing batting averages don’t matter anymore, or someone might have to point out the fact that the batting order at the Stadium for Monday’s tilt against the Twins featured guys hitting .216, .219, .200, .176. and .200 … with numbers worse than that during the fortnight.
However, Judge went deep for the third straight gamehis two-run drive to left field in the sixth inning breaking a 2-2 tie en route to 5-2 triumph at the Stadium over their little ones from Minnesotaagainst whom they went 112-39 (.742) – including the postseason – since 2002.
The hit was his 54th of the season in the Yankees’ 135th game. He is ahead of Maris’ pace. by Barry Bonds unauthentic record 73 from 2001 could even be in sight given Judge’s wild onslaught over the past two weeks in which No. 99 has hit eight home runs in 43 at-bats over 13 games.
He is Atlas with the world on his shoulders.
He won’t talk about it though. He won’t talk about Maris. Won’t talk about the record. Will not talk about 61 more than he will talk about his contract and apparent upcoming free agency. He performs. Others are amazed.
“I don’t have anything for you,” Judge said when asked about Maris. “I’m just trying to do whatever I can to help us win. I show up and I’m ready to go.”
The flow of homers somehow seemed more organic when the Yankees celebrated like ’61 during the first half of the season, when Stanton, Rizzo, Carpenter and LeMahieu provided almost the kind of cover for Judge that Mantle did for Maris.
But now… there is for practical purposes no Yankee in the order capable of providing cover. It doesn’t seem to matter.
“If I get something to hit, I have to be ready,” said Judge, who is back in his usual No. 2 spot in the order, this time behind Gleyber Torres. “I like it when my boys hit behind me, but if not, so what?
“You have to show up when you’re in the top three in the order. You must post every day.”
Judge, who doubled in the first and scored on Josh Donaldson’s two-out single, is a picture of equanimity. Maris’ hair fell out in clumps as a result of the pressure he was carrying when he chased down American icon Ruth 60. Judge has his cake and eats it, too.
What, judge anxiety?
“It just doesn’t matter to me,” said No. 99. “It’s important that we win. It’s important that we win the division. It’s not all about me whether I go 0-for-4 or 4-for-4 .
“The record is offseason talk.”
If Maris handled the spotlight so well, maybe he would have hit 70. But there were extenuating circumstances. He chased after Ruth. He battled favorite son Mantle through the summer. He looked down at a virtual asterisk.
A judge operates with a clean slate. He is the favorite son as he tracks down history and number 9.
“I pay close attention [to the chase]. I love the history of the game,” manager Aaron Boone said. “He’s so equipped for this. It’s a constant conversation and he’s equipped for everything because he’s so focused on winning and doing his job.”
One guy lost his hair and his cool in the chase. The other represents the epitome of peace and tranquility. From No. 9 and Murderers’ Row to No. 99 and Skid Row.
“He’s equipped,” Boone said of Judge, “for whatever show you put on him.”