clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Case Closed: One swing, one superstar, and one night we will remember forever

With one swing of the bat, Aaron Judge gave us a moment we will remember for the rest of our lives.

MLB: Game Two-New York Yankees at Texas Rangers Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

He’s finally done it.

62 home runs.

In Game 161, fourteen days after matching Babe Ruth’s mark, and six days after tying Roger Maris’s mark – an American League and franchise record that stood unchallenged for 61 years – Aaron Judge now stands alone in Yankees lore.

In the coming days, you’re going to read a lot about the statistics describing Aaron Judge’s incredible run, and how he managed to produce one of the best offensive performances of all-time in a year when offense was at historic lows across the league. You’re going to read about Judge’s upcoming free agency, and you’ll see writers and social media personalities jump at the opportunity to share click-bait takes about how the MVP race is somehow still too close to call. The names Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, and Mark McGwire will be invoked by people who don’t know better, and some who do, and a lot of these discussions will turn ugly because baseball can never seem to get out of its own way.

But this story isn’t about any of that.

This story is about what it means to be a baseball fan – about the psychic grip the game has over us; about what it feels like to witness a heralded franchise record fall; and about the immense privilege it has been to watch a literal and figurative giant etch his name into the history books.

Above all else, though, this is a story about how we come to appreciate greatness.

Baseball, perhaps more than any other sport, is a game of stories. For better or worse, we come to understand our game through clichés and narratives passed down from generation to generation that seek to explain what it means to enjoy this game we all share. Like most clichés, some come with a grain of truth, while others have proven to be past their best-before date.

One cliché typically stands above the rest, though, thanks to its enshrinement in popular culture and its place in our cultural lexicon: There is no crying in baseball. Sure, it isn’t always expressed in those exact terms, but from bat flips to hit-by-pitches to walk-off celebrations, the core idea that the baseball field is to be an emotionless place – a sacred monument to the sanctity of the game – still lives on, even if that belief gets a little dimmer by the day.

That idea has always been at odds with my understanding of the game.

For me, baseball is a collection of vulnerable moments where we let our guard down and our emotions get the better of us. It’s the sheer euphoria that follows a swing that breaks a heralded franchise record that has stood for 61 years — the type of infectious joy that makes you feel like you can run through a brick wall even though you’re out-of-shape and can barely hit a softball to the warning track these days. It’s also the crushing disappointment of defeat that follows a season-ending walk-off home run — the type of heartbreak that makes you question whether having a favorite team is worth it after all, even though you know you’ll be back on your couch rooting for them the second spring training starts.

In other words, emotion is the ingredient that makes these moments — the moments that come to define the game we all love so much — so special.

And, on a relatively listless Tuesday night in Arlington, Texas, Aaron Judge gave us one hell of an emotional moment.

The first game of a late-season doubleheader against the Texas Rangers came and went just like the previous four had: uneventful. Judge, with the weight of the history books and the expectations of an entire fanbase resting firmly on his shoulders, went 1-for-5 for the game, with a single being his lone knock. In an uncharacteristic display of emotion from the typically stoic giant, Judge was caught on camera slamming his helmet in frustration in the dugout.

Worries that the pressure of this whole thing was starting to get to him had been creeping up for a few days now. After all, with just two games left in the season, he was running out of legitimate chances to make history.

Unfortunately for Judge, there wasn’t a whole lot of time to get that frustration out of his system: The second game of the doubleheader was set to start just a few hours later.

With Jesús Tinoco toeing the slab for the Rangers, Judge stepped into the box to get the game started as he’s done for most of the second half of the season. He gestured to the catcher and the home plate umpire, dug his cleats into the dirt, and got into his stance, as he always does. For the last few weeks, there had, of course, been an air of expectation whenever Judge stepped up to the plate. Was this the moment that history would be made? This night was no different. Everything about the scene, from the friendly nod to the umpire to the trademark batting stance, was just so normal.

Except, it wasn't. Not really. Something just felt different about the whole production.

The crowd at Globe Life Field rose to their feet, an occurrence that is typically uncommon when visiting a ballpark, and the cameras were at the ready. The game was a go.

The first pitch of the night from Tinoco was a fastball way up and away. Jitters are to be expected in a moment like this from the pitcher, too, but that pitch wasn’t even close.

Judge passed up the second pitch, a flat slider that hung in the middle zone. He hadn’t seen many of those pitches lately, and one worried whether he had let the best pitch he’d see in this at-bat pass him by.

