New York Yankees star Aaron Judge hit his 62nd home run of the year against the Texas Rangers on Tuesday night, passing Roger Maris for the most in a season by an American League player and punctuating a late stretch of breathtaking drama that only once-in-a-generation pursuits can create.
Only record-holder Barry Bonds (73), Mark McGwire (70 and 65) and Sammy Sosa (66, 64 and 63) have hit more than 62 homers in a season. All three played at a time when MLB did not test for performance-enhancing drugs as stringently as it does now.
So Judge, with his iconic No. 99, has emerged as a new modern prototype, a new home run hero for a new era, the latest in a long line of Yankees legends. Like all the Yankees legends before him, Judge proved himself capable of withstanding all that New York throws at its most treasured sports stars. But even the stoic 30-year-old, known for a team-first demeanor that does not wax and wane with his performance, had begun to show the strain of his pursuit by the time the Yankees’ last series of the season began.
Cameras normally have no trouble catching Judge wearing a smile. But with each at-bat that went by, the smiles became fewer and farther between, 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 down and watch the ballgame.”
When Judge hit his 60th homer Sept. 20, he had plenty of at-bats left to catch and pass Maris, whose family began to follow him from city to city. 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 last 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 might normally play just one game of a doubleheader for a team with a first-round bye locked up on the penultimate day of the season, would play both if he did not homer in the first.
He didn’t, and the largest paid crowd in the brief history of Globe Life Field packed the stands for the night game. The 38,832 in attendance for Texas’s 3-2 win were not there to bid goodbye 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 right-hander Jesus Tinoco, a classic Judge swing that looked more comfortable than many of the in-between hacks he took since reaching 61. He flashed a smile rounding first base before restoring the all-business look he has made his own. And when his teammates hurried to meet him at home plate, Judge made sure to give a hug to each of them.
“At home, if I look up, I look right into our dugout so I can see all the guys 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 RBI, with a batting average that trailed that of only one AL player, Minnesota’s Luis Arraez. Not only is he having one of the greatest all-around offensive seasons in baseball history, he is hitting for power at a pace unparalleled by anyone in the sport. Judge has 62 homers. The next-closest player entered Tuesday with 46. Not since the days of Babe Ruth has the gap between No. 1 and No. 2 been so vast. Judge even has a chance to become the AL’s first Triple Crown winner since the Detroit Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera in 2012 — and just the second since Boston Red Sox great Carl Yastrzemski in 1967.
“Getting the chance to have my name next to someone as great as Roger Maris, Babe Ruth, those guys,” Judge said, “it’s incredible.”
But Ruth, Maris, Yastrzemski and the rest didn’t have to face pitches like the ones Judge sees regularly. He is 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 is putting them together months after turning down a contract offer worth more than $200 million and weeks before he will become a free agent for the first time. And he is doing it all for a sputtering Yankees team so picked apart by injuries that Judge all but held the offense together as they clung to their lead in the AL East. They recently clinched the division title in Toronto, a late September celebration that did nothing to alleviate the tension of a superstar and a fan base waiting for something much rarer.
Unlike Maris and Ruth, Judge is making history a generation after widespread use of since-banned drugs complicated the home run record. McGwire later admitted to using steroids when he broke Maris’s record by hitting 70 homers in 1998. Bonds, whose murky legacy has kept him out of the Hall of Fame, followed with 73 homers in 2001 to establish the single-season record.
Maris’s son Roger Jr. had been in attendance to watch Judge’s chase. After Judge tied Maris with No. 61, Roger Jr. told reporters that he believes Judge should “be revered for being the actual single-season home run champ.”
“That’s really who he is if he hits 62,” he said. “And I think that’s what needs to happen. I think baseball needs to look at the records, and I think baseball should do something.”
Judge is compiling his numbers not only against the highest velocity in MLB history but under the most stringent drug testing policy the sport has had. He has said he considers Bonds’s 73 the record — in other words, 62 is something but not the whole thing. But that he has surpassed the number that no one surpassed for more than 30 years until the steroid era does mean he is now an intractable part of the conversation about the greatest single-season showings of all time — just in time for him to hit the free agent market.
“Congrats @TheJudge44 on 62!” tweeted Derek Jeter, the last Yankee to write his name into history so emphatically. “Postseason next!!!”
After all, in the Bronx, careers are measured in championships. Ruth and Maris have them. Judge will get another chance to win his first.