In a perfect world, Aaron Judge hits career home run No. 763 in pinstripes, a sea of lights from cellphone cameras twinkling on a clear, Bronx evening and just like that Barry Bonds would be gone forever.
Poof! Never to sully the game again.
OK: so given the fact that Aaron Judge is already 30… well, if we give him 60 homers this season and then generously allow him 50 homers per year for the rest of his career… uh, he’d be 41 years old when he sets the record. And it would be, like, 2034. So, yeah. Even with the adoption of the designated hitter by the National League — which theoretically creates more opportunities for aging sluggers to hang in (see: Albert Pujols) — and even if Major League Baseball digs out those old jack-rabbit home run balls to prime the pump offensively, it will likely be up to somebody else to ultimately consign Bonds and his asterisk to history’s trash heap.
I found myself thinking about Judge and Bonds Wednesday afternoon when Judge hit his 55th homer of the season, leaving him six away from Roger Maris’ New York Yankees record set in 1961. That also is a point of departure historically, because once you move past Maris’ 61 the six top single-season homer records are held by Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. All were registered between 1998-2001. All three hitters have been inextricably linked to the steroid scandal. Since many baseball fans and cognoscenti view Henry Aaron’s 755 career homers as the “legitimate” career record… can we say that Judge is on the verge of setting a new “legitimate” season mark? Is 62 the new 756?
For the record, Judge said publicly that he considers Bonds’ 73 to be the single-season record. But, well, you know how baseball’s moralists roll, right? We had former Major Leaguer and current MLB analyst Doug Glanville on Blair & Barker and asked him how we should view what will be the most significant single-season home run total post-steroid era. Glanville is one of our game’s original thinkers and I loved his approach: Let the Yankees take the lead; embrace it as a Yankees club record and allow baseball fans to apply their own context — which is something baseball has often asked of us since the early 2000s.
Seriously: What’s another contextual demand between friends?
By god it feels good to get our hands dirty again, doesn’t it? Back in the steroid weeds? You thought we’d bid it adieu when Bonds and Roger Clemens fell off the Hall of Fame ballot, leaving Alex Rodriguez as the last miscreant. But then Judge went and happened, slipping past A-Rod to claim the single-season homer record by a Yankees right-handed hitter — 54 homers in 2007. In terms of chiselling away at the asterisks littering the landscape as a result of the steroid scandal, this is not much more than a wee, little chip.
Next comes Ruth’s 60, the Babe’s highest single-season total set in 1927. Then, Maris — and all the bittersweet stuff that represents. Nobody, remember, much wanted Maris to beat Ruth’s existing record of 60 because he wasn’t a “true” Yankee. Commissioner Ford Frick sure didn’t, announcing that unless Ruth’s record was broken in 154 games and not 162 — Ruth set the record when the regular schedule was 154 games — it would be designated differently. Maris faced death threats, was bullied by the media and when Mickey Mantle was hospitalized for a hip infection, he was left in even greater isolation. It was as miserable as Bonds’ slog to 756.
In Judge’s case, the drama is two-fold. First, the Yankees have seen a 15-and-a-half game lead atop the American League East whittled down to five and there are threads unravelling all over the place. The jobs of manager Aaron Boone and general manager Brian Cashman are clearly on the line and Judge, of course, is in his walk year and, well, he isn’t going to come cheap. Judge turned down a seven-year, $231.5-million extension and the numbers to contemplate are Max Scherzer’s $43 million salary with the New York Mets — the highest ever in baseball — as well as the standard for length and total dollar value, Mookie Betts’ 12-year, $365-million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers, usurped in average by Mike Trout’s $36-million per year over 10 years. Betts and Trout were both 27 when they signed their deals. Judge turns 31 next April and his age will be a mitigating factor in terms of contract length. Bottom line: he might take less term if the average annual value gets closer to $50 million per year.
So the Yankees will just sign him, right?
All-time Yankees greats Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams may have toyed with the notion of leaving the team at one time or another, but only when they were in their dotage. Like them, Mariano Rivera also chatted with the Boston Red Sox late in his career… but it’s a matter of interpretation how much of that was legitimate versus jack-assery on the part of the Red Sox. Plus, they’d won titles. Judge, on the other hand, would be leaving at a time when the owner of the cross-town New York Mets has much deeper pockets than the Steinbrenners and the remainder of the Yankees team is a combination of the aged and callow, possibly staring at a 13-year World Series drought.
Judge has mastered one of Jeter’s dark arts — the ability to make eye contact in interviews, smile, leave you at ease and say absolutely nothing of consequence. His Teflon-coated, happily-married, jealously guarded off-field life dovetails brilliantly with unfailing graciousness to fans — little sensibilities like getting down on one knee so his six-foot-eight frame is less intimidating to kids. You think that stuff doesn’t matter, but it does. It’s part of a package that makes people want to like you and think the best of you in cynical times.
It’s what you need to be a great Yankee but it travels well, too.
Put Judge in a Mets uniform. Or a San Francisco Giants or Los Angeles Dodgers or Chicago Cubs or a pick-your-team uniform. The fit is perfect.
Look: MLB’s impact on North American sports — let alone continental culture — is a poor cousin to that of the NFL and NBA. That’s no newsflash. But it does hold virtual copyright on “numbers” when it comes to team sports. Individual sports have their important numbers — Grand Slam and Wimbledon titles, PGA Tour or Open wins, the 100-metres record — but few career numbers hold much magic in team sports.
Nobody waxes poetic about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s NBA scoring record of 38,387 points. Besides… is that even the most sacrosanct NBA record? I don’t know. I remember O.J. Simpson’s 2,003 yards in 1973 — the first time anybody eclipsed that figure — but it’s been done six times since. And while you might know that Eric Dickerson holds the single-season record for rushing yardage, Peyton Manning the single-season record for passing yards and Calvin Johnson the most yards receiving, my guess is you don’t know those numbers off hand. Or who is second or third in any of those categories which, of course, the average baseball fan knows by heart: Aaron’s 755 homers and Ruth’s 714.
What gives MLB more reason for optimism is what Pujols has done in this his final year: 16 homers at the age of 42, playing in the National League because baseball finally managed to get the designated hitter adopted in the senior circuit. That’s 695 career homers and if only Pujols was, say, two years younger we’d be cheering him on towards the most hallowed of sports records. A record we seldom want to or know how to talk about anymore.
Jeff Blair hosts Blair & Barker from 10 a.m. – noon ET on Sportsnet 590 The Fan and Sportsnet 360. The show is also available on demand wherever you get your podcasts.