On a magical night in the Bronx, Aaron Judge puts more history within his reach

NEW YORK — In the middle of the trot for the most noteworthy and historic home run in more than a decade, one that took Aaron Judge to a level graced by baseball royalty, the Yankees slugger chose not to revel or exult or luxuriate in the moment. And about an hour later, the Yankees’ slugger celebrated the occasion of the 60th home run in his magnificent 2022 season Tuesday night by lamenting the fact that he had not hit it earlier in the game, when the bases were loaded, as opposed to when he did, in the bottom of the ninth inning with them empty and New York trailing the Pittsburgh Pirates.

“I was kind of kicking myself while I was running around the bases,” Judge said. “Like, man, you idiot, you should have done this a little earlier.”

Eventually, goaded by his teammates and manager, Judge had offered those who had stuck around at Yankee Stadium and been treated to more of his magic a half-hearted curtain call. It was more out of duty than desire. All season, as he has chased ghosts and the numbers with which they’re associated, the sorts of things that matter greatly in the baseball world but very little in Judge’s, he has been numbingly steadfast in his insistence that the team supersedes the individual. To him, this all felt weird, disappointing, wrong — another round number reached, but with his team still down three runs and just three outs away from another loss, just like when he hit 50.

Only something happened. Anthony Rizzo reached base, and then Gleyber Torres, and then Josh Donaldson, and up stepped Giancarlo Stanton, and Wil Crowe left a changeup too high, and Stanton sent it over the left-field wall on a line. This time, it seemed Judge was the first one out of the dugout, there to greet his teammates at home plate, to celebrate an improbable 9-8 victory that took a night important to the rest of the world and imbued it with consequence for him, too.

As wild as it is to believe Judge thinks this way — that he’s so team-focused, so tunnel-visioned, that he doesn’t allow himself the grace to enjoy this moment unless his teammates have something to celebrate, too — everyone around him swears it’s true. That he really is machinelike in his conviction, the personality inverse for the person whose one-time record he tied Tuesday.

When Babe Ruth hit his 60th home run to break his own mark in 1927, he said after the game: “Sixty! Count ’em, 60! Let’s see some other son of a b—- match that!” It was pure Babe: a little arrogant and a lot bombastic, appreciative even in the moment of his place in history, perhaps because he’d become so accustomed to writing it. Baseball’s early record books featured Ruth’s name so much they felt biographical. He was the game in the 1920s, and that he continues to play such a prominent role a century later illustrates that for all the pomposity, he understood the enormity of the shadow he was casting.

Others eventually bested 60 — first Roger Maris in 1961, then Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds, though the latter three were aided by performance-enhancing drugs, a fact that doesn’t invalidate their accomplishments as much as it offers important context through which to view them. Ruth’s record came before integration. Maris’ preceded the game’s internationalization. Every mark carries its baggage.

Which is part of the reason Judge excuses himself from the talk of numbers. He said “60” just once in a news conference following the game. He said “team” at least 10 times. He could enmesh himself in a debate about the real record or the rightful record. He prefers an almost-hymnal dedication to the party line by which he lives.

“To get a chance to play baseball at Yankee Stadium, packed house, first-place team, that’s what you dream about,” Judge said. “I love every second of it. Even when we were down, you don’t like losing, but I knew top of the lineup coming up, we got a shot to come back here and do something special. I’m trying to enjoy it all, soak it all in, but I know I still got a job to do out on the field every single day.”

He seems to mean it: somehow this life, this reality, does not bother Judge. As much as Ruth reveled in it, Maris loathed it. As he and teammate Mickey Mantle were chasing Ruth in 1961, Maris mainlined coffee and ripped cigarettes and watched his hair fall out in clumps. And as much as he willed himself to perform, Maris viewed his legacy as a burden, saying: “It would have been a helluva lot more fun if I had never hit those 61 home runs. All it brought me was headaches.”

Judge’s head is steady, clear, unwavering. Which is lucky, because as much as he would enjoy getting the numbers out of the way — hitting 61 to tie Maris for the American League record and 62 to break it — he has almost accidentally ensured there will be no clean slate. In addition to owning unbeatable leads in home runs and runs batted in, Judge’s blast in the ninth pushed his batting average to an AL-best .316. Which is to say as the Yankees sojourn on the final 15 games of their season and look to lock up an AL East title in a division they now lead by 5½ games over Toronto, they’ll do so with Judge chasing not just Ruth and Maris but the second Triple Crown in the last half-century.

This is a man who has played his entire career in the Bronx. A man who turned down a seven-year contract extension on Opening Day. Aaron Judge knows the pressure of the numbers, the accolades, the team performance, the impending free agency that comes with an altogether different sort of number this winter. Tuesday, he allowed himself to name-check his forebears — “You talk about Ruth and Maris and Mantle and all these Yankees greats … ” Judge said — but didn’t delve much further into that line of thinking.

The past is about ego. The present is about team. And the New York Yankees, undeniably Aaron Judge’s team, turned in perhaps their best win of the season Tuesday. As Stanton trotted for the grand slam that was, Judge could clear his mind of the one that could’ve been, unburdened.

On the night he hit 60 — yes, Babe, count ’em, 60 — he reveled and exulted and luxuriated in a different home run, hit by a different man of immense stature. The world can have the noteworthy and historic solo shot. Aaron Judge will take the grand slam that won the Yankees another baseball game.

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