Reaching a milestone is both tough enough and impressive enough in its own right. When your reaching it busts a tie and puts your team ahead to stay, as it turns out, the satisfaction multiplies exponentially.
Roger Maris blasted his 61st home run of 1961 on the season’s final day, cracking a scoreless tie and proving to be the game’s only run. Aaron Judge met his tortured Yankee forebear Wednesday night, cracking a three-all tie and pushing his American League East champion Yankees past the Blue Jays to stay.
Maris drove a one-out Tracy Stallard fastball into the right field seats and Babe Ruth to one side before a Yankee Stadium audience a little over a third of the old ballpark’s capacity. Judge checked in with Aaron Hicks aboard on a leadoff single, caught hold of Blue Jays reliever Tim Mayza’s hanging full count sinker, and drove it off the edge of the stands and into the Rogers Centre left field bullpen.
Thanks in large part to a capricious, conflict-of-interest commissioner’s foolish edicts, a hostile press, and his own unadorned personality, Maris endured a season in hell at home and on the road from fans hell bent on seeing anyone but the plain Dakotan take the Sacred Babe’s place in the hallowed single-season homer record book.
Judge has known the opposite all season long. At home, he’s been a Yankee matinee idol since he set the since-broken record for home runs in a season by a rookie. On the road, he’s a respected and even well-liked opponent. Even fans jaded by the bazillionaires playing the game don’t quake when pondering not whether but how much of a payday Judge will receive during his first free agency in the off-season to come.
In Toronto, Judge may be more than all that. He may be the one Yankee above all that even Blue Jays fans actually root for. For thanks he has only to remember an early May game and its day-after aftermath.
That was the day Blue Jays fan Mike Lanzillotta got hold of a home run Judge drove into the Rogers Centre upper deck . . . and handed the ball to nine-year-old Derek Rodriguez, wearing a T-shirt done into a Yankee jersey with Judge’s name and number 99 on the back, whom Lanzillotta knew prayed to get a ball hit by Judge.
The moment was caught on video and went viral at once, and it got to Judge’s attention after the game. The Leaning Tower of 161st Street saw it and arranged to meet the boy, his family, and the beneficient fan before the next day’s game.
When Judge hit the line running after hitting Number 61, it ended a streak of 34 plate appearances without hitting one out since he matched Ruth’s 60 of 1927. Rogers Centre bathed him in a loud ovation. Rising from their seats behind the Yankee dugout, Judge’s mother shared an embrace with Roger Maris, Jr. The Yankees swarmed him in hugs. The Blue Jays’ bullpen coach, Matt Buschmann, retrieved the landmark ball and made sure the Yankees got hold of it.
Judge even got a present from home plate umpire Brian O’Nora after the game. O’Nora congratulated Judge outside the Yankee dugout and handed him the game’s official lineup card.
“It’s an incredible honor, getting a chance to be associated with one of the Yankee greats, one of baseball’s greats, words can’t describe it,” Judge said postgame. So, perhaps naturally, he tried to make words do just that.
“That’s one thing so special about the Yankees organization,” he continued, “is all the guys that came before us and kind of paved the way and played the game the right way, did things the right way, did a lot of great things in this game and getting a chance to be mentioned with those guys now is, I can’t even describe it, it’s an incredible honor, that’s for sure.”
He also made bloody well certain to give props directly to Maris, who died of lymphoma at 51 in 1985. “Getting a chance to tie Roger Maris, you dream about that kind of stuff,” he said. “It’s unreal.” So is the point that Judge still has eight games left to break the tie with Maris, never mind put a little more distance between them.
Maris, Jr. intends to be there when Judge passes his father. “I don’t think it’s going to take very long,” he told reporters. “I think he’s loose. I think the party last night, the celebration, loosened him up . . . You can tell that he’s back, and he’s ready to go now.” If only things were that simple for his father.
This is now: Nobody has thundered against Judge even thinking about equaling, never mind passing, either Ruth or Maris, Sr. That was then: The elder Maris was never allowed to enjoy even the simple fact of his feat, never mind its magnitude. “Do you know what I have to show for 61 home runs? Nothing,” he said at the All-Star Game in 1980. “Exactly nothing.”
“Heaven protect us from achieving a greatness that the world decides we do not deserve,” wrote Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post upon Maris’s too-early death. “Mortal men can be crushed by immortal deeds. Wasn’t that the moral of Roger Maris’s career?”
A compact, wiry six feet tall, Maris was unprepared and unwilling to make himself a star as the true media age began. Judge, a 6’7” galoot with a still-boyish, snaggle-tooth grin, who looks at times as if he could get from first to second in two strides on a home run circuit, accommodates the public and the media without letting either control or demean him.
What Judge has in common with Maris, aside from a place in the record book he still might claim as his own, is an easy manner with children. Father of four Maris came to quit reading his fan mail unless he was sure it came from kids. As Derek Rodriguez got to prove, Judge savours encounters with kids when they come.
“Maris,” Boswell continued, “was in all ways pronounced deficient. With his flattop haircut, he looked more Hessian than handsome. At twenty-six, the introverted, proud young man from Fargo, North Dakota, did not have a fraction of the charm, sophistication, or patience to deal with becoming one of the most famous and controversial figures in America.
“It might help our sleep to believe Maris was a reclusive oddball figure, uniquely ill-suited to fame. For years he was portrayed as an antisocial grouch. With time, a contrary profile emerged. Now, as eulogies roll in, he’s painted as a family man, a loyal friend, a modest down-to-earth guy proud of his unselfishness as an all-around ballplayer.”
That family man, loyal friend, and modest down-to-earth guy must have savoured and applauded Wednesday night’s doing from his repose in the Elysian Fields. Even if he also expressed just a flickering wish that he could have known even a fragment of the respect, if not adulation, that Judge receives. You can’t blame Maris for either.
I was a 12 year old Yankee fan in 1961. Was I watching the Yankee game? No, I was watching the football Giants. We found out about #61 on the Giants broadcast. Among the things Maris was battling was baseball commissioner Ford Frick. He was Babe Ruth’s “ghostwriter” in the 20s and didn’t want to see Ruth’s record broken. The asterisk rule was Frick’s was of preserving Ruth’s uniqueness (as if that was necessary) and just added more pressure on Maris.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Arnold—There was actually no legitimate asterisk rule. Stay tuned. I’m about to write about that.