Tuesday, June 13, 2017

If Aaron Judge can chase Roger Maris’ 61 home runs, it could bring feel-good vibe to baseball

By John Harper
June 13, 2017
Could Aaron Judge pass Roger Maris?

Could Aaron Judge pass Roger Maris?

The comparison was too compelling to ignore: with his two home runs on Sunday, Aaron Judge had gone deep 21 times in 58 games. Back in 1961, Roger Maris hit his 21st home run in game No. 57.
In case you were wondering.
And, hey, why not?
At this point, after he hit that ball halfway to the Bronx Courthouse on Sunday, anything seems possible for Judge. He went into Monday night's game in Anaheim leading the American League not only in home runs, but in batting average, RBI, runs scored and walks. And then he hit another bomb in the Yankees’ 5-3 win over the Angels, going the opposite way for a two-run blast — his 22nd of the season — that broke a 3-3 tie in the eighth.
So in that sense, he’s more Mickey Mantle than Maris, raising the possibility of winning the Triple Crown, as Mantle did in 1956, and as no one except Miguel Cabrera has done in the last 50 years.
Still, it was Maris who hit those 61 home runs in 1961, famously breaking Babe Ruth’s single-season record of 60. And while Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds have since obliterated that number, their totals are so egregiously steroids-tainted that, in my mind and I believe millions of others, Maris’ 61 still stands as the unofficial record.
Wouldn’t it be something if Judge took a serious run at that?
As it is, the rookie slugger has completely changed the feel around the Yankees, re-energizing a jaded fan base with his must-see at-bats and athleticism that is remarkable for someone 6-foot-7, 282 pounds.
If he’s in serious pursuit of Maris come August and September, Judge would bring some of that feel-good vibe to the entire sport. In some ways, in fact, he could make home run numbers matter again.
As it is, the steroids era has made us all numb to what was once the most prestigious of all records.
McGwire and Bonds made a mockery of the single-season record, hitting 70 and 73, respectively, and by the time Bonds passed Hank Aaron’s career total of 755, everyone outside of San Francisco was rooting against him.
Likewise, Alex Rodriguez’s admitted steroid use took all the fun out of him reaching 600, and indeed, his numbers were so tainted that even 700 meant nothing to the Yankees, who forced him out only four home runs shy of the mark.
For that matter, even players perceived as clean, like Ken Griffey Jr. and Jim Thome, weren’t celebrated nearly as much for reaching 600 as players from earlier eras were for hitting 500, once the brass ring for all power hitters.
Yet I get the sense Judge could cut through some of that steroids-related fallout.
He’s a one-of-a-kind freakish athlete, but he is also as likeable as they come, which you can probably tell from his humble nature during TV interviews. And you know it’s sincere by the way his teammates react to him, always happy to talk about him.
If it were an act, they’d be rolling their eyes at questions about Judge by now, and, believe me, that’s the not the case.
In the clubhouse a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned to him that A-Rod had told me that he, Judge, bench-presses 450 pounds, which is off-the-charts strong. The young slugger seemed practically embarrassed that A-Rod had let that out publicly.
“I don’t really like to talk about that,” he said, smiling sheepishly.
Not that likeability is the primary reason Judge is the leading All-Star vote-getter in the American League, but it would give even non-Yankee fans a reason to root for him if he does get into some type of home run chase.
And I do think a lot of people would care if he got close to Maris, even if it’s an unofficial record.
Could he do it?
For starters it remains to be seen how much pitchers continue to challenge him. Judge already leads the league with 39 walks, and he’s now hitting .347, so in addition to his power he’s proving to be a very good hitter, getting better at laying off tough pitches and hitting the ball to all fields.
Maris likely would not have hit 61 if he didn’t have Mantle hitting behind him in the clean-up spot that 1961 season. Maris did draw 94 walks that year but he wasn’t intentionally walked even once.
Judge has already received three intentional walks and, while Matt Holliday is having a nice season, at some point he might not deter pitchers from pitching around the Yankees’ No. 3 hitter. However, Gary Sanchez is getting hot now, and maybe he moves into the No. 4 spot behind Judge in the coming weeks, which would be the ideal protection.
In any case, there is no question Judge is capable of hitting 60 home runs or more. Never mind his moon shots; his opposite-field line drives go 400 feet, as his second home run did on Sunday and his game-winning shot did last night.
Could he do it this season? Maris had 27 at the end of June, so Judge needs five more this month to stay on pace. From there, Maris hit 13 in July, 11 in August, nine in September and No. 61 on Oct. 1, in the final game of the regular season off the Red Sox’ Tracy Stallard.
The game that Sunday at the old Stadium was otherwise meaningless, as the 108-win Yankees had long since clinched the pennant, but it’s still remarkable that only 23,154 fans were in attendance that day, with history at stake.
I’m pretty sure that if Judge put himself in a similar position this season, tied with Maris for the Yankees’ season finale against the Blue Jays on Oct. 1, there wouldn’t be an empty seat in the place.
Yes, unofficial record or not, Judge could put the thrill back in the home run chase. And the way he’s going, it might only be a matter of time.

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