The Sixty Special

Aaron Judge

“Slide over, Babe, you’ve got some company!” So hollered announcer John Sterling as Aaron Judge hit number 60 Tuesday night.

If nothing else, it might have been the only time a solo home run that started a ninth-inning comeback win could possibly upstage the grand slam that finished it. That’s what happens when your teammate’s chase of baseball history precedes you.

On any other night, Yankee designated hitter Giancarlo Stanton’s ultimate grand slam, off Pirates reliever Wil Crowe, would have put a vise grip on the headlines. Even on a night the crosstown Mets came from behind against the Brewers in Milwaukee to take a lead they wouldn’t relinquish on a Francisco Lindor grand slam in the seventh.

Stanton’s launch suffers a fate almost worse than that suffered by Crowe leading the inning off, when he fed Aaron Judge a 3-1 sinker that didn’t quite sink and was enough to send three-quarters of the way up the left field bleachers. “Slide over, Babe, you’ve got some company!” Yankee announcer John Sterling hollered as Judge rounded second.

Cadillac once called a variant of its top-of-the-top-of-the-line Fleetwood model the Sixty Special. The marque’s Fleetwood line is long gone, of course. But what Judge did Tuesday night made it resemble a Trabant.

Not just because the Yankees went from there to win without the Pirates recording a single out. Not just because Anthony Rizzo followed Judge by reaching for a down and away changeup and doubling to center. Not just because Gleyber Torres walked on five pitches to follow. Not just because Josh Donaldson singled to right to load the pads. And, not just because Stanton turned on a 2-2 changeup and drilled it to roughly the same real estate as Judge’s milestone, if not quite as far back.

From the moment it appeared Judge really would chase the ghosts of Babe Ruth and Roger Maris for the American League’s single-season home run championship at minimum, the old 154-vs.-162 game shibboleth instigated by then-commissioner Ford Frick’s capricious conflict of interest (he was, of course, a Ruth ghostwriter once upon a time) was revived a little too often by the idiot brigades of today’s social media swamp.

With Maris’s sons Roger, Jr. and Kevin among the Yankee Stadium crowd, Judge connected to finish a night on which it looked as though he might go hitless. He’d grounded out twice, struck out once, and walked once, before he launched the milestone that began the overthrow of an unlikely four-run Pirate lead. He did it in the Yankees’ 147th game, seven sooner than Ruth in 1927 and twelve sooner than Maris in 1961.

His chances of going past Ruth and Maris in the Yankees’ Sixty Special Club are overwhelming. He may or may not get to the Seventy Society populated by two men, Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds. But would you really bet heavily against a man who’s hit more into the ether since the All-Star break than any individual on four known teams (the Athletics, the Pirates, the Giants, the Nationals) has hit all season?

Now that Judge has met and stands on the threshold of passing Ruth, and is likely to meet and pass Maris posthaste from there, Judge may also have wrapped up the American League’s Most Valuable Player award. May.

Shohei Ohtani remains in the conversation, and the Angels’ two-way unicorn won’t go gently into the proverbial good gray night no matter how far out of contention the badly misadministered Angels are. It might not be out of bounds to ponder whether it ends up with Judge and Ohtani sharing the award. May.

It isn’t always the rule that a league MVP should play on a postseason contender. It isn’t always the rule that he shouldn’t, either. But pursuing history has its call upon MVP voters, too. Ohtani’s already made his history, with his Rookie of the Year 2018 and his MVP 2021; anything else he does merely augments it, unless he becomes crazy enough to bust a single-season home run record while winning a Cy Young Award.

Judge is doing his level best not to think about things such as that, or about things such as the ginormous free agency payday into which he’s swinging himself when the Yankee season finally ends, whenever that may be. It’s about as simple as having to face far more and far different pitching with near-guaranteed freshness every day than Ruth and Maris had to face in the conditions of their time.

“I don’t think about the numbers,” Judge told reporters postgame. “We talk about Ruth and Maris and Mantle and all these Yankee greats, you never imagine as a kid getting mentioned with them. It’s an incredible honor and something I don’t take lightly at all. But we’re not done. We’ve still got a couple of games left in this season, and hopefully more wins come with it.”

