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Aaron Judge as Religious Experience pt. II

I didn’t think this would be a series, but the literal and figurative giant continues to force me to question what is possible on the baseball field, so here we are.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at New York Yankees Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

In the middle of May, I wrote an article entitled, “Aaron Judge as Religious Experience.” Inspired by his hot start — in 34 games from April 8th to May 17th, Judge posted a triple slash of .315/.384/.692 with 14 home runs and a 200 wRC+ — I thought it was a good time to sit down and explore the traits that made Aaron Judge more than just another slugger.

To do so, I paid homage to David Foster Wallace’s sportswriting in his essay, “Roger Federer as Religious Experience,” in which he extols the legendary tennis player and tries his best to verbalize the otherwise-impossible-to-describe joy of watching an athlete at the peak of their performance. I borrowed some phrases, adapted the language he used, and applied them to the experience of watching Aaron Judge do his thing.

Since I published that article, Judge has done nothing but mash. In almost double the amount of games (64), he’s posted a .287/.375/.656 slash line with 27 home runs and a 183 wRC+.* He is currently on pace to shatter the Yankees’ single-season home run record and appears to be the favorite to win American League MVP. He’s drawing comparisons to Roger Maris’ legendary 1961 campaign for obvious reasons, and, at least in terms of power hitting, has become a category of discussion unto himself.

In short, it’s time for me to revisit what I wrote a couple months ago, because Judge has somehow become even better.

In the first part of what is now a series, I suppose, I discussed two famous moments — his Safeco Field moonshot from 2017 and a nonchalant throw to gun Cedric Mullins down at second base in 2021 — that best highlighted, I thought, his presence as more than just a slugger. Put another way, these were moments where my unsuspecting jaw was left on the floor from what I had just seen him do, as he’s apt to do.

In the aforementioned essay, “Roger Federer as Religious Experience,” Wallace writes, “Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty.” On the beauty of Federer’s style of play, he continues:

“All of this is true, and yet none of it really explains anything or evokes the experience of watching this man play. Of witnessing, firsthand, the beauty and genius of his game. You more have to come at the aesthetic stuff obliquely, to talk around it, or — as Aquinas did with his own ineffable subject — to try to define it in terms of what it is not.”

This is the strand I want to pick up here, if only briefly, in relation to the quasi-religious experience of watching Aaron Judge do his thing. I can talk all day about the mechanics of Judge’s swing (it’s a work of art) or the ease and precision with which he fields his position (it looks effortless, somehow), but these discussions, no matter how detailed they are, fail to underscore the feelings that are evoked when he makes contact with a baseball. In other words, these discussions can highlight the mechanical beauty of his game, but they fail to capture the metaphysical beauty of it.

For the sake of a quick example, and to break up having to read too much of my self-indulgent voice, let’s revisit Judge’s walk-off against the Kansas City Royals on Thursday evening.

Coming into the bottom of the ninth inning tied at zero, Judge had gone 0-for-2 with two strikeouts and a walk. The entire offense was playing with the energy of a corpse — they had managed just one baserunner, courtesy of a single off the bat of Gleyber Torres, in the previous eight innings against one of the worst teams in the league — and showed no signs that the malaise with which they played the Mets was a thing of the past.

And then Judge stepped up to the plate with one out in the inning:

One pitch later, the game was over. Royals reliever Scott Barlow threw probably the worst pitch he could possibly throw — a 95 mph fastball right down the middle — and Judge clobbered it, clearing the Royals bullpen with ease. That one swing ended the Yankees’ frustrating skid and sent the Yankees faithful home happy.

Of course, this wasn’t the first time this season he’d done this. In a game against the Blue Jays in early May, Judge crushed a walk-off, three-run home run against All-Star reliever Jordan Romano. He did it again in late June against the Houston Astros, when he demolished a relatively flat slider to give the Yankees an extra innings victory against their rivals. When you hit 42 home runs before August, I suppose a few of them will be fairly important.

These examples highlight precisely what I mean by the beauty of Judge’s game being nearly impossible to translate into words. I can go through the usual motions, breaking down the swings and noticeable in-game adjustments that led to these highlights, but, with respect to those discussions which I truly do love to read, they fail to describe the feeling of what we were fortunate enough to witness by virtue of trying to compartmentalize the moment. Similarly, I can write thousands of words to describe the feeling of that same moment, but they’d fail to capture the sheer difficulty of the things he is able to do on the baseball field. For a player like Judge, it’s nearly impossible to find a happy medium with which to expound their brilliance.

As a writer, both by hobby and by trade, it’s quite literally my job to translate these feelings into the written word, to make people feel the moments as if they were there. For fear of bragging, I like to think I’m pretty good at doing that most of the time. But for a world-class player like Aaron Judge, in the midst of the unbelievable season that he’s currently having and with all of the extracurricular context surrounding this season, I’m happy to admit that I’m not a talented enough writer to do justice by his brilliance. And, for me, that’s where the beauty of his game lies: it frequently leaves me speechless, and it always leaves me, at least, wordless.

*Author’s note: All stats as of July 29, 2022.