JUDGE RESTORES OUR FAITH IN BASEBALL WITH AN ALL-TIME SEASON
Calling him the MVP doesn’t do justice to what looms as a historic double: the “clean” single-season home run record, along with an attainable Triple Crown, in a sport that craves grandeur
As it is, his physical enormity invites overstatement. At 6 feet 7 and 282 pounds, Aaron Judge rises out of Yankee Stadium as the most striking New York skyscraper, which only begs grandiose pronouncements such as mine as he flaunts 60-plus, presumably honest home runs and a possible Triple Crown: He not only is the American League’s Most Valuable Player this season, he is baseball’s Most Important Mortal of the current century.
Think not? He has done the unfathomable: reducing Shohei Ohtani, he of the two-way revolution that has transformed the sport forever, to an also-ran in both categories. Ohtani, who was MVP last season and conceivably could be MVP every year, weighed in with a reminder. “One thing I could say is, overall, balance-wise, I’m having a better season this year than I had last year,” he said. So, no, we are not exaggerating the magnitude of Judge in 2022 when he’s one-upping the biggest sensation of the day and a seminal player for the ages.
He is jackhammering his way into history just when the game needs him most. Judge is the first power hitter of the post-steroids era, or at least since PED use was rampant, who has restored our joy and trust in the Great American Home Run. Chicks even dig the long ball again — memo to woke police: it was a slogan from a 1999 Nike ad — and in a year when Fernando Tatis Jr. showed that juicing still is a thing, Judge hasn’t elicited a single whisper when everyone is on the lookout for cheaters in a long-scandalous industry. His pursuit of Roger Maris’ AL record also is a chase for the clean record, in my mind, with his inevitable No. 62 only trailing the tainted Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in a single season.
Just as significantly, he is keeping our gaze fixed on baseball this month, no small feat in a nation immersed in football. His 60th came Tuesday night as the Yankees trailed Pittsburgh in the ninth inning, requiring Judge to sheepishly make only the second curtain call of his career, as forced by his teammates. “I guess it takes 60 to get another one,” he joked after tying Babe Ruth on the all-time list. “I really didn’t want to do it, especially since we were losing. But it’s for the fans, who show up on a nightly basis and grind with us to the end. They stayed and hung out with us, so they deserved that moment, and that’s one of the reasons why I do it.” His shot kept his team alive long enough for Giancarlo Stanton to rip a walkoff grand slam, a magical moment that hastened the inevitable. Any moment now, Judge will pass Maris and command a standing ovation that might last all night in the Bronx.
“I don’t think about the numbers. When you talk about Ruth and Maris and (Mickey) Mantle and all these Yankees greats that did so many great things in this game, you never imagine as a kid being mentioned with them,” Judge said of his place in the pinstriped power pantheon. “It’s an incredible honor, one I don’t take lightly at all. But we’re not done.
“It’s what you dream about. I’m trying to enjoy it all, soak it all in, but I know I still have a job to do out of the field every single day, and I just have to keep my head down, keep preparing and stay mentally focused.”
In that vein, he’s also renewing the pomp and relevance of the Yankees, who haven’t won a World Series in 13 years and would have slump-crashed last month if not for Judge. Remarkable, isn’t it, how they are less hateable when a personable, grounded superstar is slugging away as the antithesis of Reggie Jackson? It defines the essence of Judge, what is so precious about him. He grasps the scope of what he’s accomplishing, but he isn’t overly impressed by himself. He just wants to win a championship, and when he repeats it over and over, we should believe him.
“It’s just not important to me,” he said of records. “What’s important to me is winning — winning this division, first off, and putting our team in a good position going into the postseason. It’s not all about me, no matter what happens. One guy can’t win or lose you a ballgame. All those accolades, all the records, stuff like that, that’s offseason talk.”
It’s autumn talk for the rest of us. This week, amid a rocking Bronx homestand, Judge reflected on the romance of it all. “You set personal goals, especially as a 10-year-old kid. You have dreams and aspirations of what you want to try to accomplish in Major League Baseball if you ever get there. But never in your wildest dreams do you think it’d ever come true,” he said. “You hope, you pray, you work, but you never know if it’s going to happen until it does.”
If Judge isn’t facing the media mobs of 1998 — I was there, along with the androstenedione in McGwire’s locker and, ahem, “Flintstone vitamins” of Sosa — he is dealing with other weighty factors that could have buried him. He has produced an monstrous offensive seasons despite the fits and starts of an unreliable accompanying lineup. “It’s right there with some of the best, on the very short list of best all-time seasons,’’ Yankees manager Aaron Boone said, noting that Judge leads the field in home runs, RBIs, batting average, slugging percentage, runs, extra-base hits, total bases, on-base percentage, OPS, OPS+ and WAR.
