It seemed like a lost night. In the bottom of the ninth inning at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday, the Bronx crowd—which came to witness baseball history—had already begun thinning out. Sure, New York right fielder Aaron Judge, the man who had already hit 59 home runs this season, was leading off the inning. But he was 0 for 3 for the evening. He struck out with the bases loaded in his last at-bat. The Yanks were down 8-4 to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
All well. He’d get another shot tomorrow.
With just one swing, however, Judge, 30, offered a reminder that his season was chock full of magic—the kind that will be remembered for a long, long time.
On a 3-1 pitch, Judge smashed 95 miles-per-hour sinker from Pittsburgh Pirates reliever Will Crowe plenty deep into the left field bleachers. The ball was a no-doubter; the blast made him just the sixth player in baseball history to reach the 60 home-run milestone, joining Babe Ruth, Roger Maris, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds in achieving the feat. As Judge rounded the bases, the Yankee Stadium lights flashed, to mark the moment. “I kept seeing 60 on the board as he’s running around the bases,” says Yankees manager, Aaron Boone. In any baseball era, 60 home runs is a monumental achievement. “It’s hard for me to grip,” says Boone.
American sports fans have a special relationship with records. And no game reveres numbers quite like the national pastime. We love obsessing over never-before-seen accomplishments. So it was somewhat easy to shrug off Judge’s march towards 60 home runs, since players like Bonds, who hit 73 homers in 2001, and McGwire, who reached 70 three years earlier in 1998, and Sosa, who eclipsed 60 in three different seasons, including a 66 home-run campaign in 1998, had long obliterated the prior all-time mark, set by Roger Maris, who hit 61 for the New York Yankees back in 1961. (Babe Ruth had slugged 60 in 1927).
But Judge’s feat is special; just a few minutes in Yankee Stadium on Tuesday night could tell you that. On a clear evening, the stadium turned electric on every Judge at-bat. And why not? For we are, in fact, witnessing real sports history. Such moments are rare, and should be cherished.
Let’s face it: the records set by Bonds, McGwire, and Sosa are forever tainted by steroids. As we learned not too long after McGwire and Sosa charmed America in 1998 with their pursuit of Maris’ record, performance-enhancing drugs had taken over the game. In 2010, McGwire confessed to using steroids during his record-breaking ’98 campaign. Bonds also admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs, though he said a trainer led him to believe he was taking flaxseed oil and arthritis cream. In 2009, the New York Times reported that Sosa was one of 104 players who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003. (Sosa has continually denied using steroids.) To date Bonds, McGwire and Sosa have been denied entry into Baseball’s Hall of Fame despite their feats on the field.
Baseball started steroid testing in 2003. And while the testing system hasn’t totally eradicated PEDs from the game—young San Diego Padres star Fernando Tatis Jr. was suspended for 80 games after testing positive in August—it’s difficult to consider it happenstance that six of baseball’s 60-plus home-run seasons occurred in the 1998-2001 window, a period now universally recognized as the “Steroid Era.”
So any reasonable sports fan should be able to watch Judge over these the following days, and know, in good conscience, that we are indeed witnessing a first. Judge is almost certainly the first “clean” baseball player since Maris in 1961 to hit 60 homers. While there’s no real way to prove, as an absolute certainty, that a player is 100% clean—plenty of athletes have escaped PED detection in the past—it’s beyond cynical to presume Judge is doing anything untoward.
Playing in his sixth full season, Judge, who grew up outside Stockton, Calif., has been setting records from the start. His 52 home runs, in 2017, were a rookie a record, before Pete Alonso of the Mets broke it two years later. Anecdotally, he’s been built like a power forward throughout his career. Judge stands at 6’7″, 282 pounds. Unlike Bonds, McGwire, and Sosa, his body never morphed into something massive; he’s just built that way.
So what he’s doing is a really big deal.
And it’s just fun to take in. Every at-bat becomes appointment viewing. According to Stubhub, Yankees secondary market ticket prices are up 113% since August. Even Judge’s failures are electric. In that bases-loaded plate appearance in the sixth inning on Tuesday night, fans chanted “MVP! MVP!” as Judge stepped in the box. With the stadium organ playing, and a breeze blowing, he worked a full count. Judge swung … and foul tipped. Anticipation builds. Pirates pitcher Duane Underwood Jr. uncorked a 93-m.p.h. cutter … Judge took a huge swing, and missed. The air left the stadium, but just for a second.
It’s as if everyone realized at the same time: Judge would get another shot soon. Like any great performer, Judge leaves you wanting more.
And like any great performer, he delivered; three innings later he smashed his 60th home run 430 feet. In his postgame press conference, Judge said that as he rounded the bases, he kicked himself for not hitting this home run with the bases loaded. “Man, you idiot,” he recalls thinking. He took a reluctant curtain call: after all, Judge’s team was still down 8-5. But more magic was still coming. Judge’s home run sparked an incredible New York rally. Anthony Rizzo doubled. Gleyber Torres worked a walk. A Josh Donaldson singled to load the bases.
Then Giancarlo Stanton—who hit 59 home runs himself as a Miami Marlin back in 2017—smacked a grand slam to win it.
With 15 games to go in the Yankees season, Judge is more likely than not to pass 61, and set a new standard of all-time excellence. What’s more, Judge could also become just the second player since 1967 to win baseball’s Triple Crown: he currently leads the American League in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in. New York plays Pittsburgh again on Wednesday, then hosts the rival Boston Red Sox in a four-game series, starting Thursday. Don’t miss this moment. You likely won’t see it for another generation, if ever.
And if Judge climbs past Maris in the next few days, can he go on a late-season rampage, and get to 70? Or even to Bonds’ 73, the technical all-time mark?
Says Boone: “I’ll put nothing past him.”
Write to Sean Gregory at [email protected]