Reminder that throughout October — as the baseball playoffs kick into gear — I’m going to do a bunch of quick hits that I hope will bring a little joy to your mornings. Let’s get to it!
The feeling is of relief. For the player, it’s always relief first. That’s what Roger Maris felt when he hit No. 61. That’s all Henry Aaron felt when he hit No. 715. That’s what Mark McGwire felt when he hit No. 62, though that was an odd season for so many reasons, and the rolling home run record was not fully settled until McGwire and Sammy Sosa played the final weekend. Relief was probably what Barry Bonds felt, too, when he hit No. 71, though he was not one to let anyone inside his feelings.
And relief was all over the face of Aaron Judge when he hit home run No. 62 off someone named Jesus Tinoco in someplace called Globe Life Field, deep in the heart of Texas. It clearly had been a rough couple of weeks for Judge as the nation surrounded him and pitchers avoided him and Roger Maris’ son followed him, and pundits tried to infuse his wonderful season with healing powers.
“Judge stands alone,” Tom Verducci would write for Sports Illustrated after No. 62. “Bonds is the official home run champion. Judge is the authentic champion.”
“Technically, MLB still recognizes Barry Bonds as the record holder, and that’s not about to change,” Jon Heyman wrote in the New York Post. “But we know better.”
“Now … it is Maris’ eldest son who favors something akin to a ‘distinctive mark’ to distinguish Judge’s A.L. record as the ‘clean’ mark over the scandal-scarred M.L.B. single-season record of 73 set by Barry Bonds,” The New York Times wrote.
Yes, there’s a powerful irony in Roger Maris’ own son asking for a distinctive mark to be placed on a home run record after the agony Maris himself endured when his own home run mark was dismissed with an asterisk … but baseball does bring these sorts of feelings out of us, feelings you might call “judgmental nostalgia.”
By that, I mean people will choose to be nostalgic about some troubled eras in baseball history but not other ones (note: all eras in baseball history are troubled in one way or another). They will call the Selig Era of baseball inauthentic because MLB allowed and even encouraged players to use illegal performance-enhancing drugs and many players did so.
At the same time, they will call the segregated era of baseball fully authentic because, you know, that was America in those days and it wasn’t the players’ fault that MLB excluded players because of the color of their skin, and what are you going to do?
So Babe Ruth’s 60 homers against all white players? Authentic. Wasn’t his fault. Barry Bonds’ 73 homers when many players were using PEDs and every element of the game was geared toward more home runs and owners were cashing the biggest attendance checks in baseball history? Inauthentic.
And so it goes on and on. Records set on amphetamines taken out of fish bowls in the clubhouse? Authentic. Records set on steroids when nobody was testing? Inauthentic. Records set by hitters who corked their bats? Authentic. Records set by pitchers who scuffed and cut and spit on baseballs? Authentic. Records set by players who quietly used PEDs but weren’t officially caught? Authentic.
All of this was swirling around Aaron Judge for weeks — he had no more control over it than Roger Maris had over all those people who were still rooting for the Babe even 13 years after his death, no more control than Henry Aaron had over all those bigots who sent him death threats.
Home runs are precious things; each one requires a synthesis of so many rare things — recognition, concentration, timing, strength, wind, spin, luck — so not even the greatest and most powerful hitters who ever played this game can regularly summon one on command.
That’s especially difficult under immense pressure. Judge surely felt that pressure deeply — the pressure of history, the pressure of Yankees’ lore, the pressure of fixing what the PED era broke in the minds of so many baseball fans. In the end, he hit 62 home runs in a single season, an utterly incredible thing, and he will let everybody make of it whatever they want. That’s all a great home run hitter can really do.