Summary Judgement: 62 in ’22

Aaron Judge

“I think it won’t sink in until the offseason.—Aaron Judge became the AL’s new single-season home run king at last Tuesday night in Texas.

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.”

Genius playing with mental blocks?

Tony La Russa

Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa has announced his retirement. His pacemaker put paid to his second term on the White Sox bridge. Will that term tarnish his legacy?

With Tony La Russa’s second retirement now a done deal, retrospectives of both the career that put him in the Hall of Fame and the second act that tarnished his reputation only somewhat abound. White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf wanted to atone for firing La Russa the first time around, in 1986, but it’s fair to say what began with intrigue devolved to sorrow despite a successful 2021 but enhanced by a 2022 disaster.

I wrote of La Russa’s earliest mishaps in his second act last year. I republish much of that essay here, with a few adjustments befitting the present occasion, and wish him well as he steps away for the second and final time. 

No baseball manager is a perfect specimen, whether he lucks into the job, performs it long enough and well enough, or gets himself elected to the Hall of Fame because of his actual or reputed job performance. Many have been the managers whose reputations for genius are out of proportion to their actual performances.

Even the certified geniuses made their mistakes. Maybe none was more truly egregious than Casey Stengel’s failure to set up his rotation so his Hall of Fame lefthander Whitey Ford could start three 1960 World Series games instead of two. Unless it was Tommy Lasorda deciding it was safe to let Tom Niedenfeuer pitch to Jack Clark, with first base open and the Dodgers one out from forcing a seventh 1985 National League Championship Series game.

Maybe it was Dick Williams, placing public perception ahead of baseball to start gassed ace Jim Lonborg instead of a better-rested arm in Game Seven, 1967 World Series. Unless it was Gene Mauch, the Little General panicking down the 1964 stretch (with the Phillies, using his two best pitchers on too-short rest and blowing a pennant he had in the bank), or in Game Five (with the Angels) when he was an out away from winning the 1986 American League Championship Series.

Regardless of his foibles since what proved his first retirement, Tony La Russa still has an outsize reputation as one of the most deft ever to hold the manager’s job. He’s been called a genius. He’s been called one of the smartest baseball men of the last half-century. They point to his Hall of Fame plaque, the 33 years he managed prior to returning to the White Sox last season, eleven division titles, six pennants, and three World Series rings.

Those plus his longtime reputation for volumnious pre- and post-game thinking and analysis (observed perhaps most deeply in a chapter of George F. Will’s Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball) still allow La Russa absolution from his most egregious errors.

He threw his early 2021 White Sox star Yermin Mercedes under the proverbial bus, and maybe even invited the Twins to retaliate the following day, after Mercedes swung on 3-0 (violating La Russa’s fealty to the Sacred Unwritten Rules) in the eighth inning of a White Sox blowout, and hit a home run . . . off a middle infielder sent to the mound.

La Russa is still considered one of the smartest of the Smart Guys whatever they think of Mercedes’s homer or La Russa’s definition of “sportsmanship.” They don’t always stop to ponder what La Russa thought of the Twins’s “sportsmanship” in giving up the ghost with two innings left to close even a fat deficit and sending a position player to the mound with real pitching still available to them.

Perhaps they haven’t read Keith Law, writing in The Inside Game in 2020: “Sometimes you do all the right things and are stymied by bad luck. Other times you do everything wrong and are subsequently rewarded for it. That’s outcome bias.” There’s a case to be made that La Russa’s reputation, and maybe even his Hall of Fame case, is a little more than half a product of such outcome bias.

It’s hard to argue against a manager with three decades plus on his resume plus those division titles, pennants, and three Series rings. But maybe it’s easy to forget or dismiss how often La Russa either outsmarted or short-sighted himself when the games meant the absolute most.

“Tony, stop thinking,” Thomas Boswell wrote, after La Russa’s Athletics were swept out of a 1990 Series they could have tied in four and gone on to win, instead of being swept by a band of Reds upstarts who didn’t know the meaning of the words “shrink under pressure.”

If the A’s had picked an usher at random to manage them in this Series, they’d have been better. The usher would have brought in [Hall of Fame reliever Dennis] Eckersley to start the eighth inning of Game Two with a 4-3 lead. The usher would have brought in Eckersley to start the eighth inning of Game Four with a 1-0 lead. And this Series would be two-all.

