The spirit of 74

Aaron Judge

Hitting number 51 against the Angels Tuesday, Aaron Judge may yet break the single-season home run record. May.

We’re well enough past the point where looking at the scores to see how the Yankees are doing has nothing to do with a certain Yankee’s performance. If you turn to see the latest in any Yankee game without checking first on Aaron Judge’s in-game doings to that point, you’re going to flunk a polygraph hooked upon that question.

The Leaning Tower of River Avenue (how the mind’s eye produces fantasies of him squaring off against such lamp post-tall pitchers as Hall of Famer Randy Johnson and the late J.R. Richard) is having his best unimpeded (yet) season since his Rookie of the Year campaign five years ago. But nobody cares a whit about anything other than what he hits over the fence.

This year, the baseballs may still come having been consciously deadened but Judge couldn’t care less. He’s sent 51 of the miniature medicine balls into the seats through this writing. Those who care will note that he did that fourteen days before Babe Ruth reached 51 in 1927 and four days after Roger Maris reached it in 1961.

That’s talking purely about single-season home run record held by Yankees, about which there was once and still often enough not always cheerful insanity. Yankee chauvinists insist that and just about any other slugging record lack legitimacy unless set or held by Yankee batters. Which is almost (underline, please) as obnoxious as their (frequent enough) insistence that the postseason is illegitimate without a Yankee team in it.

Judge is one of the most likeable players on a team with which baseball fans not roosted in New York (and enough who are) have had, shall we say, a mixed relationship. The Yankees’ history is respected and even admired, however grudgingly, but the team is not always beloved. What’s true of several other teams is true exponentially about them.

But now and then even such parochial rooting or anti-rooting steps to one side when an individual Yankee threatens to launch himself into the precincts of the gods. That polygraph’s needles will jump right off the machine and onto the floor the moment you say that you don’t care if Judge hits a hundred home runs by the time this regular season ends just as long as the Yankees don’t win.

He’s not going to hit a hundred, of course. Seventy isn’t an unrealistic expectation at his pace. Seventy-four, which is what Judge would need to become the undisputed all-time single-season home run champion, may not be as much of a pipe dream as you think.

Judge doesn’t play under the witless lash of a commissioner who insisted without true authority to do so that the record would be illegitimate if broken after 154 games. He does play under the eye of a considerable crowd praying he gets to 74, the better to knock a suspect player out of the way. The incumbent record holder was a) not a Yankee and b) suspected of using actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances to get there.

And that record holder took the record from another who was not a Yankee and suspected of actual or alleged PEDs. The point that they were quite the outliers, in a generation where numerous players using or suspected of using such substances actually saw statistical dips instead of spikes (and, yes, you can look it up), usually escapes the usually self-appointed arbiters of sports morality.

It won’t condone those users or elevate those accusers if and when Judge parks number 74. But it would be nice to remember that baseball government did nothing about the plague until that government bumped into the government government. And the government government seemed far more interested in leading players on the perp walk than they were in sending swell if hypocritical messages to kids.

Without all that, we might be allowed to watch the Judge pursuit with more joy. Without all that, we might have nothing more grave to consider than this: If Judge can send baseballs that might as well be miniature medicine balls into earth orbit, what incentive does the sport’s administration have to iron up, remove its blinders, and insist upon a uniformly made baseball that allows both pitchers and hitters a fair shake?

The only blemish I can think of that attaches to Judge was his extremely rare attack of hubris in trolling Red Sox fans after the Yankees tied their 2018 American League division series, blasting Frank Sinatra singing “New York, New York” (a staple in Yankee Stadium after Yankee wins) from his boom box as he departed Fenway Park.

That’d teach him. In New York, the Red Sox destroyed the Yankees in the third division series game (16-4) and hung in despite a Craig Kimbrel meltdown in the bottom of the ninth to take it with a 4-3 Game Four win. Yankee fans were grateful that, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, none of those Red Sox (who went on to win the World Series) trolled them with boom boxes blasting the Standells’s garage band classic “Dirty Water.” (Boston, you’re my home . . .)

If that’s the only crime against common sense Judge has committed in his career, it’s not exactly a rap sheet on which to hang a man. Facing his first free agency this coming off-season, Judge stands to reap a payday equal to the value of some companies and a few tiny nations. He couldn’t have made a more powerful case in his dreams.

But this is the same player who was made aware of a Blue Jays fan handing one of his mammoth-blasted balls to another Rogers Centre fan who’d made no secret of Judge being his baseball idol and hoping to have a ball hit by Judge himself.

“That’s what’s special about this game, man,” he told reporters, after learning video of the moment went viral. “It doesn’t matter what jersey you wear, everybody is fans, everybody appreciates this game. That’s pretty cool. I’ve got to check out that video. That’s special.”

He did more than check the video out. The following say, before the game, he made a point of meeting the boy and his family and the fan who handed the ball to the boy, signing the home run ball for him and giving him the batting gloves he wore while hitting it.

Judge still resembles an eager nine-year-old boy himself when he flashes his familiar snaggle-toothed grin. But in the batter’s box he resembles the Jolly Green Giant when he pumps his bat and turns a pitcher’s mistake into another long bomb. Where he does it from hardly matters. His 199 OPS+ through this writing indicates he could clear several zip codes from the Grand Canyon or the last known surviving telephone booth.

If the Leaning Tower of River Avenue does it 23 more times between this writing and the regular season’s conclusion, there shouldn’t be a single baseball fan (even of the Yankee-hating variety) declining to stand up and cheer. If he doesn’t make it, stand up and cheer, anyway. Between his pursuit of 74 and Albert Pujols’s renaissance pursuit of career number 700, they’ve made the home run fun again.

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