There is a unique mythology surrounding records in baseball, a canon of stories behind the numbers that demonstrate the Herculean exploits of individual players. And no record has greater mythology—and controversy—than the single-season home run record.
Babe Ruth, the first home run king, set the single-season record four times. In 1919, he hit a record 29 home runs, then demolished that total over his next three record-breaking seasons: 54 in 1920, 59 in 1922, and then, in 1927, he reached 60. That waterline stood for over three decades, until Roger Maris dared to challenge the Babe. Maris’ 1961 attempt caused so much stress that his hair started falling out in clumps, and as he approached the record, he received so many death threats that an NYPD detective was assigned to watch over him. Maris broke the Babe’s record in the final game of the season, finishing with 61 home runs.
Then there was the 1998 home run chase, a feel-good story that revitalized baseball after the strike-shortened season of 1994. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa both broke Maris’ record, with McGwire resetting the record books with 70. Finally, in 2001, Barry Bonds set the current single-season record of 73. Roger Maris’ major league record was dead, his feats of power hitting buried under the stars of the next generation. Just one problem: All three men used performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) to surpass Maris and each other.
For many baseball fans, it’s difficult to square the reality of the record books with the reality of cheating. Bonds’ 73-home-run season might hold the top spot, but some still hold on to 61 as the true single-season home run record—and it still stands as the American League record. Fans, for the most part, want to see records broken—but by someone whom they deem “worthy” of the mythology.
Different translations of the Bible put Goliath’s height at nearly 10 feet tall, while others, perhaps more reasonably, put him at 6-foot-9. If the latter measurement is accurate, Aaron Judge, the star outfielder for the New York Yankees, would nearly be as tall as Goliath. Fitting, because Judge seems like a myth himself, clocking in at 6-foot-7 and 280 pounds with superhuman muscle definition. And he condenses that size and strength into his wooden sledgehammer, rocketing balls into the stratosphere.
As of Sept 21, Judge has hit 60 home runs in 148 games and captured the attention of the baseball world. He has 14 games to hit two home runs to break the record. This is September baseball—muscles aching from swings, minds aching from play nearly every day—this is the grind. To hit a home run, it takes the right pitch, the right pitcher, a good read, and the perfect swing to put a ball in the seats—to give the fans a souvenir, a tangible symbol to represent the chase as the season races to a close.
Judge’s home run chase is the litmus test for purity in baseball. That purity, protecting the sanctity of the sport, is something that the MLB has struggled with in the last 30 years—and it’s resulted in a change in the national psyche.
Many sports fans, especially baseball fans, are cynical about the accomplishments of great players. There is no such thing as “the benefit of the doubt” for athletes anymore. No player can claim ignorance because too many icons have been embroiled in cheating scandals, emptying the reserves of empathy among fans. Fernando Tatís Jr., one of baseball’s brightest young stars, was suspended for PEDs in early August. He proclaimed his innocence, that it was a misunderstanding. The sports world mocked him, turning his excuse about needing treatment for ringworm into memes. He broke the trust of the fans, and now he’ll suffer ridicule for the rest of his career. He’s not old enough to book a rental car, but he’s already made a mistake that will cost him the Hall of Fame.
2013 featured what could’ve been the greatest Hall of Fame class of all time, but it ended in a voting process where nobody was selected. The names of the players shunned read out like a list of the FBI’s Most Wanted: Bonds. Sosa. Clemens. Palmeiro. McGwire. The Hall of Fame voters spoke for the country: You broke our hearts, and we want revenge. You cheat us, we cheat you. That’s what happens when a player eats the forbidden fruit; he’ll never be allowed into Eden.
The damage has destroyed the suspension of disbelief for fans. They can no longer cherish the spectacle that comes from the exploits of stars. Deep down, if a player recovers from an injury ahead of schedule, or if a player rewrites the record books, there’s always those lingering thoughts in the subconscious: God, I hope he didn’t cheat to get there.
When I watch Aaron Judge at the plate, I still marvel at his presence. His wide stance, front foot slightly behind his back foot—nearly parallel, but just off. His towering frame makes him an imposing presence, and when he holds the bat at a 30-degree angle above his head, chin buried in his left shoulder, he seems even bigger—close to that mythical 10 feet tall, ready to chop down at anything he can reach. Then he swings with seemingly no effort, like it’s a completely natural activity to wield a piece of 35-ounce wood, like it’s second nature, no more difficult than tying a pair of shoes. And the ball explodes off his bat, whistling beyond the fence, until the scream of the ball is drowned out by the sound of cheers.
I sometimes wonder if my amazement makes me naïve. But I realize that Judge represents a breath of fresh air for fans everywhere. He’s a legitimate player with a real shot at breaking a long-standing AL record in home runs—and for many people, the true home run record. As we come down the stretch of the season, keep your eyes glued to him, because hopefully number 62—a clean, genuine 62—will whiz over the fence.