TORONTO — Aaron Judge didn’t want to admit it at the time, but the wait was getting to him. He had hit his 60th home run more than a week ago to tie Babe Ruth’s best season, and he needed just one more to equal the American League record, set by Roger Maris in 1961.
But day after day, plate appearance and walk, Judge, the Yankees’ mighty slugger, was stuck at 60. He tried to pick the right pitches to hit, but there were too few. He hadn’t homered in seven games, his second-longest stretch of the year, and with time running out in the regular season, the pressure had mounted.
“You try not to think about it,” Judge said, “but it gets into your head.”
Why not? For more than a week, the entire baseball world had been focused on Judge’s home run hunt. Networks that were broadcasting other sports broke away to show Judge’s at-bats. In the ballparks where he played, an unusual anticipatory hush fell over the stands each time he walked up to home plate.
And then, in an instant, all the tension and frustration evaporated with a crack and a roar. With Aaron Hicks at first base and the score tied in the seventh inning of Wednesday’s game against the Toronto Blue Jays, left-hander Tim Mayza hit a full-count sinker that didn’t sink at all.
Judge stepped forward, unleashed his killer punch and sent a horsehide kite flying into left field. He went over the fence, hit a back wall and ricocheted into the Blue Jays’ bullpen, and into history. Judge had drilled his 61st home run of the season to tie Maris, and carried Canada into the record books along with him.
“It’s definitely a relief to get to 61,” Judge said with a smile, then added, “It’s a chance to tie Roger Maris. It’s the stuff you dream about. It’s not even real.”
But it’s very real, and for Roger Maris Jr., even more real than when Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds broke their father’s record multiple times, starting in 1998. All three of those players have been linked to performance-enhancing drugs. performance. , while Judge is the first player to hit 60 home runs under Major League Baseball’s collectively-bargained drug-testing program.
For Maris, Judge is the only one worthy of being next to his father in the record book.
“I think it means a lot to a lot of people that he’s clean,” said Maris, who was at Rogers Center for the game. “He’s a Yankee, he plays the game the right way and I think he gives people a chance to look at someone who should be revered for hitting 62 home runs and not just some guy who did it in the American League. “.
Maris has been to every Yankee game since Judge hit 59 home runs, and he was sitting with Judge’s mother, Patty, at Wednesday’s game. The entire time he had been following the team, he hadn’t met Judge until Wednesday night, after home run 61. It was a plan Maris devised to avoid distracting Judge. They met and hugged outside the visiting team’s clubhouse after the game.
“I asked him why he waited so long and he had me travel all over the country,” Maris joked after the game, which the Yankees won 8-3. “The irony was that it is the ninth day that I have been here. He wears 99, my dad wears 9. It’s kind of weird how it all worked out. So now I’m thinking, ‘Okay, we’re going to go to Yankee Stadium, and I’ll probably be 62 on the first of October, when Dad turns 61. Just a bunch of weird similarities.’
During the three-game series, Toronto fans tried to thread a partisan needle by simultaneously rooting for their team to win and for Judge to get his fair share of swings. Every time he walked, seven times in all, the fans booed the pitchers on his team.
“I’m trying to throw good, competitive pitches,” said Kevin Gausman, Monday night’s pitcher, who walked to the judge twice. “I didn’t like the fact that they booed me when I walked him. I thought it was unique.”
Unlike Yankee Stadium, where fans waited in near silence each time Judge came to the plate, the audience in Toronto remained seated, for the most part, during his at-bats. But they fell silent as the pitchers moved, and “ooh” each time he slammed his mighty bat.
“It’s a weird situation,” said George Springer, the Blue Jays center fielder. “But it’s good company to be in and it’s also an honor to have the whole baseball world see what he’s doing. He has handled it exceptionally well.”
The stands were not full for Wednesday’s game. There was an advertised attendance of 37,008 for a venue that seats around 45,000 and much of the top floor was empty. Many in the outfield bleachers hoped to catch a ball that some experts predicted could sell for more than a million dollars.
What seemed more fitting was that Judge’s home run put his team ahead to stay in the game, snapping a 3-3 tie, and added to the list of iconic home runs in this park: Judge smashed the ball in the same general area. from the stadium where Joe Carter hit his famous World Series winning home run for the Blue Jays in 1993 and where José Bautista hit his devastating explosion in the 2015 American League Championship Series.
As he rounded third base, he smiled as his cheery teammates came out of the dugout to greet him with hugs.
“It was unbelievable,” said Gerrit Cole, the Yankees’ starting pitcher on Wednesday, who tied Ron Guidry’s Yankees franchise record when he recorded his 248th strikeout of the season. “I am so happy for him. There is no more deserving person in my opinion. It was a special night for us to be able to witness it.”
When the ball landed, Blue Jays bullpen coach Matt Buschmann caught it on the rebound and he and relief pitcher Jordan Roman gave it to Zack Britton, a Yankees reliever who had come down from the team’s bullpen. visitor to retrieve it. The ball was then authenticated and turned over to clubhouse manager Rob Cucuzza for safekeeping, just as he did with the ball Judge hit for No. 60 at Yankee Stadium last week.
“Having the opportunity to sit at 60 for a while with the Babe was nice,” Judge said. “But to have the opportunity to sit now at 61 with another Yankees right fielder who hit 61 home runs, who was an MVP and a world champion, it’s great.”
Maris was only 3 years old when her father broke Ruth’s record and said he doesn’t remember any of it. She remembers growing up surrounded by people constantly asking her father about it, so she heard a lot of stories. Now, it’s time to tell a new story, and Maris is enthusiastically pushing for Judge to write it with her bat, and soon.
The Yankees have three more games at Yankee Stadium against the Baltimore Orioles this weekend and then four in Arlington, Texas, against the Rangers. Maris is confident the American League record will be broken before the team heads south.
“You can tell he’s back and he’s ready to go,” Maris said. “I think it will happen in New York and that is where you want it to happen. It’s where I want it to happen. New York City deserves it. The fans deserve it. It will be great for baseball if it happens in New York. As I mentioned to Aaron, ‘Go to New York and hit 62, knock off the top of Yankee Stadium.’”