Maybe Aaron Judge should be playing things like the stock market. Without making as grand a show of things as observers paid to be so grand (and perhaps foolish), he gambled early that he could turn his first walk year into something big when he achieves his first free agency.
He probably didn’t think he’d smash a longstanding American League home run record along the way. Certainly not in a season in which hitting across the major league board was at one of its lowest levels in the professional game’s history and he could never be certain he’d get a miniature medicine ball or a turbocharged orb to launch.
But smash it Judge did Tuesday night. In the second game of a doubleheader in Texas. If you’re going to slam the season’s biggest exclamation point down but you can’t do it in front of the home audience, there are few places bigger than there to do it.
Batting leadoff for the 106th time at all this year, and batting first in the lineup for the 34th time, Judge squared up Rangers righthander Jesus Tinoco’s slightly hanging slider on 1-1 and drove it parabolically several rows up the lower left field seats. Even the Globe Life Field audience couldn’t contain their pleasure in seeing the Leaning Tower of 161st Street make American League history.
Almost a full week after he met Roger Maris, with the Yankees having banked the AL East title in the same week, the tall swinger from California passed the comparatively compact swatter from the Dakotas. And unlike Maris’s abusively unfair experience in 1961, Judge got there with almost universal approval from the moment it looked as though he had a serious shot at getting there.
There was nothing unfair about Judge’s achievement, unless you count that this is a young man to whom you can throw a ball of Play-Doh and he can still hit it across the county line. Tinoco had never faced Judge before and had only surrendered one home run in 19.2 innings work on the season before Judge rang his and history’s bells.
“We knew it was going to happen and nobody wants to give it up,” said Tinoco—a reliever but pitching as the Rangers’ second-game opener Tuesday night, “but it’s part of the game. I challenged him and he hit it. That’s my job. All I can say is ‘congratulations’ to him.”
“I know he has a nasty sinker and a nasty slider,” said Judge postgame. “We were kind of waiting to hear who the starter of Game Two was gonna be. When I heard it was him, I saw what he did the night before and I said, ‘This isn’t a good matchup to start the game off with a guy with high velocity like that and a good off-speed pitch.’ So going into it, I think that helped me relax: ‘Hey, this is a good pitcher. Let me go up there and let’s see what happens’.”
Maybe he pressed a little too much between home runs 61 and 62. Maybe the opposition pressed a little hard trying to pitch around him until Tinoco’s slider didn’t slide enough. Maybe, too, Judge clung just hard enough to his insistence that, sure, it’d be great to do it, but he had more important things such as postseason prep to think about.
But maybe even this still-boyish looking galoot who softens the most when interacting with the children who like and admire him while maintaining his privacy otherwise without an ostentatious harrumph wanted the record so badly he could taste it even up with whatever he’d had for a meal before and after his long day’s work of play Tuesday.
The Yankees won the first of the twin bill without Judge going long. They ended up losing 3-2 in the nightcap Judge opened so historically, before he was given the rest of the night off by manager Aaron Boone, following a second-inning strikeout and a double switch of second baseman Oswaldo Cabrera to Judge’s position in right field, shortstop Oswald Peraza to second, and Isiah Kiner-Falefa out to play short.
A few hours after the second game ended and he’d run the gamut of reporters and well-wishers, Judge reportedly found some quiet in the clubhouse until a small voice reached his ears. Asking who was there, Judge then found himself spending a little time with Yankee catcher Jose Trevino’s little son, Josiah.
The gentle giant who helped make a Toronto kid’s week after seeing the kid in tears of joy when an adult Blue Jays fan handed him a ball Judge sent into the Rogers Centre upper deck in May spends as much time entertaining his teammates’ kids as he does entertaining fans in the stands with blasts past the ionosphere.
It may not yet have hit him completely that he’d claimed one of the most sacred pages in the AL record book for his own. And it may take the length of the postseason, however long the Yankees prove to stay there, before it does.
“In my book,” the Leaning Tower of 161st Street said after the second doubleheader game, “it’s just another day. I wish we would have gotten the win, that would have made it a little sweeter I think. But I’m going to try to soak it in, soak in the moment with my family, and get ready for the game tomorrow. I think it won’t sink in until the offseason.”
That’s his story and he’s sticking to it. Even through his very visible effort to suppress his patented big snaggle-tooth grin as he rounded first heading for second. Even with his teammates swarming from the dugout starting about two seconds after he dropped his bat to run the bomb out. Even with his wife, Samantha Bracksieck, and his parents, Wayne and Patty Judge, leading the loud ovation.
“We just wanted it to happen so bad,” said Yankee pitcher Gerrit Cole postgame. “I don’t know if that’s pressing, or just hoping hard. We were all just hoping really hard, I think.”
Maris’s 1961 teammates pressed just as hard for him to make it once Mickey Mantle fell out of that unwarrantedly-controversial chase with a hip abscess. But they were almost alone there. Thanks to a capricious conflicted-of-interest commissioner and a particularly nasty contingency in the baseball press of the time, Maris was denied his due for driving a baseball idol (some think sacred cow) to one side.
Judge has tried to sustain his sense of proportion throughout the entire run. Maybe come the postseason he and his wife will kick their shoes off and romp and play in wild celebration. First, he has his sixth postseason in as many seasons of being a Yankee to play.
Maris, a refugee from the then-Indians and the Kansas City Athletics, and the AL’s defending Most Valuable Player while he was at it, was en route his second consecutive World Series in a Yankee uniform. They lost a seven-game heartbreaker to the Pirates in 1960 but won a five-game laugher against the upstart Reds in 1961.
For daring to challenge and pass the Sacred Babe, Maris was battered unconscionably in ways that would be called child abuse if done by a parent to a child.
“At the plate, he heard obscene abuse from the creeps who think that a ticket to the game entitles them to horsewhip the entertainers,” wrote sportswriting legend Red Smith, then still with the New York Herald-Tribune.
Off the field he was badgered ceaselessly by fans, the press, radio-TV, press agents, promoters. Only on rare occasions did this quiet, candid young man let his temper slip, and then it was due to some especially outrageous question or repeated references to “pressure,” with the implication that he was choking up.
Some social media idiots thought and said the same about Judge as he laboured almost that full week to get from 61 to 62. For those who care about incompetent irrelevancy, let it be recorded that it took Judge two fewer plate appearances to hit 62 than it took Maris to hit 61.
Milton Gross of the New York Post, perhaps the only other writer in New York unwilling to even think about trying to beat Maris into submission or worse, had dinner with Maris and his wife plus their closest New York friends, Julie and Selma Isaacson, the evening that followed Maris’s money blast. When Isaacson toasted Maris, Gross wrote, Maris thanked him but added: “This was the greatest experience of my life. It has to be, but I wouldn’t want to go through it again for anything.”
Soon afterward, a teenage girl approached Maris politely for an autograph and asked him likewise to include the date. “What is today’s date?” Maris asked. Isaacson chimed in at once: “The date is the one you did what nobody else ever did.”
On 4 October 2022—65 years to the day after Sputnik launched the space race—the Leaning Tower of 161st Street did what nobody else in the American League ever did. You could hear Ruth and Maris together in the Elysian Fields, clinking glasses and quaffing a cold one in praise.
“I’d trade my past for his future,” the Babe must have said, knowing that Judge blasted himself toward a payday that might come close to equaling the U.S. Department of Defense’s annual budget.
“I’d trade your past for his future, too,” Maris must have cracked. “His future, and two stock splits to be named later.”