It should be the nation’s biggest sports story bar none right now, but it is splitting the spotlight with less-worthy subjects.
The man whose every at-bat should be an excused absence for all workers on the clock is a star — but not the titan his 60-home-run predecessors were.
Yankees right fielder Aaron judge smacked his 60th dinger of the season Tuesday night, putting him two shy of breaking the American League record set by Roger Maris 61 years ago. That’s the way most of the media is describing it, at least.
The reality, however, is this: If Judge blasts No. 62 — he should be considered baseball’s single-season home-run king.
Sorry, Barry Bonds: Seems pretty clear you cheated. That’s what the preponderance of evidence collected over the years suggests. It’s the reason Hall of Fame voters kept him from entering Cooperstown all 10 years he was on the ballot despite everything he accomplished before steroids entered the picture.
The 73 homers he hit in 2001 top baseball’s official list, as he was never caught red-handed while in a Giants uniform. But we know. Everyone knows. Just like we know about his 60-plus brethren.
Sorry, Mark McGwire. You, too, Sammy Sosa. You don’t get the nod, either. The two sluggers’ epic bomb battle in 1998 has also been discolored by drugs.
Big Mac hit 70 that year, when every at-bat was must-watch. Slammin’ Sammy hit 66. But those two weren’t even getting 20% of the HOF voters’ approval, as the proof of their PED use appeared beyond all reasonable doubt.
The pair resurrected baseball’s popularity four years after the strike-shortened season. It’s just highly doubtful either would have surpassed Maris if clean. So if you strike the cheaters down, Roger still wears the crown.
But then there’s Mr. Judge.
If Aaron can go deep twice more in the next 14 games, he would cap off one of the greatest offensive seasons in MLB history. He ended Wednesday’s game vs. Pittsburgh hitting .317, slugging .705, and amassing a gargantuan OPS of 1.123. His 10.5 Wins Above Replacement, according to fangraphs.com, is almost two more than second-place Shohei Ohtani and 3.5 more than third-place Paul Goldschmidt.
The 6-foot-7 30-year-old is a redwood among pines in real time and the stat sheet. But is he a household name the way Bonds, McGwire and Sosa were? Has he transcended not just baseball but sports in general with his home-run pursuit? Doesn’t quite feel like it.
I’m not saying Judge is some kind of hidden treasure. He’s the best player on a team whose pinstripes are part of the most iconic uniform in North America. He’s a behemoth and soon-to-be free agent whose next contract could be worth more than $300 million. But “What did Judge do today?” doesn’t seem like an essential question the way it was with the aforementioned players in ’98 or ’01.
Maybe part of that is due to social media and incessant internet access, where fans can keep up every second of the day. More than that, though, it’s because the steroid era marred once sacrosanct statistics.
It’s almost impossible not to put a mental asterisk next to what Bonds, McGwire and Sosa did. But because their feats are still inscribed in the record books, it’s difficult for the general public to get too wound up in what Judge is doing. As a friend in the sports world told me recently “73 is objectively more than 62.” But subjectively — in this case, at least — it isn’t as impressive.
After Ben Johnson ran a 9.79 100-meter dash in 1988 Olympics, it was stricken from the record books instantly once he tested positive for doping. Few if anybody considered his sprint the true world record after he was caught.
The only reason Bonds’, McGwire’s and Sosa ‘s numbers stand is because there wasn’t testing in MLB at the time. It wasn’t until a series of reports and testimony ensued that the evidence condemned them in the court of public opinion.
There’s testing now. A whole lot of it. And nothing has given pause to what Judge has achieved. It’s legit, and — even among the Yankees’ biggest haters (i.e., 75% of baseball fans) — what he’s doing should be celebrated.
It’s a busy time in Seattle sports right now. The writing options are plentiful.
Judge deserves a space, though. His home-run tally may not be unprecedented, but if he hits two more his home-run achievement will be.