It’s never happened. In the current digital age, baseball has never had a true chase for the sport’s most sacred single-season record. Aaron Judge is making his games appointment television in a transcendent way that the Major Leagues haven’t had for a non-playoff game since Barry Bonds’ 73-home run campaign, which doubled with Sammy Sosa’s last immaculate year, 2001. Judge is at 43 entering a weekend series at the Cardinals.
Yes, Giancarlo Stanton hit 59 home runs in 2017. It wasn’t a needle-mover. He played for Miami. Let’s be real, when’s the last time the Marlins did anything truly unique and interesting? Winning the 2003 World Series, then holding a fire sale? An amazing August (18 home runs) got Stanton in the conversation with Roger Maris in 1961 and Babe Ruth’s two 60-plus longball campaigns a century ago. He never entered the performance-enhanced Sosa, Mark McGwire or Bonds atmosphere like Judge has been for several weeks.
Judge’s home-run pace has been well above 60 since mid-June. As of Friday, he’s projected to finish the season at 66 home runs, tied for third all-time with Sosa’s career best in 1998. How do you get to that number? Judge has missed only four of the Yankees’ 106 games, or one miss every 26.5 games. New York has 56 games remaining in the regular season, likely leading to a pair of Judge sit-outs. More importantly, at the current pace, Judge has 54 games to add to his total.
It’s still incredibly weird to see that the top-six home-run seasons of all time took place between 1998-2001. But there’s another common denominator between those six efforts between Bonds, McGwire (2x), and Sosa (3x)— they were all juicing. The No. 7 season of all time and the Yankee record are one and the same. That’s Roger Maris’s American League record 61 longballs in 1961, which was, coincidentally, 61 years ago. That’s well within reach for Judge. How would 62 home runs or better from Judge this season be recognized in baseball?
I bet it’d be the new divisive issue around steroids. Judge’s unblemished record when it comes to performance-enhancing drugs, combined with the tainted résumés of the tainted sluggers with 62 home runs or better, will be on the table for continued discussions unless he hits 31 more home runs this season to best Bonds. It won’t be too different from whether those same admitted steroid users deserve induction into Cooperstown. McGwire, Bonds, and others timed out on the ballots before but still have the chance to get elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame through the veterans committee.
By no means do I think Judge, the AL MVP favorite, is taking any banned substance, far from it. I truly believe it won’t come out later that the Yankees’ best player is gaining an unfair advantage. In between this season and the home-run chases at the turn of the century came baseball’s reckoning with steroids. Judge would be an idiot to even consider going down the lane that got so many greats in trouble over the last two decades, especially doing so in New York, where the spotlight couldn’t be bigger.
That’s what makes No. 99’s chase for individual glory beyond appetizing. He plays home games in the Bronx. The Yankees are one of the most beloved and hated teams in North American sports, no doubt holding the top spot in baseball. Even the Astros horrid on-field cheating and off-diamond treatment of women doesn’t top the long-standing visceral hate for the Steinbrenner enterprises. The best and most marketable athlete playing for a franchise based in the largest media market in the country is trying to have one of the best power-hitting seasons ever.
There’s no team in baseball with the pedigree of the Yankees. Hopefully, Judge’s greatness gets recognized as the overall New York record, and therefore he’ll be atop all of MLB minus the juicers, not separated by an old-or-new modifier to denote the difference in stadiums or how far the game has grown in the six decades since Maris set the record.
As Judge gets deeper into the season, especially if his clip of home runs doesn’t slow down, every at-bat will matter more. It’ll be like the chase for a no-hitter or perfect game with live look-ins every time the Yankees play. And nothing like Judge’s chase, with 60-plus home runs easily in the ballpark of possibilities, has happened since baseball’s steroid crackdown. Buckle up.