La Russa could write a book on why did he did what he did. But the bottom line is that every manager in the Hall of Fame would have brought in the Eck. Twice Tony didn’t and twice the A’s lost. This time, the goat’s horns stop at the top.

Outcome bias didn’t help La Russa then, a year after he’d won his first Series. But it sure helped him after a 2011 Series he won despite himself. Because smart baseball men don’t do even half of what La Russa did to make life that much tougher for his Cardinals than it should have been.

Smart baseball men don’t take the bats out of the hands of future Hall of Famers with Game One tied at zero. La Russa took it out of Hall of Famer-in-waiting Albert Pujols’s hands by ordering Jon Jay to sacrifice Rafael Furcal, guaranteeing the Rangers wouldn’t let Pujols swing even with a swimming pool noodle, walking him on the house. (The next batter got lured into dialing Area Code 5-4-3.)

Smart baseball men don’t lift better clutch hitters (especially those shaking out as Series MVPs) with late single-run leads for defensive replacements who might have to try a lot harder to do the later clutch hitting with insurance runs to be cashed in—and fail. La Russa did that lifting David Freese (after he scored a single tiebreaking run) for Daniel Descalso (grounded out with two in the eighth) in Game Two.

Smart baseball men don’t balk when their closers surrender two soft hits in the Game Two ninth with a groin-hobbled bopper due up and a double play possibility very distinct. La Russa balked. He lifted Jason Motte for Arthur Rhodes with Josh Hamilton coming up. Rhodes gave the lead away and Lance Lynn gave the game away—on back-to-back sacrifice flies.

Smart baseball men don’t look past three powerfully viable and available bullpen options with their teams down a mere 1-0 and reach for . . . a known mop-up man, with the opposition’s hottest Series bat due up. La Russa learned or re-learned the hard way in Game Four. Mike Napoli thanked him for offering Mitchell Boggs as the sacrificial lamb—Napoli hit the first pitch for a three-run homer. (Final score: Rangers 4, Cardinals 0.)

Smart baseball men don’t snooze for even a moment and forget to flash the red light when their batter (Pujols, in this case) signals their baserunner Allen Craig to try for a steal in the Game Five seventh. Craig got arrested by half a mile, inviting another free pass to the bopper and—following a base hit setting up second and third when the batter advances on the throw to third—another free pass and an inning-ending fly out.

Smart baseball men also don’t let a little (ok, a lot of) crowd noise interfere with getting the pen men up that he wants to get up in the bottom of the Game Five eighth—after ordering one relief pitcher tough on righthanded hitters to put a righthanded hitter aboard on the house, instead of getting the second out—then try sneaking a lefthanded pen man past a righthanded danger who sneaks what proves a game-winning two-run double.

They don’t try to make the Case of the Tangled Telephone out of it, either, after they end up bringing in the wrong man when nobody claimed to hear them ordering the guy they really wanted to get ready. (La Russa wanted Motte but got Lynn. Oops.)

Neither do smart baseball men drain their benches in the eighth of even a do-or-die Game Six. La Russa did. It compelled his Cardinals to perform their still-mythologised ninth and tenth inning feats of down-to-their-final-strike derring-do without a safety net beneath them. Freese took one and all off the hook with his eleventh-inning, full-count, game-winning, Richter scale-busting leadoff bomb.

The Cardinals won that Series despite their skipper. (And, because they pinned the Rangers in Game Seven, after allowing a 2-0 first-inning lead on back-to-back RBI doubles. They made it impossible for La Russa to overthink/mis-think/mal-think again after they tied in the bottom of the first and scored four more from there.) La Russa was thatclose to blowing a Series his Rangers counterpart sometimes seemed to do everything within reach to hand him.

Fairness: La Russa did plenty right and smart winning those division titles. He did plenty right and smart winning the 2006 Series in five. (It didn’t hurt that he knew what he had turning his resident pest/Series MVP David Eckstein loose.) That was two years after nobody could have stopped the Red Sox steamroller from plowing the Cardinals in four, following their self-yank back from the dead to take the last four ALCS games from the Empire Emeritus.