And he has done this while playing in New York, across the street from the home of Ruth and Maris and other Yankees legends, and he is doing so after telling the front office to shove a seven-year, $213.5 extension offered just before Opening Day. Such risks have backfired on some in sports, but Judge has thrived under his self-imposed “gamble.” He did more than bet on himself. Unwittingly, he was protecting the upper-tier pay structure of major-league players, which is threatened when Tatis sabotages a 14-year, $340 million contract in San Diego with his personal screwups. Every time a megastar wants to be paid, owners will point to Tatis and others who have underperformed with long-term monster deals. Judge has all the leverage, not that he ever has looked at the challenge that way.
“It was never a gamble for me, because no matter whether we got a deal done or didn’t get a deal done I was still going to be playing with the Yankees this year,” he told Sports Illustrated. “In my mind, there was no gamble. I’ll be playing for the Yankees, working as hard as I can to help us win a World Series. All that other stuff, that’s why I’ve got an agent.”
It’s safe to assume the fans who chant “All Rise,” when their beloved Judge takes his place in the outfield, might burn down the Stadium if the front office doesn’t outbid the competition this offseason. Team president Randy Levine — speaking for chairman Hal Steinbrenner, whose salary-splurging father never would have allowed the situation to fester — said the team “will be extraordinarily competitive” in its offer to “an all-time Yankee.” Extraordinarily competitive won’t be enough when the average cost of attending a Yankees game, for a family or group of four, is $348.84 this season, per the Team Marketing Report cost index.
Steinbrenner and his partners must ante up, especially in a season when the team’s fortunes have ebbed periodically and threatened the future of Boone and general manager Brian Cashman. The front office allowed Seattle to steal pitching prize Luis Castillo, enough for the Mariners to end the longest postseason-less drought in pro sports, and the Yankees settled for Frankie Montas, who has been an injury-riddled bust. Losing Judge — and he has been effusive about his affection for the San Francisco Giants in his northern California youth — might lead to a new era without Boone and Cashman.
Leading his team through struggles and drama is another reason Judge is the MVP. It’s impossible to diminish Ohtani when he’s literally capable of winning a game by himself; last Saturday, in a snapshot of his double-edged dominance, he allowed no runs on the mound while driving in a run and scoring a run against Seattle. The Angels, the disastrous franchise that has wasted Ohtani and Mike Trout, won 2-1. Those who watch Judge every day are shutting down all other arguments. His near-.500 surge this month has placed him on even higher ground — he’s a fraction ahead of Boston’s Xander Bogaerts and Minnesota’s Luis Arraez in the AL batting-average race, meaning Judge is positioned to become only the 11th player to win a Triple Crown and only the second in the last four decades, joining Miguel Cabrera in 2012. He is 23 homers ahead of Houston’s Yordan Alvarez, who is next closest in the AL, and 20 ahead of Philadelphia’s Kyle Schwarber in the National League. Runs batted in? He’s 13 ahead of Cleveland’s Jose Ramirez. Keep in mind: Pitchers have a distinct edge over offense; this is the lowest-slugging season in eight years, and no one is complaining about juiced balls or bloated bodies. Judge is ruling the arms race anyway.
Said teammate Anthony RIzzo: “I understand there’s a story for the next two weeks on who deserves the MVP. But this hasn’t been done in this era, someone chasing 61 clean like this and no real question marks on what’s going on in the game. So it’s really impressive. It’s really fun. I know there’s a debate about Ohtani and whatnot, but Judge, it’s his season. He’s having a special season.”
All considering, including the fade of baseball in American culture, his is one of the most monumental sports achievements ever. As a columnist ashamed to have lathered McGwire and Sosa with praise as they chased Maris and Ruth — before the full PED ramifications were exposed — I’m probably rooting for Judge out of long-held professional guilt more than an objective place. In a nod to his Giants fandom, he still honors Bonds’ 73 as the all-time record. “Seventy-three is the record. In my book,” Judge said. “No matter what people want to say about that era of baseball, for me, they went out there and hit 73 homers and 70 homers (McGwire), and that to me is what the record is. The AL record is 61, so that is one I can kind of try to go after. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it’s been a fun year so far.”
It has been the best individual year I’ve witnessed, in fact, since I gave up on a dirty sport. Damn right Aaron Judge is MVP of the 21st century. He has hijacked our eyeballs as he punishes pitches, day after day, a beast in a football player’s body who fortunately is playing baseball and doing things we’ve never seen.
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.