Watching Aaron Judge try to hit one last home run was a bad, agonizing fan experience
The great irony, as a formerly hardcore, currently inattentive Yankees fan who had taken to watching Aaron Judge's every at-bat as he pursued the American League home run record, is that I missed no. 62. I was slightly late to turn on Tuesday night's game, and when I saw the Jomboy tweet out the single word "Judge!", I knew I had missed the moment.
Strangely enough, I was okay with my lapse. My reaction was not "$#*$, I missed it!" It was "oh thank God." Which convinced me of a truth I had been trying to ignore for almost two weeks: from a fan's perspective, the Judge home run record chase was more agony than triumph.
The minute he hit no. 60 in that insane, life-affirming comeback win against the Pirates on Sept. 20—a moment I watched at least three more times after it actually aired that night—I had a feeling that things were about to get tough. Why? Well, I have slightly less talent than Aaron Judge, but despite that almost imperceptible gap, I could easily imagine what it must feel like to stand on the verge of history, millions of eyes on you, all of them laser-focused on the prospect of you hitting a home run literally every time you step up to the plate. It's hard to hit a home run!
Plus, no pitcher wants to be the one to give up an historic dinger, which meant he was going to get walked a ton. And as the at-bats and games mount, it only gets harder, looms larger, and begins to occupy your every thought. Judge is clearly less neurotic than me, but I can't imagine a human being on earth who escapes that kind of anxious expectation. And in a weird way, the stress he was under would be vicariously tangible by all of us who wanted him to reach the mark. That's probably why I savored the Pirates win so much; I suspected that, barring a World Series run, Judge's 60th and the Stanton walk-off would be the best part of the season.
And yes, I even watched that s*** in corny Moneyball form:
Now, this shocked me to learn: historically, players who have pursued home run records have actually hit the milestone mark pretty quickly when they're on the verge. When Roger Maris hit no. 59 in 1961, he got no. 60 just three games later, and after two fruitless games, he hit no. 61 on the last day of the regular season under what I can only imagine was ridiculous pressure. When Mark McGwire reached 60 in 1998, he got 61 two games later, and 62 a game after that. Sammy Sosa was chasing McGwire by a few days that year, so it's not like he was setting any records, but he still went from 59 to 62 in three games. And with four games left in his 1927 season, sitting on 56 home runs, Babe Ruth hit four in three days to reach 60 and beat his own mark of 59.
So going by history, you'd expect Judge to do it all pretty quickly. Going by vibes, though? This was about to get awful. Through the Red Sox and Blue Jays and Orioles series, he was walked over and over again, and watched his average fall as he began striking out a higher rate. Was he pushing? I have no idea, but even if Judge seems like the world's most imperturbable superstar, how could he not? How could he not feel the pressure?
When he hit no. 61 against the Blue Jays after a seven-game drought—his second-longest of the year—it was more a relief than anything. Even with that relief, though, came the knowledge that we were quickly running out of season. With just the Orioles and Rangers left, it would only take another seven-game drought to end the season on 61, which (stupidly) would be a serious disappointment.
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Once the Orioles walked him five times in three games, I became convinced it wouldn't happen. When the first two games of the season-ending Rangers season went by with no home run, I knew it. All that remained was to watch the agony of the last two games play out, and think about how idiotic this game is where you can watch a living legend hit 61 home runs and it somehow ends up feeling—at the very end—like he failed.
Instead, Judge proved yet again how special he is and delivered no. 62 in the second-to-last game of the season. He is an icon. He is a better human being than all of us who would have crumbled under that pressure. I'm so glad he did it, and I'm glad I got to watch it, even on delay. But I have to tell you, as fan experiences go, it was pretty miserable. Judge would never say this out loud, but I get the feeling it wasn't a ball of fun for him either.
Today, none of that matters, because Judge and every Yankees fan will always have no. 62. But please, let's never do this again.