IF JUDGE MASHES 62 HOME RUNS, CONSIDER HIM THE ALL-TIME KING
In a sensational season bordering on historic, the slugger has given us no reason to suspect foul play — PED use — as he chases Maris and Ruth (and reminds us to dismiss Bonds, McGwire and Sosa)
All rise? No official directive is necessary. We’re already standing for justice, in the courtroom of Aaron Judge, whose magnificent season in the fluorescent glare of the Bronx is restoring our faith in baseball and biceps. Dare I suggest as much after the procession of bloated frauds who used performance-enhancing trickery to pad power numbers? Shouldn’t I know that science labs always will be a step ahead of the cops?
A crooked Judge, this is not.
I believe he’s a natural force, chiseled at 6 feet 7 and 285 pounds, who has been ripping balls out of parks throughout his career and passing drug tests all the way. Judge isn’t Barry Bonds, whose rampant megalomania led him to use steroids to keep up with the foul play of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Judge isn’t Alex Rodriguez, whose childlike insecurity was a curse that reduced him to a two-time PED liar.
Judge is Judge, maybe the most level-headed superstar in sports, a practical guy whose surge comes not from chemicals but the basic, all-American task of proving one’s bosses wrong. Before the season, the New York Yankees — the second-most valuable sports franchise on the planet, worth $7.1 billion (per Forbes) — offered Judge a seven-year extension worth $213.5 million. Without drama, he rejected the contract and vowed to become a free agent this winter, knowing the average annual value of $30.5 million was significantly less than the $35.5 million of Mike Trout. He was betting on himself, a gamble that would backfire with anything but a spectacular season.
Better, he is courting history, on pace for 67 home runs, a stunning act of negotiate-on-the-field oneupmanship that points more to his character than any suspicion. Nothing shouts “shove it” to the pinstriped hierarchy — namely, owner Hal Steinbrenner, the restrained son of a splurging father — more than threatening to surpass the single-season totals of two Yankees legends, the 61 of Roger Maris and 60 of Babe Ruth. In the context of lost integrity, reaching 62 would be of vast importance. Because Major League Baseball refuses to place an * beside the tainted first six spots on the all-time list — Bonds, 73; McGwire, 70; Sosa, 66; McGwire, 65; Sosa, 64; Sosa, 63 — allow me to start a campaign in the arena of public opinion.
If Judge smacks 62 or more, let’s anoint him as the single-season king. Ignore the MLB record book. Purge the juicers from our collective memory. Judge would be No. 1, Maris No. 2, Ruth No. 3. Consider it the steroids-free historical narrative that so-called commissioner Rob Manfred doesn’t have the gumption to push.
“It’d be great if it happened,” Judge said of 62. “It’ll be something that’s pretty cool, but I think having a ring on my finger at the end of the year would be even better.”
The men who watch from the dugout every night are more lyrical about the Judge Experience. “Just takes the magic wand and does his thing,’’ pitching ace Gerrit Cole said. “It’s like a steady dose of amazingness.”
“What can I say? The guy’s a monster,” pitcher Luis Severino said.
Aware that Judge has mashed 36 homers in his last 79 games, placing him at 42 with 60 regular-season games left, manager Aaron Boone knows he’s clearly the second-rate Aaron in Yankee Stadium. Sensing the drama ahead in August and September, and the possible superlatives in October, he said, “I can't imagine a person more equipped to go through something like that. I know, at his core, what he's about — and that's this team and us winning and nothing will get in the way of that. It doesn’t cease to amaze me the season he’s putting together.”
Time was, we would have held our noses and cried for the urine tester when a hulking slugger amassed 42 homers before August. I’d sit inside press boxes, in Chicago and St. Louis and San Francisco, and instinctively feel a finger on my right hand — the middle finger, probably — reach for the asterisk key on my computer. The Steroids Era made us cynical about the Great American Home Run, once the backyard dream of all kids, and ever since the phony sideshows of Bonds and McGwire and Sosa, chicks and everyone else stopped digging the longball.
But now comes Judge, in a season when home-run numbers are down throughout the majors as pitchers frustrate hitters with nastier-then-ever velocity and advantages such as universal humidors that prevent balls from drying out and flying out. For the first time in the 20 seasons since MLB launched its testing program, which Manfred hails as the most stringent in sports, it appears a hitter will pass the 60-homer threshold that used to be the most magical number in a game romanticized by statistical standards. Sure, I could slip into wayback mode and wonder if Judge juiced up during the 99-day work stoppage, when drug-testing was halted and players conceivably had enough time to dope up and beat the system.
“You might start seeing some 50-home run seasons again,” said Victor Conte Jr., a primary villain in the BALCO scandal that snared Bonds and other star athletes, speaking to the New York Times in March. “In terms of performance enhancement, gains that could be made would be enormous. So they would just do very intense explosive type weight training. And this develops fast-twitch muscle fiber, and the benefits that will come will carry over. It’s not just that they got this boost.”
All you need to know about Judge is that misgivings aren’t even being hinted. This isn’t a new trend, recalling his 52 bombs as a rookie in 2017. If the balls were juiced by MLB that year, when Giancarlo Stanton hit 59 for the Miami Marlins, there is no such super-ball effect this season. The next-closest slugger to Judge in total homers is Philadelphia’s Kyle Schwarber, with 32. Only two others have hit more than 26. Judge’s blast Saturday was his career 200th, making him the second-fastest in big-league history to reach the milestone. With typical humility, he said, “Excited to get that one out of the way. Me and (teammate Aaron Hicks) were kind of racing — he's about to get to 100 and I was trying to get to 200, so we had a little race going on.”
In recent times, only Stanton has created late-season intrigue about cracking 60. He fell just short, and now, he usually hits somewhere behind Judge in the Yankees’ lineup. Still struggling with injuries, he has homered 24 times this year. Any Judge pursuit of Maris and Ruth will depend heavily on Stanton staying healthy and protecting him.
Now the no-doubt frontrunner for American League MVP, Judge will be the national centerpiece this postseason. Will he and the Yankees beat back the Astros amid lingering bad blood about Houston’s 2017 cheating tactics? Will a nation tuned out to baseball actually tune in if the Yankees play the Los Angeles Dodgers? How much will the five boroughs tremble if Judge faces Max Scherzer and the Mets in the World Series?
And what happens if Mets owner Steve Cohen, sensing a rare chance to gain market superiority over the Yankees, makes Judge an offer he can’t refuse? Or might he return to his native Bay Area and sign with the San Francisco Giants? Shouldn’t Steinbrenner, amid the massive contracts soon to be reaped by Juan Soto and Shohei Ohtani, stop the stubbornness and make an offer that starts with a three? It wouldn’t matter anyway. A man of principle, Judge has shut down all public discussion.
“No matter what happens during the season, we're not going to give any updates. We're just not going to," Steinbrenner told the media last week. “I completely agree with Aaron, and still do, that in no way, shape or form can this be a distraction. So the sole focus is winning a championship. That's all anyone needs to worry about right now.”
He might play for the most pompous franchise in baseball. He might play in a city of self-absorbed loons. But Aaron Judge is a monster only in the proportion of his body, including the size-17 spikes on his feet. If he ever tests positive for PEDs, I’ll permanently lose my faith in humankind.
I’m not going to worry about it. I’m just going to enjoy the spectacle, with no need to hold my nose.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.