‘It’s the stuff you dream about. It’s not even real.’
By David Waldstein
Aaron Judge would not acknowledge it at the time, but the wait was getting to him. He had hit his 60th home run more than a week ago to tie Babe Ruth’s best season, and he needed only one more to match the American League record, set by Roger Maris in 1961.
But day after day, plate appearance after plate appearance and walk after walk, Judge, the mighty New York Yankees slugger, remained stuck on 60. He tried to pick out the right pitches to hit, but there were so few of them. He had not hit a home run in seven games — his second-longest stretch of the year — and with time running out on the regular season, the pressure had mounted.
“You try not to think about it,” Judge said, “but it creeps into your head.”
Why wouldn’t it? For more than a week, the entire baseball world had been focused on Judge’s home run chase. Networks that were broadcasting other sports broke away to show Judge’s at-bats. In the stadiums where he played, an unusual anticipatory hush fell over the stands whenever he strode to the plate.
And then, in an instant, all the tension and frustration evaporated with a crack and roar. With Aaron Hicks on first base and the score tied in the seventh inning of Wednesday’s game against the Toronto Blue Jays in Toronto, the left-hander Tim Mayza delivered a full-count sinker that did not sink at all.
Judge stepped forward, unleashed his murderous swing and sent a horsehide comet soaring to left field. It cleared the fence, banged off a back wall and bounced into the Blue Jays bullpen — and history. Judge had drilled his 61st home run of the season to tie Maris, and brought Canada into the record books along with him.
“It’s definitely some relief, getting to 61,” Judge said with a laugh, then added, “it’s a chance to tie Roger Maris. It’s the stuff you dream about. It’s not even real.”
But it is very real, and to Roger Maris Jr., even more real than when Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds broke his father’s record several times over, beginning in 1998. Those three players have all been linked to performance-enhancing drugs, while Judge is the first player to hit 60 home runs under Major League Baseball’s collectively bargained drug-testing program.
To Maris, Judge is the only one worthy of standing alongside his father in the record book.
“I think it means a lot for a lot of people that he’s clean,” said Maris, who was at Rogers Centre for the game. “He’s a Yankee, he plays the game the right way and I think he gives people a chance to look at somebody who should be revered for hitting 62 home runs and not just as a guy who did it in the American League.”
Maris has been at all of the Yankees games since Judge reached 59 home runs, and he was sitting with Judge’s mother, Patty, at Wednesday’s game. For all the time that he had been following the team, he had not met Judge until Wednesday night, after the 61st home run. It was a plan Maris devised to avoid causing a distraction for Judge. They met and hugged outside the Yankees clubhouse after the game.
“I asked him why he waited so long and made me travel around the country,” Maris joked after the game, which the Yankees won, 8-3. “The ironic thing was, it’s the ninth day I’ve been here. He wears 99, my dad wore 9. It’s just kind of weird the way it all went together. So now I’m thinking, ‘OK, we’re going to go to Yankee Stadium, and he’ll probably hit 62 on October the first, when Dad hit his 61st.’ Just a lot of weird similarities.”
During the three-game series, Toronto fans tried to thread a partisan needle by simultaneously rooting for their team to win and for Judge to get his fair share of swings. Whenever he walked, seven times in all, the fans booed their team’s pitchers.
“I’m trying to make good, competitive pitches,” said Kevin Gausman, Monday night’s pitcher, who walked Judge twice. “I didn’t like the fact that they booed me when I walked him. I thought that was unique.”
Unlike at Yankee Stadium, where fans stood in near-silent anticipation each time Judge went to the plate, spectators in Toronto remained seated, for the most part, during his at-bats. But they did grow quiet as the pitchers went into their windups, and they “oooohed” every time he swung his mighty bat.
“It’s a weird situation,” said George Springer, the Blue Jays center fielder. “But it’s good company to be in, and it’s also an honor to have the entire baseball world watching what he’s doing. He’s handled it exceptionally well.”
The stands were not full for Wednesday’s game. There was an announced attendance of 37,008 for a venue that holds about 45,000 and much of the upper deck was empty. Many in the outfield stands had hoped to catch a ball that some experts predicted could sell for more than $1 million.
What seemed most appropriate was that Judge’s home run put his team ahead to stay in the game, breaking a 3-3 tie, and added to the list of iconic home runs at this park: Judge smashed the ball into the same general area of the stadium where Joe Carter hit his famous World Series-winning home run for the Blue Jays in 1992, and where José Bautista hit his devastating blast in the 2015 American League Championship Series.
As he rounded third base he broke into a smile as his joyful teammates came out of the dugout to greet him with hugs.
“It was unbelievable,” said Gerrit Cole, the Yankees’ starting pitcher on Wednesday, who tied Ron Guidry’s Yankees franchise record when he collected his 248th strikeout of the season. “I’m so happy for him. There is not a more deserving person in my opinion. It was a special night for us to be able to witness it.”
When the ball landed, the Blue Jays’ bullpen coach, Matt Buschmann, caught it off the bounce and he and the relief pitcher Jordan Roman gave it to Zack Britton, a Yankees reliever who had walked down from the visiting team’s bullpen to retrieve it. The ball was then authenticated and given to clubhouse manager Rob Cucuzza for safekeeping, just as he did with the ball Judge hit for No. 60 at Yankee Stadium last week.
“To get a chance to sit at 60 for a while there with the Babe was nice,” Judge said. “But getting a chance to now sit at 61 with another Yankee right fielder that hit 61 home runs, was an MVP and a world champion, is pretty cool.”
Maris Jr. was only 3 when his father broke Ruth’s record, and said that he remembers nothing of it. He does recall growing up around people who constantly asked his father about it, so he heard plenty of stories. Now, it is time for a new story to be told, and Maris Jr. is enthusiastically pushing for Judge to write it with his bat, and soon.
The Yankees have three more games at Yankee Stadium against the Baltimore Orioles this weekend and then four in Arlington, Texas, against the Rangers. Maris is confident the AL record will be broken before the team heads south.
“You can tell he’s back and he’s ready to go,” Maris said. “I think it will happen in New York and it’s where you want it to happen. It’s where I want it to happen. The city of New York deserves it. The fans deserve it. It will be great for baseball if it happens in New York. Like I mentioned to Aaron, ‘Get to New York and hit 62, and knock the top off Yankee Stadium.’”