His Yankee teammates are another proposition. “Having a front seat from the on-deck circle for most of this,” says Rizzo, “has been amazing.

“He hit 60 tonight and it’s like nothing happened,” Stanton said. “He’s got more work to do, and that’s the mindset. This is just fun to be a part of.”

“The craziest thing,” said pitcher Gerrit Cole, “is that he’s gonna hit so many more. If we play baseball another six weeks, through the postseason, he’s gonna hit like 12, 13 more home runs. He’s just getting started.”

“I want him to hit a home run in every at-bat,” said catcher Kyle Higashioka, “and I think that’s the same sentiment amongst everybody else in this clubhouse, too. As good as he’s playing on the field, he’s the best teammate you could ever imagine. So there’s nobody in here who doesn’t wish for the absolute best for him.”

Judge had to be all but forced out of the dugout for a quick curtain call that amounted to nothing much more than a small wave. He tried to wave it off as nothing much and somewhat out of proportion. “I really didn’t want to do it,” he said. “Especially, we’re losing. It’s a solo shot.”

He had to know he wasn’t going to get away with that. With or without the overthrow he ignited. “I’m trying to enjoy it all, soak it all in,” he said, “but I know I still have a job to do out on the field every single day and I just have to keep my head down, keep preparing and stay mentally focused.”

Maybe forget 60. Or 61. Maybe start thinking about a Seventy Special. Even lifelong, hard credentialed, card-carrying Yankee haters are enjoying this. Lifelong, hard credentialed, card-carrying Yankee fans, of course, may petition to have the stadium’s Judge’s Chambers renamed the Supreme Court.

He can drive 55

Aaron Judge

Judge runs it out after driving 55 at Twins rookie Louie Varland’s expense Wednesday.

If you consider a sixty home run season the Promised Land for a power hitter, Aaron Judge awoke Thursday morning five bombs from crossing the Jordan River. And yet . . . and yet . . . the philistine contingencies continue asking the wrong questions about whether Judge will have done it, ahem, “legitimately.”

The Leaning Tower of 161st Street parked number 55—a fourth inning, leadoff blast off Twins starter Louie Varland—in the first game of a Yankee doubleheader sweep of the Twins Wednesday. Among the first notes on the blast was that it gave Judge two more homers after 136 games than Roger Maris in 1961.

If that’s among the only thing that impresses you about what Judge is trying to accomplish, so be it. If it’s second to whether and if Judge hits 60 or more by game 154, since Babe Ruth did that in 1927, so be it, too. The length of season factor was settled long enough ago. It remains far less relevant than other things.

Some of those things have been broken down and analysed splendidly by an writer, Mike Petriello. Like me, Petriello has the audacity to look at the deepest data available, refusing to accept that the thinking person’s sport, which is also the deepest sport, should be allergic to thinking and depth.

Petriello goes above and beyond the primary truth that still discomfits enough even today,  Ruth never having faced the truly best available competition in official league play, through no fault of his own and all fault of (ahem) Organised Baseball of the era. (The biracial Judge would have been persona non grata in Ruth’s game.) But Petriello makes the parallel note that in 1927 only five players were born outside the United States, while 2022 includes 418 such players.

The Babe also didn’t face a third of the volume of pitchers Judge has faced, fresh or otherwise. In 1927, Ruth faced 67 pitchers all season long; Maris in 1961 faced 101. Judge faced 224 entering Wednesday and 232 by the time the twin bill ended. The rookie Varland was 225. The poor guy had the honour of being welcomed rather rudely to the majors by a seven-year veteran advancing upon history with a roundhouse punch into the left field seats.

“With series remaining against two teams he’s not seen yet (Milwaukee and Pittsburgh) and the usual September roster shenanigans,” Petriello writes, “Judge might get up to around 240 or so pitchers faced, all with their own arm slots, repertoires and approaches. It will be nearly four times what Ruth saw, and more than twice what Maris saw.” Variety is the life of spice, and a challenge to the bombardier.

