Home run chases make for strange inverted pyramids. With the division more or less wrapped up, Giancarlo Stanton’s walk-off grand slam to give the Yankees a 9-8 win over the Pirates is reduced to afterthought. Who cares who won? That’s because a few batters earlier, for just the ninth time in MLB history, a 60th home run was hit.
The number 60 still holds power, despite not having been the record for 61 years now. It’s a round number, which helps, and it stood as the record for so long that it maintains its grip on the imagination. And it’s Babe Ruth’s number. Say what you will about Ruth—and he would absolutely be turned into a flailing, quivering mess in the box by today’s most average pitchers—but the man was a star. Famous in a way that baseball players simply aren’t anymore and probably can never be again; a tightly clung-to security blanket from a time when the national pastime was truly national. This isn’t about mourning for lost popularity, though: The game’s greatest treasure is its history, and it rarely feels more vital than when that history comes alive again. A slugger putting up an absurd number 95 entire years ago doesn’t feel so distant when a slugger wearing the same uniform chases it down now. The present informs the past, makes it real in a way newsreels and ledgers can’t quite. We can understand what the race for 60 looks and looked like: a large man in pinstripes punishing baseballs as tens of thousands go wild. “Let’s see some other son of a bitch match that,” Ruth famously said after hitting No. 60, and so much excitement has been wrung out of the ensuing century of assorted sons of bitches trying to do just that.
The next number up is 61, and then 62, and those too hold power. It’s a little thornier here. You will notice a lot of odd language in the coverage of Aaron Judge’s running down of Roger Maris: for the “Yankee record,” or the “AL record.” These are of course thinly veiled euphemisms for the PED-free home run record, even though the accuracy and importance of that statement are both unknowable. So it’s valuable to be fully clear about this here: the record is 73, and the record that counts is 73, and the record that matters is 73.
But I have a theory about 61, and it’s that a home run chase is so much fun that there’s a collective if unspoken agreement to accept that Judge is currently engaged in one. It requires a little targeted forgetfulness, and the making of strange bedfellows with those freaks still hung up on the steroid thing, but it’s worth it. 1998 was a special thing. I genuinely pity people not old enough to remember it. As McGwire and Sosa chased Maris while racing each other, they gave fans a high that we’re still trying to recapture a generation later. And if it retroactively cheapened that magical year to see 61 be passed again and again, it doesn’t diminish how it felt in the moment.
We can’t relive the supernova summer of 1998, but with every Judge highlight, every live look-in for his at-bats, every astonishing statistic, we can enjoy something of its reflected warmth. A home run chase is a good time, and it reminds one of previous home run chases, and of a slightly more naive era of fandom (or maybe just of my own life) when it was easy and good to feel things so strongly. So if Judge is not going to chase down Barry Bonds—if a chase for the true home run record is simply not in the cards until and unless the game fundamentally changes—where’s the harm in acting like or believing that 61 is still a mark worth chasing? I promise you it’s more fun to be here counting dingers than to be too savvy to.
Besides, there’s plenty to enjoy about Aaron Judge’s season even if he’ll never be the Home Run King. He’s lapping the field in a manner some might call Ruthian, and as of this morning, he’s also leading the Triple Crown race. It’s the sort of season for which you may get nothing comparable for another generation, and which recalls through sheer dominance the zeniths of generations past. His is a year to be situated within the ongoing story of baseball, but also to recalibrate it. “Chasing history” is just another way to say making it.