Depending on what you want to believe, we now have effectively two home run records in baseball, just as there are two contrasting versions of just about every story in American life. There’s Barry Bonds’s 73 homers in 2001, and there’s Aaron Judge’s 62 in 2022.
It’s a little embarrassing to look back now at the celebrated home-run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998 and recall how easily all of us were taken. A couple of pretty impressive power hitters became godlike sluggers overnight and at the exact same moment, for no apparent reason, and somehow no one found this more than passingly peculiar.
I was a young reporter at Newsweek then (it was a major magazine, kids — you’ll have to take my word for it), and I can recall sitting in on cover meetings where we talked about this sudden explosion of home runs without a shred of journalistic skepticism. We told ourselves a story that we — and, more important, our paying readers in the supermarket — wanted to believe.
By the time Bonds, an extraordinary player with or without anabolic steroids, hit his 73rd home run three years later, we’d grown accustomed to the idea that modern hitters were just bigger and better than Babe Ruth and Roger Maris, the previous two home run kings. (Both Yankees, incidentally.) Seventy was the new 60.
It’s not that none of this actually happened. It’s just that none of it happened the way we told ourselves it did.
In retrospect, the steroid era presaged a period of American life when our most revered institutions would, one after another, squander our trust. Baseball, churches, banks, news outlets, the military and the intelligence agencies — all of them reeled from scandal in the 2000s as Americans vented their pain and outrage in new online communities.
Trumpism sprouted like a weed from the ruins. It is the political expression of our disbelief and disappointment. For a lot of Americans, “trolling the libs” means, essentially: If nothing anyone tells us is true, then we might as well get behind the version of reality that makes our elite institutions feel powerless and uncomfortable.
But back to baseball: Now comes Judge, a stunning colossus — 6-foot-7, 282 pounds — who, according to baseball’s testing regimen and to any sighted person’s eyes, needs no pharmaceutical intervention to drive a ball 350 feet to the opposite field with a flick of his wrists. Once dismissed by scouts as too ungainly to succeed, he is, like all great athletes, relentlessly competitive and impervious to noise. This is not a man who cheats.
Even if you can find something not to like about Judge (and I’m really not sure what that would be), you have to marvel at the immensity of what he shouldered these past few weeks.
There’s no harder thing in sports than putting the barrel of a bat squarely on a spinning baseball traveling close to 100 miles per hour. To do it while the entire country watches impatiently, with special baseballs in play and cellphones recording from every direction, is as much a feat of mental strength as it is physical.
There was a moment Tuesday when the cameras caught Judge, after another soft out, slamming his helmet in the dugout — maybe the only display of frustration he flashed all year. A few hours later, he opened the second game of a doubleheader with what the Yankees’ radio voice, the incomparable John Sterling, calls a “Judgian blast” — number 62, a laser like most of the others.
The official Major League record book will continue to show that Bonds owns the single-season home run title, followed by McGwire and Sosa. (In case you find this confusing, all three of them played for teams in the National League, which is why Judge is now referred to as the “American League record-holder.”)
That’s fine. None of them has entered the Hall of Fame, or likely ever will, which tells you everything you need to know.
But the rest of us should acknowledge the larger truth because that’s our most pressing responsibility as a society now — to embrace reality among an endless proliferation of myths. Judge broke the record honestly. He is the rightful heir to Ruth and Maris. His is not a mirage of our own making.
Here’s what I will remember about watching the Yankees’ last night game of the regular season, I think: my 17-year-old son, texting me excitedly from his own hitting practice, to share the moment when Judge hit his 62nd. For his generation of fans, there are no bogus home-run races to dwell on, no investigations and congressional hearings. There is only Aaron Judge and his remarkable summer.
They don’t have to sort through multiple versions of reality — and neither should the rest of us.