In the words of Billy Beane from “Moneyball,” “How can you not be romantic about baseball?” Although it is now October and the MLB postseason is officially in full swing (no pun intended), it still feels like we are not talking enough about the season Aaron Judge just had. Yes, he has certainly received his flowers from the media, Yankees fans, and all baseball fans alike over the past month, but there is this sense that his accomplishments this year are being a bit undervalued in the grand scheme of things, so let’s talk about why that is.
Starting with the obvious, Judge hit 62 home runs this season, breaking former Yankees outfielder Roger Maris’ American League record of 61 home runs in a single season, a record that stood for 61 years and one that saw Maris break Babe Ruth’s prior record of 60 home runs. There is certainly some mystique attached to the fact that the top three American League single season home run leaders have all set records wearing the pinstripes, and as for Judge, in addition to setting a home run record, he finished second in the AL in batting average at .311, and led his league in RBIs with 131. Judge couldn’t have had such a remarkable season at a better time, as heading into this year, he turned down a seven-year $213.5 million extension offer reportedly made by the Yankees during the offseason. After the year he’s had, it’s safe to say that he made the right choice betting on himself as he will probably have an additional hundred million attached to his new contract offer this coming offseason.
Aside from the incredible numbers and the lucrative deal coming Judge’s way, he has achieved baseball immortality. He has gained a level of admiration that so few have seen, though we still aren’t giving him enough praise, and there are a few contributing factors to this. Judge now holds the single season American League home run record, however, the number 62 has already been surpassed on the home run list a few times, albeit controversially in each of those instances. Going back to the 1998 season, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were part of a home run chase that took the nation by storm, as McGwire finished the year with 70 home runs and Sosa with 66. The following season, McGwire finished with 65 and Sosa finished with 63. This time is now known as the “steroid era,” in which a number of MLB players, including McGwire and Sosa, took performance enhancing drugs and found success with hitting the ball harder, pitching with higher velocity, and preventing injury by way of doping.
Following the expiration of Major League Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement at the end of the 1993 season, and failing to reach a new agreement that offseason, the entire organization went on strike in the last third of the 1994 season, scrapping that year’s World Series as a result. Many fans expressed their disappointment in the organization by refusing to attend games or watch them on television for an extended period of time. Several years after this dark time for the sport, a number of fans began to come back to the games and tuned in as they grew invested in the home run records that several of these players were setting. In 2001, Barry Bonds hit a ridiculous 73 home runs, the most that any player had hit in a single season; however, he too has become one of the most notorious figures of that era for being linked to taking steroids.
So now here we are. Similar to 1994, although not as drastic, we are fresh off an offseason that saw another work stoppage for several months. We were fortunate enough to have a 162-game season this year, but we were especially fortunate to witness the legendary season that Aaron Judge had. Now it is time to ask the controversial question: Who is the home run king? There are plenty of fans who acknowledge Bonds as both the single season record holder as well as the all-time leader with his 762 career home runs. There are also plenty of fans who think Hank Aaron is the all-time leader at 755 and now believe that Judge is the single season home run king at 62, because of their lack of association with performance enhancers. As a result, the title of “home run king” is now viewed as entirely subjective in the eyes of many fans.
As we sit here today, what every baseball fan can agree on is that we are all grateful to have a player like Judge at this time. He has earned all the respect he has received, and he certainly has earned what will be a hefty pay raise that would make Sosa, McGwire, and Bonds all blush.
Image Courtesy of Apardavila on Flickr