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THE AARON JUDGE STORY IS SUBLIME, SO PLEASE JUST APPRECIATE IT
We’ve waited years for a slugger worthy of reverence — genuine, selfless, adopted at birth, winning the bet on himself and, by all accounts, PED-free — so stop the debates and enjoy the rockin' ride
Before wondering if Aaron Judge is too good to be true, do your scandal-battered soul a favor: Assume his story is real to the very last roar, even if it resonated across Texas suburbia and not in a more poetic Yankee Stadium. And before asking if the number 62 means as much as it once did, give your jaded perspective a breather: It means MORE, because it came long after the Steroids Era, soaring across a bridge over polluted waters, and landing safely on the other side in the autumn of 2022.
There is no reason to think this is anything but a Norman Rockwell portrait, as it lacks even the slightest hint of Norman Bates lurking with a syringe. Nor was there any cause to shriek when ESPN cut into regular-season football games for his at-bats, unless you’re just a killjoy by birth or trade. We’ll remember how Judge’s home-run total ascended into the 60s, the way he saluted his mother with a gaze into the stands in Toronto, the way she hugged Roger Maris Jr. in the sweetest of torch-passing embraces, then how he labored and pressed and even slammed his helmet — while emphasizing team and winning all the way — before hitting the record-breaker, Clean Division, in his 161st game.
When the Authentic Single-Season Homer King crossed home plate Tuesday night in Arlington, stoic and businesslike as usual after passing Maris’ father, he saluted the heavens before nodding wearily at his parents in the front row. Every man in the Yankees dugout mobbed him, as relieved as he was. Finally, 58 plate appearances and 15 strikeouts after hitting his 60th back on Sept. 20, Judge’s smile re-emerged. And tears formed in his eyes, requiring him to dab his eye-black before it smeared.
“Pretty surreal,” he said.
Nothing is wrong with this story, people. Nothing.
So appreciate the Season of 62 for what it is, not what it isn’t, though I’m not sure how it could be better in any way. Is he likable? Yes. Is he humble? Yes. Has he won the fearless bet on himself, telling the New York Yankees — richest team in Major League Baseball, assessed at $6 billion — to shove their seven-year, $213.5-million April offer so he could continue proving he’s worth considerably more in free agency? Yes, he has. Will he face jail time at some point? Very much doubt it. Does a fraud lurk beneath the God-is-good, love-thy-family, batting-average-beats-homers image? No, no, no. Is he really free of PEDs? Yes, I dare say. Just enjoy the rockin’ joyride, OK?
“It's a big relief. I think everyone can sit back down in their seats and watch the ball game, you know? No, but it's been a fun ride so far," he said, not impressed with himself as usual on a night of multiple standing ovations in an enemy park. “Getting a chance to do this, with the team we've got, the guys surrounding me, the constant support from my family, who’ve been with me through this whole thing ... it's been a great honor.”
For us, it has been a thrill. “The history of this game is one of its calling cards,” said his manager, Aaron Boone. “The number 61. I’ve known about that number my entire life. I think one thing that makes our sport a little more special than others is the history of it all. We do history really well. And this has been a year where we’re in the middle of one of those magical historical moments, and that’s tied to a number. And that’s pretty neat.”
Pretty damned groovy, as the elders say. Pretty damned rad, as the kids say. This epic belongs to everyone.
Remember, he didn’t enter this world wearing pinstriped diapers. He was adopted by Patty and Wayne Judge the day after he was born, and not until he was 10 did he say, “I don’t look like you, Mom. I don’t look like you, Dad. Like, what’s going on here.” When they broke the news, he said, “OK, that’s fine with me. You’re still my mom, the only mom I know. You’re still my dad, the only dad I know.” Moving forward, the two schoolteachers inspired him to become the American dream, to a safe place where he could produce the most dominant of all offensive seasons without hint of doping help. The only hedge about this as the greatest of ALL individual seasons involves Shohei Ohtani, the two-way miracle, who has won 15 games with 213 strikeouts and a 2.35 ERA as a pitcher and produced 34 homers and 95 RBI as a batter — for a combined WAR of 9.4. That said, Judge’s WAR is 10.5.
