Only record-holder Barry Bonds (73), Mark McGwire (70 and 65) and Sammy Sosa (66, 64 and 63) have hit more than 62 homers in a season. All three played in a time when MLB did not test for performance-enhancing drugs as stringently as it does now.
So Judge, with his iconic No. 99, has emerged as a new modern prototype, a new home run hero for a different era, the latest in a long line of Yankees legends. Like all the Yankees legends before him, Judge proved himself capable of withstanding all that New York throws at its most treasured sports stars. But even the stoic 30-year-0ld, known for a team-first demeanor that does not wax and wane with his performance, had begun to show the strain of his pursuit by the time the Yankees’ last series of the season began.
Cameras normally have no trouble catching Judge wearing a smile. But with each at-bat that went by, the smiles became fewer and farther between, his brow a little more furrowed. For so long he seemed to have so much time. Suddenly, he didn’t.
When Judge hit his 60th homer Sept. 20, he had plenty of at-bats left to catch and pass Maris, whose family began to follow him from city to city. For days, fans fell silent every time a pitcher delivered a ball to Judge, who went seven games between hitting Nos. 60 and 61, a drought that must have felt like eons to the slugger before he ended it with a line drive to left field last week.
The Yankees played their last home series of the regular season, with their division title already sealed, through rain and cold this past weekend. Fans packed the stands anyway, though the Baltimore Orioles walked Judge five times in three games and struck him out six times.
So Judge was left to take his pursuit to Texas. The Maris family went home. Judge went 1 for 4 in Monday night’s game and 1 for 5 in the first game of Tuesday’s doubleheader. Manager Aaron Boone told reporters earlier in the day that Judge, who might normally play just one game of a doubleheader for a team with a first-round bye locked up on the penultimate day of the season, would play both if he did not homer in the first.
Judge led off the second game with No. 62, a no-doubter to left-center, a classic Judge swing that looked more comfortable than many of the in-between hacks he took at times since reaching 61. He flashed a smile rounding first base before restoring the all-business look he has made his own. And when his teammates hurried to meet him at home plate, Judge made sure to give a hug to each of them.
After getting a second at-bat in the second inning — he struck out — Judge returned to the field for the bottom half. Boone then made the move to replace him, drawing raucous cheers from the Texas crowd.
Judge entered Tuesday leading the AL in home runs and RBI, with a batting average that trailed only one AL player, Minnesota’s Luis Arraez. Not only is he having one of the greatest all-around offensive seasons in baseball history, but he is hitting for power at a pace unparalleled by anyone in the sport. Judge has 62 homers. The next-closest player entered Tuesday with 46. Not since the days of Babe Ruth has the gap between No. 1 and No. 2 been so vast. Judge has a chance to become the AL’s first Triple Crown winner since the Detroit Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera in 2012 — and just the second since Boston Red Sox great Carl Yastrzemski in 1967.
But Ruth, Maris, Yastrzemski and the rest didn’t have to face pitches like the ones Judge sees regularly. He is compiling these numbers at a time when offense, at least as measured by batting average, is at record lows, at a time when pitchers have never thrown harder and in a city where his every move is scrutinized.
He is putting them together months after turning down a contract offer worth more than $200 million and weeks before he will become a free agent for the first time. And he is doing it all for a sputtering Yankees team so picked apart by injuries that Judge has all but held the offense together as they clung to their lead in the AL East. They recently clinched the division title in Toronto, a late September celebration that did nothing to alleviate the tension of a superstar and a fan base waiting for something much rarer.
Unlike Maris and Ruth, Judge is making history a generation after widespread use of since-banned drugs complicated the home run record. McGwire later admitted to using steroids when he broke Maris’s record by hitting 70 homers in 1998. Bonds, whose murky legacy has kept him out of the Hall of Fame, followed with 73 homers in 2001 to establish the single-season record.
Maris’s son Roger Jr. has been in attendance to watch Judge’s chase, at home and on the road. After Judge tied Maris with No. 61, Roger Jr. told reporters he believes Judge should “be revered for being the actual single-season home run champ.”
“That’s really who he is if he hits 62,” he said. “And I think that’s what needs to happen. I think baseball needs to look at the records, and I think baseball should do something.”
Judge is not only compiling his numbers against the highest velocity in MLB history but under the most stringent drug testing policy the sport has had. He has said he considers Bonds’s 73 the record — in other words, 62 is something but not the whole thing. But that he has surpassed the number that no one surpassed for more than 30 years until the steroid era does means he is now an intractable part of the conversation about the greatest single-season showings of all time — just in time for him to hit the free agent market.