Times have changed in 61 years, and that’s no scoop. Aaron Judge isn’t feeling exactly the same kind of pressures Roger Maris felt. For instance, Judge doesn’t have to confront pesky reporters before every game, and there’s no evidence he has lost any hair. He looks as pretty as ever.
(For the record, I wonder if that story about Maris’ hair falling out in clumps might be apocryphal. Has anyone ever seen a picture of Maris without a full head of hair?)
Judge acts as if nothing extraordinary is going on. If half his hometown of Linden, Calif., weren’t along for the ride, standing in a box while watching and waiting along with the rest of us, there’s no proof Judge has given the home run record a second’s thought. There’s also nary a sign of stress, unless you count four straight games without a home run since hitting No. 60 and tying the Babe Ruth. All things considered, Judge’s task is even more difficult, and more amazing.
There’s that possibility he’s doing an amazing job hiding his real angst or anxiety. But here’s my belief: He may not be exactly normal.
I haven’t been invited to sit on the bench, but word is nothing has changed there. The Yankees aren’t treating Judge as if history is about to be made even though they know it is.
“We keep it as normal as possible in an abnormal time,” is the way Josh Donaldson put it before the Yankees beat the Red Sox 7-5.
They assume Judge can handle it. And why not? He has handled everything else.
This whole ride he has taken us on is hard to believe. He has blown away the field in any MVP or Player of the Year discussion. His competition is history — and still, for today, Maris.
Maris’ record is one of the greatest in all sports. Only baseball records matter, and it’s up there with Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, Cy Young’s 511 wins and Hank Aaron’s 755 home runs (we don’t count Barry Bonds as we try to keep it real in this space).
Maris felt different anxieties, as those beat writers from the 10 New York City dailies of the time (folks read newspapers back then!) reportedly stayed in his face. Not only are we a very respectful group, the clubhouse availability is limited to an hour before each game, and most Yankees stars only make cameo appearances then.
Everyone who was a true Yankees fan back in 1961 was rooting for the homegrown hero, Mickey Mantle, to be the one to break the record of the even more legendary Yankee, Ruth. The Mick was not only homegrown, he was a fun-loving all-time great Yankee with movie-star looks and a perfect baseball name who’d already helped the team to five World Series titles by the time he and Maris engaged in the first great home-run chase 61 years ago.
Everything to know about Aaron Judge and his chase for the home run record:
Judge doesn’t have it any easier. He is in his walk year after turning down the $213.5 million extension offer that was announced by the Yankees, so he was risking a lot of loot even before he started on this unreal journey. While he had the advantage of not having a more popular teammate to compete with, he also didn’t have Mantle batting behind him. The best player in the American League protected Maris. Not only is Judge the best player in the league, he has at times looked almost alone in a lineup decimated by injury.
Anthony Rizzo is back, which is nice. While he’s not Mantle, he is left-handed, clutch, and a threat every time he steps into the box, especially at Yankee Stadium. But immediately before Rizzo, out of necessity, Judge had a hobbled, half-speed Giancarlo Stanton trying to protect him. Unlike Maris, who was never intentionally walked in his historic season, Judge leads the American League with 17 intentional walks. As he has done more damage — his OPS was .983 in the first half, a ridiculous 1.342 in the second half — he’s also being pitched around more.
Judge also had the burden of having to carry a team that once had a 15 ½-game lead, but was bidding to have an all-time collapse while five of its better hitters went out with injury (Matt Carpenter, Andrew Benintendi and DJ LeMahieu are still out). And he has had to do it, at times, without much help.
And let’s be real, he’s also having a better season than Maris, who had the benefit of breaking Ruth’s record in an expansion year when pitching was down across the league. Judge entered Saturday leading the AL with a .315 average. (He now trails Xander Bogaerts by a point, .315 to .314). Maris finished nearly 100 points behind AL batting champ Norm Cash in 1961.
With significant but different heat on him, Judge leads in nearly everything. He has 128 RBIs. He leads the AL home run race by 23; Maris only finished with seven ahead of Mantle. The seasons of the respective sluggers — Maris and Judge — aren’t really that close.
No disrespect to Maris, but no one ever has had this kind of year.