We want this story to be legitimate. Sport and baseball NEED this story to be pure, without belaboring a juicing past that spilled into August, when a former Face of the Game, Fernando Tatis Jr., was suspended 80 games. All he did, it turns out, was get the hell off stage so Judge — the Co-Savior of the Game, with Ohtani — could reintroduce dignity and splendor to the proceedings. He’ll fall just short in his bid to become the 11th player to win the Triple Crown — Minnesota’s Luis Arraez is positioned to win the AL batting title — yet Judge still could lead the Yankees to their first World Series title in 13 years. If so, his masterpiece should be hermetically sealed in the most exclusive of sports pantheons. He will have one-upped every legend in Monument Park. He might warrant his own Cooperstown wing. The magnitude of Aaron Judge cannot be overstated. Just excuse him as he inserts his noise-cancelling earbuds.
“It’s not all about me,” he said, when it really is all about him. “What’s important to me is winning.”
Even in the crowning hour, Judge said, “In my book, it’s just another day.” He is who he is. And don’t we love it?
Unless we are proven delusionally mistaken, we just witnessed his clean takeover of the unsullied, non-asterisk, steroid-free record. “I think it means a lot for a lot of people that he’s clean,” said Maris Jr., along for the joyride in a refreshing burst of tradition. “He plays the game the right way, and he gives people a chance to look at somebody who should be revered for hitting 62 home runs. He should be revered for being the actual single-season home run champ. That’s really who he is. I think baseball needs to look at the records. And I think baseball should do something.”
He’s right. MLB should exclude stained beneficiaries of the Steroids Era, Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, from the list and allow Judge’s name to reign atop it. Shame on shallow, group-think millennials who excuse cheating as a life skill and defiantly tout the most chronic cheat, Bonds, as the single-season king at 70. With the addition of PEDs to his 6-foot-7, 282-pound body mass, would Judge hit 75 or 80? Until so-called commissioner Rob Manfred shows the political gumption — good luck finding it with a flashlight and search team — to whitewash the juicers, he’s wrong to let his MLB Network puppets gush, “Aaron Judge made history.” History doesn’t exist until Manfred cancels the chemical miscreants.
Seems Judge created a new layer of history. That said, the fall of Maris and Babe Ruth, without BALCO-type lab help, isn’t why a two-week drama struck me as extraordinarily special. Unlike every other athlete approaching an all-time individual record, Judge was not immersed in his chase. His priorities: (1) making sure the Yankees won the American League East and secured a first-round playoff bye, setting up another cheat-grudge rematch with the Houston Astros for the pennant; and (2) realizing that getting on base, even via walk after walk, was helping the winning formula when Boone kept batting him leadoff. After No. 60, he went seven games without a home run, 34 plate appearances, and a constant parade of base-on-balls journeys only aggravated those who tuned in nightly for spontaneous fulfillment. After No. 61, he was 3 of 17 with five walks. Teams weren’t pitching around him out of spite — in Toronto, he saw five full counts in one game — as much as the basic reality that grooving one to Judge makes no sense in any circumstance. Over the weekend in the Bronx, the Baltimore Orioles were less generous — and he couldn’t connect for the money ball. Through it all, he resisted the temptation to swing for the fences and remove pressure from the equation. So much swirled at Yankee Stadium, where fans stood and went silent before every pitch, then succumbed to fatigue and disappointment. Close to 400,000 people showed up for two homestands, with outfield seats selling for as much as $1,100 as ballhawks plotted paths to record-smashing balls worth $1 million-plus. The Aaron Judge Economy waited for the memorabilia boom.
Let it wait, he said.
“I’ll take four walks for a win every single day,” Judge said.
What about the lost drama? “It would have been nice to hit it at home in front of the home fans,” he said Sunday, “but at the end of the day, I’ve got a job to do.”
When the Yankees clinched the division last week, and he was required to do his customary post-game interview on the field, he had no interest in talking about himself. “Don’t pop ‘em without me!” Judge shouted as they headed to the locker room to celebrate with champagne.