In Ruth’s day, too, the idea of relief pitching as we came to know it barely took hold, if at all, above and beyond the Washington Senators’ Firpo Marberry and maybe one or two more. That was then: most relievers not named Marberry were brought in only upon injury or disaster. (Sometimes both.) This is now: relief pitching is a long-sanctioned, time-enough-honoured element in baseball’s art and craft.

Ruth got to enjoy a privilege about which Judge can only fantasise now, seeing a pitcher for a third or even fourth time in a game. Petrillo then sees and raises himself: Ruth got to face a pitcher for a third time or more 35 percent of the time in 1927; Maris, 30 percent in 1961. Judge? Seventeen percent.

Even Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds among the 60+ home run club got to face pitchers a third time around more often, from Sosa’s 20 percent in 2001 to his (1998), Bonds (2001), and McGwire’s (1998) 22 percent, then to McGwire’s and Sosa’s 24 percent (1999).

It gets a little more bizarre, Petriello notes: Judge has seen only one starter a fourth time around this year, twice—and both times, it was Max Scherzer. Judge does have one bomb off Scherzer, a third-inning blast on 22 August, but he flied out the third time he faced Scherzer that day. Almost a month earlier, Judge faced Scherzer in a 6-3 Yankee loss, and Max the Knife struck him out thrice after surrendering a first inning fly out.

Petriello’s deep dive also exhumed that Ruth in 1927 hit nine home runs off relievers he got to see a second time in a game, and over half his home runs came at the expense of either starters he saw a third time or more or relievers he saw a second time around or more. Judge should be so lucky: it’s only happened to him 19 percent of the time this year.

“If [Judge] saw starters being used the same way the Babe did,” Petriello writes dryly, “he might be looking at an 80-homer season at this point.” The flip side to the coin is that if Ruth saw the volume of quality pitching Judge sees, he might have been lucky to break his own original record of 29 in 1919. (For all you 154-game season chauvinists, 1919 was a 140-game season. Shall we declare Ruth the original “illegitimate” record-breaker because he had a 154-game season to hit 54 for a new record in 1920?)

Judge has 25 games to go to pass Ruth, Maris, and the rest. His season’s average is one bomb every 2.5 games. If he stays on the pace, he might hit 65. It would be one short of Sosa’s best, five short of McGwire’s, eight shy of Bonds, and all alone atop Yankee history. For now, the Leaning Tower of 161st Street is the most prolific single-season righthanded home run hitter ever to wear the Yankee pinstripes.

“The baseball world has changed considerably since 2001, or 1961, or 1927,” Petriello writes, blissfully unconcerned for the philistine contingency which persists in thinking that the game had no business changing at all, never mind that some changes over all those decades have been nothing but beneficial to baseball’s health while others amount to calling repairmen to fix what wasn’t actually broken.

Almost all of it has changed in a way to make hitting more difficult, for any number of reasons, most revolving around velocity, pitch movement, and the endless streams of high-octane arms who don’t worry about pacing themselves to go deep into games. This, above all else, is why the strikeout rate keeps going up; the next time a batter from a half-century ago complains about today’s hitters, remember that their task is immeasurably more difficult than his was. (Emphasis added.)

Remember, too, that Judge is playing in a season in which nobody’s still really dead certain whether he’ll get to swing on a rabbit ball or a miniature medicine ball. But it almost doesn’t matter. (Almost.) You can throw Judge a ball of seaweed, and he can hit it into the upper deck.

But he might hit more than ten more homers, too. Continuing to put the lie to manager Trey Wilson (in Bull Durham) telling his stumbling team, “This—is a simple game. You throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball.” If it was that simple, Judge’s height would be the only large thing about him.

“I can’t drive 55,” rocker Sammy Hagar once sang for a top-thirty hit. Judge can drive 55, and maybe a lot more before the regular season ends. There won’t be a traffic cop or highway patrolman alive who can stop him.

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.