ARLINGTON, Texas — There was a gasp, a moment of silence, and an explosion of exhilaration Tuesday evening, reverberating deep in the heart of Texas and heard ’round the baseball world.
New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge homered over the left-field wall off Texas Rangers pitcher Jesus Tinoco, and at 7:08 pm CT, became the American League home run king with his 62nd home run of the season, surpassing former Yankee Roger Maris’ record set 61 years ago in 1961.
The Yankees players poured out of the dugout to greet Judge at home plate, the Rangers stood in awe, and the crowd of about 35,000 stood and cheered until their lungs burned.
Judge validated his legacy, producing one of the greatest seasons in baseball history, joining the Mount Rushmore of greatest single-season home run hitters: Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and now Judge.
Judge, who was on a pace to hit his record-setting homer two weeks ago, had struggled of late, hitting just one homer in the past 13 games, spanning 58 plate appearances. He hit .200 with a double, homer, 17 walks and 13 strikeouts since hitting Babe Ruth with his 60th homer.
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“He’s gotten some pitches to hit here the last couple days,” Aaron Boone said, “and in general he’s gotten a good swing off and fouled it off. That’s usually that fine line difference between when you’re really rolling or you’re just a tick off. I think he’s gotten some pitches, but instead of really sticking them like he has 61 times, he’s fouled some balls off. But I don’t think he’s far off.”
When Judge rounded the bases, he broke into a grin, enjoying the moment. I have chased history for months. Now, the stress was over.
History was made.
The only time Judge appeared frustrated during the entire home run chase was when he slammed his helmet down in the dugout after hitting a pop-up on an 84-mph slider by Rangers starter Jon Gray in the first game of the doubleheader. The Rangers challenged him throughout the game, but Judge managed just one single in five at-bats, lowering his batting average to .310.
“I mean, I’m sure he wants to hit it,” Boone said, “but it hasn’t been much different from what I hear or see out of him, frankly, throughout the year.”
The only ones more upset were the fans, comically booing Judge after his eighth-inning single up the middle in the first game and booing him after grounding out to end the game.
The home-run chase reached such comical proportions that when Yankees catcher Kyle Higashioka came to the plate with two outs in the ninth and Judge on deck, the crowd gave Higashioka a huge standing ovation.
“I think it was the best ovation I’ve ever gotten,” Higashioka said. “It just shows how special Judge’s season has been and how much the fans want it for him.
“As teammates, we all want this for him, too, so any chance we get to give him more opportunities, we’re definitely going to push our hardest to give him that.”
Really, Boone says, there should never have been any pressure at all. I have already passed Ruth. I have tied Maris. And no matter if 62 came or not, he had one of the greatest seasons in Yankee history.
“He’s the MVP of the league,” Boone said. “We’re talking about an historic record, obviously, so hopefully he gets it. But I don’t think either way it doesn’t put a damper on what’s been a historically great season. Either way, he’s going to be in a good spot heading into the postseason.”
Certainly, he appeared calm and relaxed when he arrived into the clubhouse at 10:57 Tuesday morning, wearing a black T-shirt reading, “New York or Nowhere,” black jeans and black and lime tennis shoes. He changed, got dressed, and joked with two visiting clubhouse attendants before heading to the trainer’s room.
And in between games of the doubleheader, twice he came out of the clubhouse to visit with friends and family, hugging his mom, laughing with his dad.
Please, he said.
He even laughed and shook his head in bewilderment Monday after the game when he overheard reporters asking teammate Giancarlo Stanton whether he was pressing. Is anyone watching him? He looked as relaxed as if he was getting ready for a spring-training game in Tampa. He threw baseballs into the upper deck for fans and signed autographs for five minutes before batting practice and two minutes afterwards.
“I think everybody else is pressing,” said Stanton, who hit 59 homers for the Marlins in 2017. “Everybody wants to see it. He’s sitting there, taking walks, hitting the ball hard. Even though people don’t like doubles and singles at this time, it doesn’t matter.
“That’s a great story, to have him pressing, but his at-bats have looked great. He’s not taking wild swings or chasing out of the ordinary.”
Said Higashioka: “He’s just going about his business like normal. He’s the ultimate professional. We all look up to him in terms of his demeanor of him and the way he carries himself.
“Every single day I think he’s almost an inspiration for us just in terms of composition and the way he goes about his business. So, I think he’s doing fine.”
Really, there have been no other visible signs of Judge’s frustration since the Yankees’ arrival in Texas. He warmly greeted his family, friends and agents after the game Monday, and jokingly apologized for taking so long to break the record. But hey, the bright side, he says, is that he gave his family a chance to see Globe Life Field, letting them cross it off their bucket list for ballparks.
“They love it,” he said. “They really wanted to come to the stadium. I’m a big fan of this place. The whole setup…”
He’s hoping he’ll now be able to check out AT&T Stadium next door before he leaves town, always wanting to see the massive football stadium that he has heard so much about over the years. He needs to check out the huge Jumbotron that has fans watching the game on the screen more than the actual field.
Really, it’s no different than Judge’s at-bats. Fans are watching the game through their camera phones while recording potential history instead of simply enjoying the moment.
“That’s the one thing I hate,” he said late Monday night. “When I look back at the 80’s and 90’s and see those games, there’s not a single person doing that. Everybody is locked in and watching, from the bleachers to behind home plate.”
Judge didn’t take batting practice on the field Tuesday before the doubleheader, and instead, decided to save his swings for the game.
It took just one swing of the bat.
History was made.
Now, Judge is hoping for more.
He’s still in the hunt to become only the second player in the last 55 years to win the Triple Crown, and the first Yankee since Mantle.
“A Triple Crown,” Judge said, “would be amazing.”
Judge certainly will win the home run (leading by 23) and RBI titles (by 7), but trails Luis Arraez of the Minnesota Twins in batting average, .315 to .310. Judge’s batting average took a hit last weekend at Yankee Stadium when he went 1-for-7 with six strikeouts, five walks and a hit-by-pitch in 13 at-bats. He was just 2-for-9 in the first two games of the Rangers’ series, with Rangers GM Chris Young imploring his pitchers to challenge him.
“I told our guys we’re coming right after him,” Young said on Audacy 105.3 The Fan. “We’re going to find out a lot about ourselves, too. We want guys out there who are competitive, who want to attack him, see how they match up against the best players in the world.
“I think this is a great opportunity to do so.”
Still, whether he wins the batting average title or not, Judge has produced a season for the ages. He is about to join Ruth as the only players in history to lead the league by hitting 20 or more home runs than anyone else, and Ruth and Rickey Henderson as the only players to leads their league by at least 30 runs. His 1,112 OPS and .686 slugging percentage are the highest by a Yankee since Mantle.
He’s just getting stronger as the season has progressed. He hit .417 with 10 homers and a .565 on-base percentage and .869 slugging percentage in September. His 1,434 OPS during the month was the second-highest by a Yankee in the last 85 years, and his on-base percentage was the highest in a single calendar month since Ruth’s .580 mark in August of 1932.
“I think one of the things he’s gone to another level at is knowing how to physically prepare and withstand the grind of the season,” Boone says. “That’s one of the big things in his continued development of him as a veteran, superstar player. He understands what he needs to do to be ready and sometimes, on certain days, especially when you’re deep in the season in the grind of the season, a lot of times that’s less.
“That sometimes has been the challenge for him in the past, to do less. He’s gotten really good at that. I think that’s gone a long way in keeping him as fresh and as strong as he’s been all year.”
And on a glorious day on Oct. 4, 2022, Judge proved it to the baseball world, hitting a home run that will forever be remembered in history.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism