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Chasing Ghosts: Aaron Judge and 62 home runs

What do we do if we are watching history?

Everything about Aaron Judge is larger than life. Sitting in the dugout or in the post-victory handshake line, he often looks just too big to be on a baseball field. The very first time he stepped in an MLB batter’s box, he hit a baseball off the window of a restaurant 446 feet from home plate.

And all that’s fitting, since Yankee lore is also larger than life. Myths and stories about Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle could, and have, filled more books than I can list. Sam Miller once spoke about how hard it was to take Ruth seriously as a real human being, a real subject of history, since there is so much apocrypha swirling around the real man, like a ship passing through fog.

Even if we take the things that we know, beyond a doubt, about the greats of Yankee history, even these facts strain credulity. Lou Gehrig averaged an 1.135 OPS over four seasons, not once leading his club in the stat. I’ve written before about how impossible it is for a contemporary Yankee to chase the ghosts of the last century, the bar is just too high, even for a guy that right now is probably the best player in baseball.

Except there is one thing, there is one number: sixty-one.

The 1961 season is its own myth, or rather its own collection of myths. Ford Frick made his famous announcement that any “official” attempt at Ruth’s then-record 60 HR season would need to be completed in 154 games, even when Roger Maris eventually eclipsed 60 in fewer plate appearances. Mickey Mantle had ... something in his hip that caused the abscess that put him on the shelf and made the two-man race to 60 a one-man show. And of course, Maris hit his 61st on the very last day of the season, a final act so perfect you couldn’t really write it.

Maris’ 21st home run of that season came in Game 57, in Cleveland, off Jim Perry. He was 34 percent of the way to his eventual total, 35 percent of the way through the season. Aaron Judge’s 21st came on Saturday, in the Bronx, Game 53. He’s 34 percent of the way to Maris’ mark through just shy of 33 percent of the season, ahead of the pace, for now.

The Yankees close the season with four games in Texas, October 3rd-5th. What do we do if Judge arrives in Arlington with 58 home runs? How do we feel about his role in Yankee history, if after 60 years, we see a very real shot at what many Yankee fans would consider to be the most hallowed record in the game?

Sixty-one has been eclipsed six times, by three people: Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa. Whatever you think about those seasons, we know that all three of them had some sort of pharmaceutical aid, rather than the mere suspicion we have around just what was in Max Jacobson’s syringe all the way back in 1961. Sixty-one home runs is still the American League single-season record, and more than a few people within the game consider it the all-MLB mark. Aaron Judge is putting together a real run at that figure.

One of the things I really like about 61 is that Maris is not an all-time Yankee legend (though his number is retired). He has two MVPs and one legendary season, but neither his career numbers nor the lingering adoration of fans holds up to Ruth or Mick, or Derek, or Yogi, or Mo, or honestly even Don. After Maris broke the record, he had a pretty good end of his career, a .789 OPS that was about 20 percent better than league average. He was an All-Star three times actually, perhaps a hangover from ’61 since the selections came the next year. But while Mantle waltzed into the Hall of Fame, and even temporary Yankee iconoclasts like Reggie Jackson and Mike Mussina had convincing Hall cases before coming to the Bronx, if Maris ever went to Cooperstown, he had to, as they say, buy a ticket.

Aaron Judge’s Yankee career isn’t over, not yet, but right now he’s the thirtieth or so best Yankee of all time by fWAR — he’s actually passed Maris this season — he’s played fewer games for the team than Didi Gregorius, and even though his OPS is the fifth-highest in Yankee history, he’s a couple slots ahead of Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield, extremely good players but not Yankee immortals.

He certainly gets bonus points for being homegrown and representing the opening of a championship window, albeit one yet to deliver on all that promise, and one that might never will. He also represents what might be the most compelling free agency pursuit since Alex Rodriguez — what exactly the market value of the face of baseball is as he enters his 30s.

Oh, yeah, that’s the other part of this chase. Maris wasn’t the most popular player in baseball, Yankee fans very blatantly and vocally wanted Mantle to assume the, well, mantle of home run king. Aaron Judge is the most popular player on the most popular team, he’s got something none of the greats ever have: an entire section of the ballpark is named after him.

I don’t know what Aaron Judge’s exact wingspan is, but it must come close to seven feet. Those arms, shoulders and back have and continue to carry championship expectations, and the pressure of a walk year where he bet on himself. You can even argue that Judge carries the expectations of his own rookie season, a full complement of baseball that he has yet to match.

Now, they carry the weight of a hundred years of home runs, a century of the sport’s default ruling class, and sixty summers of wondering if THIS is the guy that can do it. Yankee Stadium may have moved across the street, but if you were to ask Judge, I’m sure he’d tell you that the ghosts of Ruth, and Mantle, and Maris still hang in the clubhouse. He is one-third of the way to the Yankees’ most holy accomplishment, with two-thirds of the season to go.