And then it happened.

On the very next pitch, Tinoco hung a second slider, and it spun harmlessly in the center of the plate. Judge transferred his weight, rotated through his hips, and let his bat explode through the zone, as he always does.

391 feet later, history was made.

Arlington erupted in applause. The moment so many fans had been waiting for had finally, at long last, happened. It was a moment, weighed down by the burden of six decades of history, 161 games in the making.

Judge, perhaps a little uncharacteristically, took a second or two longer to leave the box after he made contact. His focus stayed on the left field seats for a split second longer than usual. He, like us, wanted to catch a glimpse of history.

When the ball landed in the left field seats and the fans swarmed to collect their piece of history, Judge stood alone as the American League’s single-season home run leader. To do so, all he had to do was hit more home runs than the single greatest baseball player of all-time and break the most heralded record of the most storied franchise in the game.

As he rounded the bases and I reminded myself that I do, in fact, have to take a breath from time to time, I couldn’t help but let my mind wander to two more monumental events from recent Yankees lore.

The first was Derek Jeter’s 3000th hit, a moment that seems to be forever burnt into my increasingly unreliable memory. I remember the 3-2 pitch that Jeter was way out in front of and the somewhat awkward swing that enabled him to hammer the ball to the left field bleachers. I remember laughing as I saw David Price realize he had just entered the record books on the wrong side of history. I even remember Michael Kay’s call on the broadcast: “3,000! History, with an exclamation point!”

More than anything else, though, I remember being brought to tears as Jeter rounded the bases and was mobbed by his teammates at home plate. It was already a foregone conclusion that Jeter would be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but in my mind, this was the pinnacle of watching greatness unfold before my eyes for more than a decade.

The second moment took place a couple years after Jeter’s history-making home run, when Mariano Rivera took the mound for the final time. I suppose the more direct comparison to Judge’s record-breaking swing would be Rivera’s record-breaking save against the Minnesota Twins in 2011, but Mo was my favorite player growing up, and seeing the man I idolized for so long take the field for the last time will always have a special place in my heart.

This time around, I don’t remember a whole lot about the game itself. What I do remember, though, is how I felt when I saw a 41-year-old man, a living legend who had just ascended the ranks of baseball glory to become the unquestioned greatest to ever do it, sobbing on the mound in front of his teammates and legions of fans as he embraced Andy Pettitte and Derek Jeter. I remember how I felt as I watched Rivera, through my own tear-filled eyes, hug each and every teammate on his way to the dugout. I remember how loud the Bronx faithful got when he re-emerged from the dugout nearly three minutes after leaving the mound for one final curtain call.

And I remember how I felt watching this all unfold, covered in goosebumps and tears, knowing that the team that defined my childhood was nearing its end.

When we watch baseball, we watch in the hopes of seeing things we’ve never seen before. We watch for moments where history is made before our very own eyes, and where words fail us and emotions take over. We watch in the hopes of witnessing greatness.

Perhaps more importantly, though, there’s a feeling of togetherness inherent in moments like these – the feeling that, despite it all, we’re bound together by a single shared experience of greatness, and that each one of us will forever remember exactly where we were and how we felt when the unthinkable became reality. Truly great moments have the power to transcend borders and loneliness and isolation. They have the power to connect us all in some weird way, if only briefly, in a shared moment of awe.

This type of moment is exactly what we just witnessed.

Aaron Judge can now count himself among those hallowed greats.

Years from now, when this home run becomes the latest “Today in Yankees History” post and Judge’s heroics are reduced to a pub trivia question, it’ll be hard for a lot of us who were fortunate enough to watch this all unfold remember that the record-breaking home run came on a hanging slider on a 1-1 count. It might take a second before we remember that Jesús Tinoco served up the home run. And we’ll almost certainly forget how hard the ball came off of Judge’s bat and how far it travelled.

But what we will remember, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is what this season, this moment, and this swing meant to all of us. It’s a moment we’ll tell stories about for years to come, even as our memories fade and the exact details that we’re absolutely sure happened change over time.

When this moment becomes little more than a distant memory, we will still remember how we felt tonight.

That is what truly great players like Aaron Judge are capable of doing. They do things that we never thought were possible — the kind of things that leave us stunned and make us feel something, deep down, that goes well beyond the passion we have for our favourite teams.

And, most importantly, they have the ability to make us remember that feeling forever.