Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 6, 2022

A Season, And An Ending, For The Ages

We all should have known.  For after it was done, after the 1st inning drive had sailed over the left field wall at Globe Life Field, after the roars from the largest crowd to cram into the Texas Rangers’ home since it opened in 2020 had subsided, after the calls from John Sterling on the radio and Michael Kay on television had become lasting memories to Yankee fans, after Aaron James Judge had finally written a chapter all his own in the Great Game’s long history, the signs that the denouement of Judge’s season-long saga would come in in that game were plain to see.  The baseball gods, like all sports deities, love drama, but they are not especially subtle.

Back in the chill days of early Spring, when the longest season was young, the storyline was not immediately obvious.  With Opening Day delayed a week by the owners’ lockout, Judge’s first home run didn’t come until mid-April, and at the time was overshadowed by New York first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who had just stroked his third long ball of the season, and especially by Vladimir Guerrero Jr. of the visiting Toronto Blue Jays, whose three-homer game was the evening’s headline. 

Then nine days passed before Judge hit another, but when he did, the chase was underway.  Both his second and third in the same game against Cleveland, and another just four days later in a win over Baltimore.  With that one, he joined the immortal Lou Gehrig and the forgotten Jerry Mumphrey as the only Yankees to homer on their 30th birthday.  Then a half-dozen over the next two weeks, the last of those a three-run blast, the first walkoff homer of his career, and just like that Judge was the major league leader with ten home runs on the season.

Still, little more than a month into the campaign, a comparison with past years showed several players who had started on a more torrid pace than Judge had managed to that point.  Yet had we all thought about it, perhaps it would have occurred to us that something special was about to happen.  After all, when Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s record, his effort quickly became known as 61 in ’61.  Now, 61 years later, the current Yankee hero was sending baseballs soaring over outfield walls.  It was an alignment too perfect to be ignored.

On the next to last day of June, Judge hit his 29th home run of the season, a blow that meant his pace was now on track to slug 62 by the schedule’s end.  Asked for the first time how it would feel to set a new American League mark, Judge allowed that it would be “pretty cool” but added that he would much prefer a World Series ring.  That desire seemed eminently attainable at the time, with the Yankees dominating opponents.  The team’s performance soon regressed, but Judge kept hitting, sending homer number 43 into the seats on August 1st.  Even as New York wilted under the summer sun, posting a miserable record of 10-18 over the next month, the face of the franchise added eight more to his steadily growing total.

The Yankees got back on track in September, with Judge as usual leading the way.  A two-homer game in Boston on the 13th got him to 57, and two more in Milwaukee five days later brought him to history’s doorstep.  After a day off for travel, New York welcomed the Pittsburgh Pirates to the Bronx on September 20th.  In his first four trips to the plate Judge reached base only once, on a 5th inning walk.  But the lineup flipped over one more time, and everyone in a packed Stadium rose as Judge walked to the plate to lead off the 9th.  He looked at the first four pitches from Pirates reliever Wil Crowe, only one of which found the strike zone.  Then, on Crowe’s 3-1 offering, Judge swung and sent the spheroid soaring into the left field bleachers, setting off a wild scrum for the historic souvenir.  He and Babe, both at 60. 

With fifteen games to play, a new record seemed inevitable.  But neither fans nor sportswriters can know what it’s like to live with the pressure of such a moment.  This week Judge admitted he was feeling it, even acknowledging he was more relaxed once the Yankees went back on the road, because as he stood in the right-handed batter’s box at the Stadium, he was always conscious of his teammates hanging over the railing of the home team’s dugout, there on the edge of his peripheral vision.  With New York housed on the third base side as a visiting squad, that reminder of the stakes was out of sight behind him.

Was it the enormous pressure of the chase that slowed down Judge’s home run pace?  Or was there a hidden hand at work, shaping the outcome to its preferred result?  All we know for certain is that home run number 61 did not leave the park until eight days later, when the Yankees were in Toronto playing the team’s 155th game of the season.  That, of course, is one more than was on the schedule in Ruth’s time, supplying fresh fodder to those still clinging to the old complaint that Maris’s standard, now matched by Judge, should be listed beside the Babe’s in the Great Game’s record books rather than replace it.

That six-decade old debate pales against the passion spent by fans and pundits over the legitimacy of the home run marks set by Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds.  Those two, along with Sammy Sosa, surpassed both Ruth and Maris a total of six times.  Sosa alone accounted for three such efforts, though he finished behind McGwire in both 1998 and 1999 and was second to Bonds in 2001.  McGwire, with 70 home runs in ’98, held the official record until Bonds stroked 73 three seasons later.  For his part, on Thursday MLB commissioner Rob Manfred weighed in by saying that while “the record books say what they say,” he believes “the best approach is to let fans make their own judgment” about records set in different time periods.  Whether Manfred intended it or not, his phrasing was not a ringing endorsement of the numbers from baseball’s steroids era.

In truth, the commissioner was merely stating the obvious, for no proclamation by him, or the Hall of Fame, or some august committee of Great Game elders, would lessen the intensity many fans bring to this debate.  And in truth, there are plenty of reasons to consider asterisks on records set across the sport’s history, not just steroids or the length of the season, but everything from the nature of the baseball to the height of the mound.  There is also the most important reason of all for second guessing the old achievements; the fact that prior to Jackie Robinson taking the field in 1947, players who looked like Aaron Judge or Barry Bonds or Sammy Sosa weren’t allowed to chase baseball’s records.

What is certain is that Aaron Judge was the AL leader in runs scored, runs batted in, walks, on base percentage, slugging percentage, on base plus slugging, and was second in batting average, missing the Triple Crown by .005 in that last category.  For those into advanced metrics, he was the leader in weighted on base average, hard hit rate, win probability added, and wins above replacement.  And, oh yes, he hit 62 home runs.

Whether one believes that is the “real” or “clean” record, the American League record, or simply a record that has been passed on from one Yankees right fielder to another over more than a century, the last of those long balls came in the 1st inning of Tuesday night’s game against Texas.  Which, in retrospect, was when it was always going to happen, as we all should have known.  For after it was done, New York’s record in this, the season of Aaron Judge, stood at 99-62.  That’s 99 wins, which is also the number Judge wears on his back, the first (and it’s a safe bet, the last) Yankee to ever do so.  And 62 losses, matching the mark Judge set with his leadoff shot to left.  The baseball gods are seldom subtle.

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