But the 2011 Series got La Russa compared in the long term to . . . Bob Brenly, the Diamondbacks manager who won the 2001 World Series in spite of his own mistakes, too. Batting his worst on-base percentage man leadoff; ordering bunts ahead of and thus neutralising his best power threat; overworking and misusing his tough but sensitive closer, even throwing him out a second straight night after the lad threw 61 relief pitches the night before. (You’re still surprised Scott Brosius faced a gassed Byung-Hyun Kim and tied Game Five with a home run?)

Lucky for Brenly that he had one Hall of Fame pitcher (Randy Johnson) and another should-have-been Hall of Fame pitcher (Curt Schilling, his own worst enemy) to bail him out. Brenly hasn’t managed again since the Diamondbacks fired him during a 2004 skid to the bottom of the National League West.

When La Russa retired three days after that 2011 Series ended, he didn’t announce it until after the Cardinals’ championship parade and after he called a meeting with his players. “Some grown men cried,” he said of the meeting, adding, “I kind of liked that because they made me cry a few times.”

The smartest men in baseball with even half La Russa’s experience don’t invite comparisons to comparative newcomers who trip, tumble, and pratfall their way to World Series rings. Three Series rings kept him a Hall of Fame beneficiary of the outcome bias Law described. New York City mayoral legend Fiorello H. La Guardia liked to say, “When I make a mistake, it’s a beaut.” La Russa could say the same thing, plausibly, about a fair number of his own mistakes.

That outcome bias probably kept La Russa cushioned with the White Sox for the time being, despite his early tactical mistakes. And, despite the perception the Mercedes incident left that he’d rather burn his players in the public eye than handle real or alleged issues the mature way. (Name one manager who ever invited the other guys to retaliate for a real or alleged rookie mistake.)

What made La Russa a Hall of Famer—his long-time, widely-analysed, widely-discussed ability to think ahead, to know each man on his roster and handle them as individuals without losing the team, his ability to sense and out-think his managerial opponent—was almost eroded by what ESPN’s Buster Olney calls his “own surprising decisions—including, on multiple occasions, to order intentional walks to hitters despite the fact that White Sox pitchers were ahead in the count—fuel[ing] the narrative that La Russa was the wrong manager for the team. La Russa strongly defended his choices, sometimes sounding defensive, but even some of his peers found the two-strike intentional walks indefensible.”

Last year’s White Sox scored a division title under La Russa’s hand. This year’s White Sox were done in by a slow start and rash of injuries neither of which were their skipper’s fault, but two-strike free passes were only a portion of the in-game La Russa decisions that fell under fire.

This was far, far from the years during which La Russa’s handle on matchups, on the thinkings of opposing managers, on handling a bullpen reasonably, made him a Hall of Fame skipper even with the aforesaid head-scratchers. The years that made him the third-winningest-ever major league manager and a four-time Manager of the Year winner.

Issues with his pacemaker finally took La Russa out of the game again at August’s end. But La Russa seems to know his day is done at last. (Formerly, he’d hoped to manage through the end of his contract at next season’s end.) His statement announcing his retirement isolates it:

Our team’s record this season is the final reality. It is an unacceptable disappointment. There were some pluses, but too many minuses. In the major leagues, you either do or you don’t. Explanations come across as excuses. Respect and trust demand accountability, and during my managerial career, I understood that the ultimate responsibility for each minus belongs to the manager. I was hired to provide positive, difference-making leadership and support. Our record is proof. I did not do my job.

As daring as it was for La Russa to come out of retirement for a final try, never mind that nobody in baseball but Reinsdorf clamoured for it, it’s admirable that he leaves holding himself to the very accountability he describes. We can think of times and places when it wasn’t so, of course. But maybe La Russa, too, isn’t quite too old to learn.

Here’s another nice Mess they’ve gotten themselves into

Jacob deGrom

Surrendering three solo homers despite an eleven-strikeout/no-walk outing hurt Jacob deGrom less than his Mets mustering little offense in return against the Braves Friday night.

There was supposed to be a weekend showdown in the National League East. Its two best teams, each gunning to take the division, were going to shoot it out for slightly more than the division title but for the possible final setup of the postseason picture under Commissioner Pepperwinkle’s mad-scientist changes.

The Braves and the Mets are going to the postseason. No questions asked. But after their bats came up far too short in the first two at Truist Park, Sunday is both must-see television and must-win for the Mets, if they want a shot at winning the division with a record equal to the Braves.