Then, when asked which category he favors — home runs or batting average — he dropped a beauty. “You really had to ask me that. I like batting average,” he said, and it doesn’t require deep psychoanalysis to understand why. As one of the largest specimens in baseball history, Judge longs to be regarded as more than a hulking slugger, more than another Biff swinging for the fences. He wants to be remembered as an exquisite hitter, and here was his robust piece of evidence: almost winning the Triple Crown in the year he re-established the “clean” home-run record — or AL record, if you’re hopelessly set in your Bonds/McGwire/Sosa ways.
In the truest sense, he indeed is the Most Valuable Player — even in an era when Ohtani can throw a no-hitter and rip three homers on the same night — with his genuine mantra that his team come first. As the chase stalled, he said with a smile, “That’ll come. … They kind of happen by accident. I think homers are more thrown than hit, to be honest. It really takes the right pitch, the right situation.” On cue, albeit slowly, Nos. 61 and 62 happened as if he’d orchestrated the procession of what was most important: first the division title, then the home run that tied Maris, then the home run that passed Maris as the postseason begins. “You try not to think about it, but it creeps into your head. It was tough at times at Yankee Stadium, for sure, when you got 45,000 standing on their feet for every pitch,” he said. “You hear the noise. You hear the buzz. But when I step out on that field, when I step in the box, all the hype, all the noise, it goes aside and you got to focus on competing.”
It’s why Judge, a man of faith who cites 2 Corinthians 5:7 as his life verse, is so beloved by teammates and fans. “For we live by faith, not by sight,” is his message. If there is a divine texture to the drama, consider this from Maris Jr. in Toronto the night Judge hit his 61st: “It’s the ninth day I’ve been here. Aaron wears 99. Dad wears 9. It’s just kind of weird the way it all kind of went together.”
His not-about-me stance is no act, not even close. Don’t expect a flurry of endorsements, for he has little interest. When his first order of business is to thank his mother, Patty, it’s coming from his heart. “She’s been with me through it all, that’s for sure,” he said. “From the Little League days, from getting me ready for school, taking me to my first couple of practices and games, being there for my first professional game, for my debut, and then now getting the chance to be here for this, this is so special.”
As for the money ball, Judge wasn’t about to make demands. It was caught in the front row of the left-field seats, in Section 31 of Choctaw Stadium, by Dallas resident and Rangers fan Cory Youmans. "I don't know where it is,” Judge said. "It would be nice to get it, but that guy made a great catch.” Turns out the guy is an investment banker who should give Judge the ball.
If anything was phony about him, an influential veteran such as Gerrit Cole would be the first to say. “I’m so happy for him. There is not a more deserving person in my opinion,” said the Yankees ace. “It's hard to put into words. When you think about the Yankees, often times you are reminded of the legends that live in Monument Park and the accomplishments that they've had. Even just to tie the record, let alone break it is a bit surreal. And obviously, on a night like tonight, it's just like, ‘Woah.’ ’’
“He’s as beloved as they come,” Boone said. “I think everyone is just so excited for him.”
It was Judge’s equilibrium that grounded the streaky Yankees during a wicked slump that saw their division lead shrink from 15 1/2 games to 3 1/2. If there is any remaining doubt about his MVP bona fides, his leadership in saving the season should hush even Ohtani’s loudest proponents. “Inside the clubhouse, behind the scenes, he’s the same guy, and that’s what makes him so special,” pitcher Nelson Cortes Jr. said. “Whether he’s on a tear or he’s struggling, he’s the same guy always and we feed off that energy, too — no matter how good or bad you’re doing, we’ve got to keep it level for every other guy in there. That’s how we weathered that rough patch.”
Nothing can tarnish the Aaron Judge epic. It’s his world, his courtroom, and even when ESPN unfortunately invited Bonds for an interview during the chase, his presence only briefly reminded us of the dirty era that we’re trying to forget. “I’m cheering for him, man,” said Bonds, grinning. “We’re all fans. We played, but we’re fans of the game. Seeing what he’s doing is amazing.”
Amazing. Can we simply leave it at that?
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.