Only record holder Barry Bonds (73), Mark McGwire (70 and 65) and Sammy Sosa (66, 64 and 63) hit more than 62 home runs in a season. All three played at a time when MLB did not test for performance-enhancing drugs as strictly as it does now.
So Judge, with his iconic number 99, emerged as a new modern prototype, a new home run hero for a new era, the latest in a long line of Yankee legends. Like all Yankee legends before him, Judge has proven himself capable of withstanding whatever New York throws at its favorite sports stars. But even the stoic 30-year-old, known for a team-first demeanor that doesn’t wax and wane with his performance, began to show the strain of his pursuit by the time the Yankees’ final series of the season began.
Cameras normally have no problem capturing Judge wearing a smile. But with each stroke that passed, the smiles became fewer and farther apart, his brow a little more furrowed. For so long he seemed to have so much time. Suddenly, he didn’t.
“It’s a big relief,” Judge told reporters Tuesday night. “Now everybody can probably sit back and watch the ballgame.”
When Judge hit his 60th homer on Sept. 20, he had plenty of at-bats left to catch and pass Maris, whose family began following him from town to town. For days, fans fell silent every time a pitcher delivered a ball to Judge, who went seven games between hitting Nos. 60 and 61, a drought that must have felt like eons to the slugger before he ended it last week.
The Yankees played their final home series of the regular season, with their division title already sealed, through rain and cold this past weekend. Fans packed the stands anyway, but the Baltimore Orioles walked Judge five times in three games and struck him out six times.
So Judge was left to take his pursuit to Texas. The Maris family went home. Judge went 1 for 4 in Monday night’s game and 1 for 5 in the first game of Tuesday’s doubleheader. Manager Aaron Boone told reporters earlier in the day that Judge, who normally could play only one game of a doubleheader for a team with a first-round bye locked in on the penultimate day of the season, would have played both had he not homered in. the first
He didn’t, and the largest paid crowd in the short history of Globe Life Field packed the stands for the night game. The 38,832 in attendance for Texas 3-2 victory was not there to bid farewell to another disappointing Rangers season. They were there to see Judge.
He led off the second game with No. 62, a blast to left-center off a 1-1 slider from righty Jesus Tinoco, a classic Judge swing that looked more comfortable than many of the in-between chops he’s taken since reaching. 61. He smiled as he rounded first base before restoring the all-business look he had made his own. And as his teammates rushed to meet him at home plate, Judge made sure to give each of them a hug.
“At home, if I look up, I look right into our dugout so I can see all the kids just sitting there on the top step, waiting for this to happen,” Judge said. “Here on the road, they were behind me, so I didn’t see the 40-plus people sitting there in the dugout. I think finally seeing them run out on the field, getting a chance to hug them all and say congratulations, that’s what it’s all about for me.”
After getting a second at-bat in the second inning – he struck out – Judge returned to the field for the bottom half. Boone then made the move to replace him, drawing raucous cheers from the Texas crowd.
Judge entered Tuesday leading the AL in home runs and RBIwith batting average that trailed that of only one AL player, Luis Arraez of Minnesota. Not only is he having one of the greatest all-around offensive seasons in baseball history, he is hitting for power at a rate unmatched by anyone in the sport. Judge has 62 home runs. The next closest player entered Tuesday with a 46. Not since the days of Babe Ruth has the gap between No. 1 and No. 2 been so wide. Judge even has a chance to become the AL’s first Triple Crown winner since Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers in 2012 — and only the second since Boston Red Sox great Carl Yastrzemski in 1967.
“To have the opportunity to have my name next to somebody as great as Roger Maris, Babe Ruth, those guys,” Judge said, “is unbelievable.”
But Ruth, Maris, Yastrzemski and the rest didn’t have to face pitches like the ones Judge sees regularly. He’s compiling these numbers at a time when offense, at least as measured by batting average, is at record lows, at a time when pitchers have never thrown harder and in a city where his every move is scrutinized.
He joins them months after rejecting a contract bid is worth more than $200 million and weeks before he will become a free agent for the first time. And he does it all for a surging Yankees team thus separated from injuries that Judge almost held the offense together like them clung to their lead in the AL East. They recently clinched the division title in Toronto, a late September party that did nothing to ease the tension of a superstar and a fan base expecting something much rarer.
Unlike Maris and Ruth, Judge is making history a generation after widespread use of since-banned drugs made the home run record difficult. McGwire later admitted to using steroids when he broke Maris’ record by hitting 70 home runs in 1998. Bonds, whose obscure legacy kept him out of the Hall of Famefollowed with 73 home runs in 2001 to set the single-season record.
Maris’ son Roger Jr. was present to observe Judge’s chase. After Judge tied Maris with number 61, Roger Jr. told reporters that he believes Judge should “be honored for being the de facto single-season home run champion.”
“That’s really who he is if he hits 62,” he said. “And I think that has to happen. I think baseball needs to look at the records, and I think baseball should do something.”
Judge compiles his numbers not only against the highest rate in MLB history but under the strictest drug testing policy the sport has had. He said he considers Bonds’ 73 the record – in other words, 62 is something but not the whole thing. But that he surpassed the number that no one surpassed for more than 30 years, until the steroid era, means that he is now an inextricable part of the conversation about the greatest single-season performances of all time – just in time for him to hit the most good free agent market.
“Congratulations @TheJudge44 on 62!” tweeted Derek Jeter, the last Yankee to write his name into history so emphatically. “Postseason to come!!!”
After all, in the Bronx, careers are measured in championships. Ruth and Maris have them. Judge will have another chance to earn his first.