The record is 73. One can call it tainted or inauthentic, but Barry Bonds indisputably set the major league record for home runs in a season by smacking the cartoonish total of 73 in 2001.
But it has become equally irrefutable over this last week that Aaron Judge’s chase of Babe Ruth and Roger Maris has cut through much of the cynicism that marked baseball’s PED era and the corresponding fallout that has for too long hovered over the game.
There has been romance in the air in The Bronx through an historic late September that has demonstrated the enduring magic of the Nos. 60 and 61. All these years later, despite 73 by Bonds and 70 by Mark McGwire three years before that, 60 and 61 remain as magical numbers in baseball as 56 or .406.
There were balls in the air at Yankee Stadium on Friday, three of them, in fact, high enough, deep enough and far enough to be gone. One was hit by an Aaron, but named Hicks and not Judge. One was hit by a No. 99, but there was no reason to rise, because it was off the bat off Boston’s Alex Verdugo and not Judge’s.
Romance and balls in the air in the Yankees’ 5-4 victory, but not history. The Mighty Judge struck out twice, flied out to left and reached on a line drive single to left. He has gone three games, 12 at-bats and 14 plate appearances since tying the Babe with No. 60 on Tuesday.
And now there are just two games remaining on this homestand before the Yankees skedaddle to Toronto for a three-game series that commences Monday. There were, of course, two games remaining on that homestand in July 2011, with Derek Jeter needing two hits to reach 3,000. Rumor has it that No. 2 went 5-for-5 in the penultimate game in The Bronx.
If there were a way, the capacity crowd of 47,346 would have willed it. It was kind of a bizarro moment when Jonathan Loaisiga protected the lead to close it out in the ninth, when a blown save would have brought Judge to the plate as the second batter in the bottom of the inning. The fans cheered, mostly.
“I think the casual person just comes tonight and thinks, ‘I’m going to [see Judge] hit a homer,’ ” manager Aaron Boone said. “The reality is he just missed two the last two nights.
“He’s getting off the right swings. He’s making the right swing decisions.”
The press room in which Boone conducts his daily briefings and from where Judge spoke after smacking No. 60 has its side walls adorned with blown-up posters of national magazine covers featuring the Yankees.
One of them is Life Magazine from August 18, 1961. The Babe is in the background in black-and-white, with Maris and Mickey Mantle in the foreground in color.
The headline is, “Will Yank Sluggers Smash 60 Homers?” The caption reads, “Babe Ruth’s Challengers, Mantle and Maris.”
This chase has largely been a celebration of franchise history, with Judge the personification of Monument Park. He’d have belonged in any of the multiple versions of the team’s dynasties. His chase this week has been accompanied by cascading crescendos.
Everything to know about Aaron Judge and his chase for the home run record:
“I think it’s impossible to be as big as it is here, I mean, this is where it’s happening,” Boone said. “But friends of mine in the game or outside the game, or casual fans are certainly watching with interest and certainly appreciate just how massive a season Aaron is putting up.”
It’s ironic, isn’t it, that Judge’s chase of 61 and 62 is reaching one crescendo after another while Maris’ chase of 60 and 61 became anticlimactic after The Rajah — that was the nomenclature of the day, the Rajah taking aim at the Sultan of Swat — failed to get to 60 within the season’s first 155 games (including a tie).
The race for 60, and now 61 and 62, has added a twist to New York’s 2022 baseball reel. After a summer dominated by the Mets, through which trumpets in Queens formed the soundtrack of the season, all eyes are trained on the Yankees. Of course, it is now autumn.
“I think there’s definitely something to that,” said Boone, whose team has gone 9-2 over its last 11 games. “We’re playing for a lot right now, anyway, so I think that level of energy and focus would be there, regardless.
“But it’s hard not to appreciate what’s going on and just the added interest. There are signature times or series throughout the year that give you an extra shot of adrenaline. Our guys have enjoyed this.”
The magic number for the Yankees is four. But all these years later, two of baseball’s most magic numbers remain 60 and 61.
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