Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge is having arguably the greatest offensive season in baseball history.
As of this writing, he leads major league baseball in home runs, RBIs, runs, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, OPS+, and WAR, and he leads the American League in batting average and walks.
Judge is a lock to break Roger Maris’ 61-year-old AL home run record of 61 — a record set in 1961. More on the steroid-era home run derby later. Judge hit his 60th home run in his 147th game of the season while it took Babe Ruth 150 games to hit 60 in 1927. So no asterisks necessary where Judge is concerned.
He’s poised to become only the second Triple Crown winner (league leader in batting average, homers and RBIs) since 1967 and only the sixth since World War II.
This season, Judge is towering over his fellow competitors like Ruth did a century ago. With apologies to two-way unicorn Shohei Ohtani, Judge stands alone as the game’s singularly dominant player.
The bow on this package of greatness? Judge goes about his business like a professional. Instead of look-at-me bat flips and poses of admiration as the ball leaves the park, as is all the rage among latter-day sluggers, Judge gently places his bat on the ground before commencing yet another home run trot. It’s the baseball equivalent of Barry Sanders tossing the ball to the ref after an impossible 20-juke touchdown run. Act like you’ve been there before, indeed.
In contrast to the steroid-marred power surge of the late 1990s and early 2000s, there’s never been a whisper of juicing associated with Judge, adding another layer of likability.
Judge is a happily married man of deep Christian faith whose Aaron Judge All Rise Foundation is, according to the website, shaping children and youth into the leaders of tomorrow.
So why isn’t Aaron Judge an American hero? Why isn’t this chiseled 6’7” adonis, a man of impeccable reputation and skill, adorning every magazine cover and leading evening newscasts in a nation starved for something positive?
I can think of two reasons.
One, the aforementioned steroid era simultaneously saved and ruined baseball. A sport teetering on the edge of national oblivion following a devastating strike and the cancellation of the 1994 World Series found temporary salvation in an unprecedented power explosion that saw 17 50-homer seasons between 1996 and 2002, including the memorable National League race between Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa in 1998 and Barry Bonds’ record-setting 73-run campaign in 2001.
Sadly, the growth in homers was mirrored in the juice-induced growth of Barry Bonds. By 2007, thanks to the details revealed in the Mitchell Report of widespread steroid use in baseball, the power surge was retroactively rendered fraudulent. Robbed to an extent of sluggers on steroids, the MLB allegedly turned to juiced baseballs in the late 2010s to try to recapture the magic of the glory days, but all that did was accelerate the game’s transformation into a homer-walk-strikeout snooze fest.
In other words, home runs have lost their luster and conceptually remain tainted from the steroid era. Judge, through no fault of his own, is suffering the consequences.
Secondly, the game itself has lost its status as America’s Pastime, and much of that decline is self-inflicted. I’ve alluded to many of the factors already — the sullying effect of steroids; the over-reliance on home runs; labor strife that alienates the working-class fan base that has long been the foundation of the game’s prosperity.
But even deeper problems exist. The MLB’s rush to bend the knee to the forces of political correctness — epitomized by Commissioner Rob Manfred’s absurd decision to rob Atlanta of the 2021 All-Star Game due to a common-sense election security law in Georgia — has furthered the game’s decline.
I happen to be in possession of a framed newspaper front page from October 1921. The top story on a page that’s crammed with noteworthy breaking news? The World Series results from the night before. Can you imagine? It’s almost shocking to consider, but baseball once captured the hearts and captivated the minds of Americans. Believe it or not, James Earl Jones’ cornball speech in “Field of Dreams” about baseball being America’s constant once rang true.
While MLB drifts toward the iceberg, Manfred and Co. are busy rearranging deck chairs.
And Aaron Judge, a worthy American hero, pays the price.