They let the Braves get to them twice on Friday and Saturday. They couldn’t overcome the three solo home runs torn out of an otherwise effective Jacob deGrom Friday or the two bombs and four runs torn out of Max Scherzer Saturday. They couldn’t find ways to score more than two Friday and Saturday each off a Braves pitching staff that can pitch up with anyone else and with them when needed absolutely.

Now the Mets have to hope their Starling Marte-less lineup can find more than a few ways to pry some runs out of the Braves while riding Chris Bassitt on the mound Sunday. Bassitt, a good but not great pitcher, whose 3.55 fielding-independent pitching rate is respectable but nowhere in the deGrom (2.14) or Scherzer (2.62) league. Bassitt, who’s more prone to the long ball than either of the ones who got reached so far this weekend.

The Braves don’t rely on two particular pitchers almost exclusively and have up and down the line balance. The Mets built themselves to sail aboard deGrom and Scherzer primarily. They didn’t exactly change that plan despite losing both to health issues for critical portions of the season. When that bit them in the posterior Friday and Saturday, the Braves were only too happy to exploit.

“To get the first one is huge,” said Braves third baseman Austin Riley after Friday’s game, “and just try to build as much momentum off it as possible. To come out fighting and top to bottom did a great job. Arms did great. Just a solid win.”

Riley had a big hand in it. He hit the first of a pair of back-to-back bombs against deGrom in the second, joining Matt Olson for the honours. Nobody went back-to-back long distance against deGrom since former Braves Freddie Freeman and Josh Donaldson did it in 2019.

DeGrom rehorsed almost at once and kept the Braves quiet until he struck Ronald Acuña, Jr. out to open the bottom of the sixth. Dansby Swanson then hit a first-pitch fastball over the center field wall. But Max Fried and three Atlanta bulls kept the Mets quiet other than Tomas Nido’s solo bomb off A.J. Minter in the eighth.

Kenley Jansen came on in the ninth and got himself into the kind of jam the Mets usually turn into disaster. Francisco Lindor opened by striking out but Jansen plunked Mark Canha, surrendered a base hit to Jeff McNeil for first and third, then walked Eduardo Escobar to load the pads with just one out.

But then Mets manager Buck Showalter let rookie call-up Francisco Álvarez bat instead of reaching for a more experienced bench hand. The rook struck out on three swinging pitches. Then Tyler Naquin fought Jansen to an eight-pitch, six-foul draw before Jansen finally struck him out to end it, 5-2.

Only after the game, too, did deGrom acknowledge he was pitching with a hand blister. Never using it to excuse the evening, the righthander said he and the team would monitor it closely.

Come Saturday, it was Scherzer’s turn. He was still “managing” an oblique issue that prompted the Mets to close him down for much of September. Swanson and Olson managed to go long against him, Swanson with a two-run shot in the fifth and Olson with a leadoff solo in the sixth.

“I felt like mechanically I was working east-west and me I want to work north-south,” Max the Knife said postgame. “I didn’t feel like I had good put-away pitches. I didn’t feel like my two-strike pitches tonight were as sharp as I usually have them. When I made mistakes, they made me pay and just couldn’t efficiently pitch tonight.”

Did I mention that both Friday and Saturday the Mets took early leads? Better to mention how tenacious the Braves are and can be even against the best pitching to throw against them from the other side. “Just keep going,” Swanson said postgame on Saturday. “This is no time to celebrate. There’s four games left. So much left to be had of this season.”

“We’ve just got to take the same approach,” said Olson, whose blast made for the final run of the 4-2 Braves win. “We know those guys are good that they started the last two days and we know Bassitt is a competitor as well.”

The Braves also know they were once ten games plus out of first in the division, not a happy place for defending World Series champions. But do the Mets realise they once had that ten game plus lead and looked like the ogres of any NL section not occupied by the ogres in Los Angeles?

Do they get how dangerous it was to let a rookie, even a highly-touted one, take on the job of a bases-loaded plate appearance in the ninth? Do they get just how serious are the dice they roll with their two best pitchers not quite back to full strength and their bullpen still trying to figure things out? Do they fathom that their lineup can’t let one key missing link stop them from swinging up and forth, against the Braves or otherwise?

