Aaron Judge can finally feel something of a kinship with Roger Maris. He has reached the point in this historic home-run derby at which he is likely feeling five percent, 10 percent, maybe 15 percent of the pressure Maris felt when he hunted down Babe Ruth in 1961.
Hitting is hard. Hitting home runs is much harder.
Hitting them on demand, with millions holding their breath in anticipation, is something only the greatest of the great can dare to do.
Judge has said he can “zone everything out” in the batter’s box, keeping the game as simple as possible. The slugger understands the magnitude of his assault on Yankees mythology — defined this week by Ruth and Maris — and yet believes his best shot at matching and breaking Maris’s team and AL record of 61 homers in a single season rests in his ability to make big moments small.
By mid-Saturday afternoon against Boston, after he failed to homer Friday night in a 5-4 victory over the Red Sox, Judge might have the two long balls he needs for sole possession of the record in his hip pocket. He’s that explosive, and that good — the best player in the sport by a wide margin.
But the last few games have represented a reminder of just how difficult it is to hit a major league baseball thrown by a major league pitcher over a major league wall, and just how amazing it is for someone to do that five dozen times in five and a half months.
“The casual person [it’s] just, ‘I’m going to come tonight. And hit a homer,’ ” manager Aaron Boone said. “And the reality is [Judge has] just missed two the last two nights, 113 miles per hour right at the track in center, and then tonight 110.
“He’s getting off the right swings. He’s making good swing decisions. It’s going to come, but it is a peek behind just how great a player he is, so that when he doesn’t hit the ball out of the ballpark, he’s still impacting us in a big way. Getting on base, his outfield play, on the bases.”
Of course, the sellout crowd of 47,346 didn’t pay to watch Judge do those things. The fans put down their hard-earned money for the long ball, and went home empty.
Is the big man pressing? Hey, despite his otherworldly power, Judge is a human being who can feel the weight of expectation just like the rest of us. As much as he swears he’s carrying a business-as-usual approach to the plate, he has to be pressing to make this happen.
His parents were in the stands. Maris’ children were in the stands. The entire planet has seemed to stop when Judge is in the box, meaning it is virtually impossible for him not to feel a little heat.
No, three straight games without a homer isn’t exactly a first-degree felony, even when millions of anxious New Yorkers are dying to get back to their lives. But still, Judge looked like a 6-foot-7, 282-pound man who wouldn’t mind a breather from the 24/7 scrutiny tethered to his pursuit.
Everything to know about Aaron Judge and his chase for the home run record:
He started the night matched against a 42-year-old pitcher, Rich Hill, whose four-seam fastball topped out at 89 miles per hour. In the opening matchup, to lead off the first, Judge swung and missed on three cutters that traveled 82-85 mph. In the third-inning rematch, following Aaron Hicks’ homer, the slugger lifted a benign fly ball to left field. In the fifth-inning, after Hicks’ RBI single left two men on base and nobody out, Judge swung and missed on a 1-2 curveball.
He later singled to left off reliever Kaleb Ort’s first-pitch fastball, but that was that. Time to pack up the bats and get ’em tomorrow. Surely Judge would love to get this record out of the way so he can focus on his No. 1 goal — winning a World Series ring.
The good news in the interim? Judge will never endure anything close to what Maris endured in 1961, when the stress of chasing the mythological wonder that was the Babe, and competing for the crown against the much more popular Mickey Mantle, cost him clumps of his hair and left him smoking three packs a day.
Judge doesn’t smoke and doesn’t have to worry about a Mantle-esque challenger from within — he is very much the people’s choice. And the sporting press that was said to have hounded Maris into near-submission?
Times have changed, and Judge generally handles his media obligations as easily as he would a batting-practice fastball. He isn’t about to fall apart in any way.
“As I’ve said from the start, from the contract stuff, he’s totally equipped for all of this,” Boone said. “And he’s proven me right in that regard. He’s handled it perfectly.”
He sure has. And at different points this week, while the slugger has waited for a pitch, the fans have thanked him with deafening silence, the sound of pure respect.
Judge is the only man who can turn a packed baseball stadium into a golf gallery. He’s the only Yankee who can turn Yankee Stadium into Augusta National.
Sooner rather than later, Judge will make sure the silence finally surrenders to an historic roar in The Bronx. Meanwhile, he has reminded everyone the last few games just how hard it is to hit a home run, and just how special it is to hit 60 of them.
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