If even one of those answers is no, never mind all four, the Mets are going to have a lot of explaining to do after Sunday night. And their notoriously self-flagellating fan base—the kind that proclaims a season over after one bad inning in May—isn’t going to want to hear it.

What really kept Maris from Cooperstown?

Roger Maris

Roger Maris in the Yankee clubhouse, 30 September 1961—the day before he swung his way into history.

Bad enough when I spot those in the baseball press I don’t know personally but perpetuate mythology over factuality. But now my editor at the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America’s Here’s the Pitch newsletter, a man who’s become a friend in the bargain, does it.

Pondering Aaron Judge’s choice of number 99 on his Yankee uniform, Dan Schlossberg writes in today’s HTP, “Perhaps he knew he would become twice as good as [Roger] Maris? Certainly, Maris never chased a Triple Crown. In fact, his .260 lifetime batting average is the leading negative whenever his Hall of Fame candidacy is considered.”

Not even close, my good friend.

Mike Schmidt hit only seven points higher than Maris lifetime and that didn’t stop his election to the Hall of Fame. OK, that’s a ringer. Schmidt is the arguable greatest all-around third baseman ever to play the game. But his lifetime .267 hitting average didn’t exactly block him from Cooperstown, either.

There are lots of Hall of Fame players who hit in the .260-.269 range lifetime. Those modest hitting averages didn’t block them, either. They had other factors in their favour. And so might have Roger Maris except for one pair of problems.

Problem one: Maris was so badly seared by his pursuit and breaking of ruthsrecord in 1961 that there were times too many writers of the time believed he began to shy away from perpetuating the greatness that was his for the taking. Never permitted to enjoy truly the blessings of having cracked baseball’s single most prestigious record, Maris looked from there like a man to whom greatness was an intruder, not a companion.

Problem two: After a solid 1962 season, the injury bug began to hit Maris. Back trouble  limited him to ninety games in 1963. He had a bounceback 1964, with 26 home runs, despite missing twenty games with assorted leg injuries. Then came 1965 and the injury that should have proved scandalous for the manner in which the Yankees handled it.

First, Maris suffered a pulled hamstring that kept him out 26 games after the first three weeks of the 1965 season. Then, come 20 June, Maris jammed his hand against the plate umpire’s shin guard while sliding home. He tried playing a few after that, but the injury was severe enough to take him out of the second game of a doubleheader against the Kansas City Athletics and out of the Yankee lineup after 28 June.

Finally the hand injury was diagnosed as bone chips for which he underwent offseason surgery. It turned out to be far worse. The hand continued to bother him as he started 1966. At last he complained about the problem, and all that did was crank the New York sports press that never truly accepted him and the Yankees themselves into harrumphing that he had no business complaining.

The hand injury turned out to have been a misdiagnosed fracture. Whatever remained of his once-formidable home run power was gone. So was Maris’s desire to continue playing. He’d played through enough injuries as it was and felt unappreciated for the effort.  The Yankees aged profoundly during and after 1964, the final pennant winner of the old Yankee guard, but the Yankees needed the Maris, Mickey Mantle, and Whitey Ford box office more than they needed them properly healthy, so it seemed in retrospect.

The writers chose Maris as the primary culprit, often accusing him of loafing, as some teammates did, both of whose sides were unaware of the true severity of the hand injury. If you’re looking for evidence as to why other players become either paranoid or hypochondriacal about their physical health, Maris was key evidence on their behalf.

“For those who had refused to appreciate Maris in the early 1960s,” wrote his Society for American Baseball Research biographer Bill Pruden, “his injury-plagued performance in the middle part of the decade, coming when the Yankees as a team were faltering, only seemed to confirm their views.”

For a man who had never placed any individual accomplishment above winning, it was a difficult time. Indeed, tired of battling injuries, of trying to play, even when hurt, but never seeming to be appreciated for the effort regardless, Maris gave much thought to retirement. However, before that decision could be made, the struggling Yankees traded Maris to the St. Louis Cardinals for third baseman Charley Smith.

Maris continued to play a solid right field in St. Louis for two consecutive pennant winners and their 1967 World Series champions (he also had the best Series of his career individually), before retiring at last and accepting Cardinal owner Gussie Busch’s offer to operate a Budweiser beer distributorship in southern Florida. He throve in the business with his brother Rudy as his partner, until he succumbed to lymphoma at 51 in 1985.

Injuries, not indifference or loafing, put paid to Maris’s Hall of Fame case before he had the chance to solidify one following his Hall-caliber 1960-62 seasons. Meanwhile, my friend Schlossberg went on to write, “Maris batted just .269 [in 1961] against expansion-diluted pitching.” Halt right there, Daniel.

The fear of diluted pitching when the American League expanded for the first time was probably one of the factors animating commissioner Ford Frick’s scurrilous conflict-of-interest bid to deny anyone, Maris or otherwise, legitimacy in pursuing ruthsrecord in 1961. Well, now. Would you like to know how “diluted” the league’s pitching actually became?

I know I sure did. And I found out. Pay very close attention to the following table, showing the league’s 1960 and 1961 earned run averages, fielding-independent pitching rates, walks and hits per inning pitched, strikeouts per nine innings, and walks per nine.

AL Pitching ERA FIP WHIP K/9 BB/9
1960 3.87 4.00 1.37 4.9 3.6
1961 4.53 4.09 1.38 5.2 3.7

There was a 66 point jump in the league’s ERA for 1961, well enough shy of a full run’s difference. But look further and closer. That’s not the place you end pondering the difference in the league’s pitching from ’60 to ’61, it’s the place where you only begin.

The league’s FIP—measuring that for which pitchers alone are responsible (you can call it their ERA without their fielders’ performances factored in) remained practically the same, unless you think a mere nine-point rise is equivalent to scaling the Empire State Building.

AL pitchers also averaged a lousy single point more walks and hits per inning pitched (WHIP) in ’61 than in ’60. They struck out practically the same average per nine innings and walked almost exactly the same per nine. If that’s drastically “diluted” pitching, I’m a dead bolt.

If anything, Maris had a tougher time hitting 61 in ’61 than the Sacred Babe had in 1927. I’ve noted it before but it’s worth nothing again here: The advent of relief pitching above and beyond being the final repose of pitchers who couldn’t cut it as starters had a big say in it.

Ruth in ’27 faced 67 pitchers all season long, while Maris in ’61 faced 101. Ruth got to face pitchers a third time around in games 35 percent of the time in ’27; Maris enjoyed that privilege only 30 percent. He faced more fresh arms in games than Ruth did.

Did I mention again, too, that this year Aaron Judge faced 232 pitchers by the end of the doubleheader during which he hit his 55th home run of the year? That he faced pitchers a third time around in only seventeen percent of his games as of the end of that twin bill?

The myth of diluted AL pitching in 1961 isn’t quite as grave as the truly unconscionable myth of The Asterisk, of course. But it has in common with that disgrace that it never truly existed in the first place.

You’re welcome, Dan.

Just . . . no*

Aaron Judge

Aaron Judge has an embrace with his mother, Patty, after the game during which he hit his 61st home run of the season. (Mom now has the ball her son launched.) And there’s nothing wrong with calling him tied as just the American League’s single-season home run record holder now, either.

I had better things to ponder approaching this weekend. Things such as the showdown between the National League East-leading Mets and the second-place, defending World Series champion Braves entering the weekend a game behind the Mets.

Things such as the Triple-A championship game being played in Las Vegas Ballpark Sunday starting at 4 P.M. Pacific time, which I plan to watch in person from a choice field-level seat several rows up behind home plate.

But no. I had to bump into yet another analysis of Aaron Judge meeting Roger Maris as the American League’s single-season home run champion. That wouldn’t be a terrible collision by itself if not for the fact of the Associated Press writer offering it, David Brandt, joined Roger Maris, Jr. wading into waters that never really existed in the first place.

Maris, Jr., intends to be there when Judge passes his father before the regular season expires. He inserted the ginger into the tails in the first place when he opined that Judge should be branded, hallowed, and hosannaed as the actual, no-questions-asked, all-time, across-the-board single-season home run champion when he hits 62 or more.

A few sentences after citing that, Brandt saw and raised, sort of, after nodding toward the debate over whether National League bombardiers Mark McGwire (who broke Maris’s Show record in that memorable 1998 chase), Sammy Sosa (who settled for three 60+ home run seasons including ’98 yet didn’t win home run championships in those years), and Barry Bonds (whose 73 in ’01 yanked McGwire to one side) remain tainted because of their actual/alleged ties to actual/alleged performance-enhancing substances.

“For its part, MLB doesn’t appear eager to embrace the use of asterisks,” Brandt writes. “Neither does the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.” Uh-oh.

MLB has been down that road before. Maris’ record had an asterisk attached to it for 30 years because he played a 162-game schedule instead of 154 like Babe Ruth did when he hit 60. It remained until Sept. 4, 1991, when a committee on statistical accuracy chaired by former commissioner Fay Vincent voted unanimously to recognize Maris as the record-holder.

Maris’s record had nothing of the sort. Once and for all. It had controversy. It had a country arguing passionately over whether the plainspoken, media-shy Dakotan “deserved” to even think about chasing ruthsrecord (once again, that’s the way they said it then) when his matinee-idol Hall of Fame teammate Mickey Mantle was the “rightful” aspirant if anybody was.

But it had an asterisk only in the public imagination, stoked by a baseball commissioner laden with a fat conflict of interest and a sportswriter about whom “instigator” is one of the more polite epithets attached to his name and memory.

Ford Frick, remember, was once a Ruth ghostwriter. He also loved to engage dinner crowds with stories about how he’d been at Ruth’s bedside the day before Ruth finally lost his battle with throat cancer. Frick would sooner have been caught selling nuclear secrets to the Soviet Empire than abiding anyone, no matter whom, pushing the Sacred Babe to one side in the records.

New York Daily News writer Dick Young was only too willing to abet Frick when he called a press conference midway through that 1961 season to expose himself as feeling just that. Together the compromised commissioner and the irascible columnist made poisoned applesauce of a singular achievement.

With the American League’s first expansion and a schedule change from 154 to 162 games, Frick cringed at the thought that somebody, Yankee or otherwise, would knock Ruth’s hallowed 60-bomb season in 1927 out of the record books at once. As recounted by Allen Barra in his 2002 book Clearing the Bases: The Greatest Baseball Debates of the Century, Frick proclaimed:

Any player who has hit more than 60 home runs during his club’s first 154 games would be recognized as having established a new record. However, if the player does not hit more than 60 until after this club has played 154 games, there would have to be some distinctive mark on the record books to show that Babe Ruth’s record was set under a 154-game schedule.

At which point Young piped up and all but hollered, “Maybe you should use an asterisk on the new record. Everybody does that when there’s a difference of opinion.”

Revisiting the controversy in the Village Voice in 2011, after another Daily News writer (Phil Pepe) published a book reviewing the 1961 home run chase, Barra told it as it actually was: Frick did nothing more than put on a show on behalf of his old benefactor. “Frick had no power whatsoever to make a ruling on the subject,” Barra began.

To put it simply, he was grandstanding. What escaped most baseball writers present at Frick’s press conference, and what continues to escape the sports media today, is that major league baseball had no “official” record book and didn’t have one until Total Baseball got the job in the late 1990s. So, in essence, Frick was trying to pressure publishers over whom he had no authority to print his version of the Maris/Ruth home run chase.

Over a decade later, Frick published his memoir, Games, Asterisks, and People. (The front jacket featured a photograph of Frick side by side with Ruth.) The title to one side, Frick himself declared the asterisk on Maris’s record didn’t really exist, Dick Young notwithstanding: “No asterisk has appeared in the official record in connection for that accomplishment . . . ,” Frick wrote in that book. “[Maris’s] record was set in a 162-game season. The Ruth record of 60 home runs was set in 1927 in a 154-game season.” 

Around the time Total Baseball finally got the official record book designation, another commissioner, Fay Vincent, appointed a Committee on Statistical Accuracy. They voted to purge any asterisk from Maris’s record, never mind that no asterisk existed lawfully in the first place. Not for the first time and hardly for the last, baseball’s government sold the nation a bill of goods about as valid as a 27-cent piece.

“Thus,” Barra observed, “a commissioner of baseball voiced his support for removing an asterisk that a previous commissioner denied every having put there in the first place. Probably nothing did more to enhance the myth of the existence of the asterisk as Vincent’s ‘removal’ of it.”

Along came Maris’s son, after his father was met by Judge Wednesday night, to plead for something about as close to a bona-fide asterisk as possible:

[Judge]’s clean, he’s a Yankee, he plays the game the right way and I think it gives people a chance to look at somebody who should be revered for hitting 62 home runs and not just a guy who did it in the American League. He should be revered for being the actual single-season home-run champ. That’s really who he is if he hits 62. I think that’s what needs to happen. I think (the MLB) needs to look at the records and I think baseball should do something.

Well, Judge is “clean”; major league players face mandatory drug testing and Judge hasn’t flunked once. But does it really matter that Judge is a Yankee? Since when was the single-season home run record ruled to be exclusive Yankee property? Would Judge be any less legitimate tying Maris if he’d been a Met? A Brave? A Cardinal? A Guardian? A Dodger? An Astro?

Then a Cardinal, McGwire embraced the Maris family publicly when it looked as though he had a shot at meeting and passing Maris in 1998. (Maris, Sr. finished his major league career with two seasons as a Cardinal.) They returned the embrace just as publicly. It was one of the signature embraces in the year once thought to have been the year that saved baseball, after the lingering clouds of the 1994 owners-provoked players’ strike.

If you saw Billy Crystal’s film 61*, you couldn’t forget the voice of Bob Sheppard, the longtime Yankee Stadium announcer, over a fading image of Barry Pepper as Maris hitting the money shot at film’s end, by referencing the Vincent committee and finishing with, “Roger Maris died six years earlier . . . never knowing . . . that the record . . . belonged . . . to him.”

Crystal and his staffers must not have read Edward Kiersh’s Where Have You Gone, Vince DiMaggio, a 1983 catch-up with a host of former players—including Maris. “I know I have the record,” Maris told Kiersh, “and that’s what counts.” Unconscionably, he just wasn’t allowed to enjoy having achieved it in the first place. From the best of intentions Crystal perpetuated Frick’s and Young’s asterisk fraud.

But only one man could have pushed Ruth to one side in the single-season record book. (It took that man five fewer plate appearances and 34 more pitchers faced on the year to do it.) Only one man going from there could push Maris to one side. Tainted or no, McGwire was the one. Only one man going from there could push McGwire to one side. Tainted or no, Bonds was the one.

You might wish to remind yourself, too—aside from baseball taking no formal action against actual/alleged PEDs until after the Mitchell Report and that parade before what George F. Will called the House Committee for the Dissemination of Great Messages to Kids—that, if the only thing you needed to hit baseballs over fences was a chemical cocktail, any behemoth in the NFL, the WWF, the alphabet boxing councils, or on the bodybuilding circuit could have broken Maris’s record.

When McGwire eventually faced that House committee (don’t kid yourself that they cared more for the health of the game than for making suspect players do a perp walk to public humiliation), he was blocked by his legal team from owning up. (“I’m not here to discuss the past,” he said to the panel infamously.)

When he returned to baseball as a Cardinals batting coach in 2010, McGwire owned up in full: he said publicly he dipped into the PED waters in a bid to continue playing through frequent injuries, not to enhance what he could do already. However late, his confession was true enough. He could hit a ball of weeds 450 feet whether as a 1987 Rookie of the Year or an injury-wrecked hulk (he doesn’t dismiss that PEDs also instigated a few final injuries) in what proved his 2001 farewell season.

McGwire even apologised to Maris’s widow, Patricia, after his public admission. “My mom was very touched by his call,” said another Maris son, Richard. “She felt sorry for Mark—that he’s going through this. She conveyed that we all make mistakes and move on from there.” Richard’s brother says, retroactively, “Not so fast, Mom.”

Maris, Jr. wants baseball to do something about that post haste. Preferably the split second it appears Judge’s 62nd home run will reach the seats, if not the Sea of Tranquility. You understand his position, too, but good luck with that.

Despise the Sosas and Bondses all you wish. (McGwire accepts that he’ll never reach the Hall of Fame, but his public admission whenever it came bought a lot of good will, regardless of who denies it.) But you can’t just erase the statistics arbitrarily. Any more than Elmer Fudd Frick and Dick Young could impose an asterisk the commissioner himself had no real power to impose.

Pace Brandt, calling Judge the American League’s single-season home run co-champion with Roger Maris isn’t just a euphemism for calling them the “real” single-season home run champions. Judge won’t get beyond the AL record unless he can find a way to send thirteen more baseballs out of the ballparks’ ZIP codes over his next and final eight regular-season games. Settling for being the AL’s single-season bomb king is far from the worst fate he can face.