Aaron Judge hit his 61st home run of the season in Toronto on Wednesday night. It was the kind of homer that’s become synonymous with the big Yankee slugger—a ball that left the yard so quickly the broadcast barely had time to switch camera angles to track its trajectory. See it sail, and you might instinctively wince for whatever poor sap in the stands will happen to get in its way. So maybe it’s for the best that this one struck the bullpen wall.
Judge is now tied with Roger Maris for the most single-season home runs in American League history, an achievement with a level of prestige that can be defined and redefined depending entirely on your own perspective. One of the things I’ve found charming about Judge’s chase for 61 is how many different ways it allowed for fans to interpret it. For some, the fun was in the chase rather than the destination. Others found a few smiles in taking the piss and reminding everyone how far Judge is from the actual top of the leaderboard. The worst among us rushed to rewrite history while making what I can only assume was an extremely annoying face.
With all these avenues available to me, I was surprised to find myself on Wednesday night thinking about what Judge’s 61st homer meant in the context of his status as a Yankee. This was a bit of a shock given that I do not care about the Yankees and have only ever found myself on the verge of gagging any time the word “legacy” or the phrase “earned his pinstripes” has been uttered near me. But I couldn’t deny that there was something powerful about the fact that Judge hit 61 while wearing a Yankees uniform, and after some thought it occurred to me that I was not fascinated by any extra shine that the pinstripes might have added to Judge’s accomplishment, but rather what he himself did for the uniform.
It was impossible to become a young baseball fan in the 1990s without becoming aware of the Yankees, both as a brand and a team, very early on in the process. From the moment I knew what Major League Baseball was, I knew the deal with the Yankees, and ever since they have occupied two poles within my mind. At one end, there are the Yankees of the past, the teams made up of guys who I came to understand less as baseball players and more as mythic heroes. Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle—all those guys were filed away in the same place I kept facts about my favorite medieval swords and thoughts like, “Hercules is cool but Achilles is one of the most underrated heroes from Greek mythology, in my opinion.” At the other pole lived the Yankees who were in my face every day. Jeter, Rivera, and the rest of the “core four.” Four titles in the decade. Goddamn Paul O’Neill. I learned to hate these Yankees not only because they won all the time and everyone outside of New York seemed to agree that I should hate them, but also because they looked nothing like the images of Ruth and the other old legends that I had conjured for myself. The Yankees of the ’90s provided plenty of wins and a few historic moments, but mostly they were a monument to extreme professionalism and competence. Nobody on those teams was ever a threat to hit 61 homers. Their most important player’s signature move was inside-outing a ball to the opposite field. Their most dominant player was a closer who threw one pitch.
The problem with legacy is that the people who establish it get to have way more fun than those tasked with upholding it. It was those great players from the past who turned the Yankees into The Yankees, and in doing so they left everyone who followed them something to reach for. The Yankees teams of my youth certainly lived up to the winning standard, but there was always something bloodless in how they did it. Gone were the figurative and literal colossi who reshaped the game itself with their individual talents and personalities. In their place was a collection of guys happy to be defined by nothing more than stoically collecting titles and not having facial hair.
This is what has so thrilled me about Aaron Judge’s season: He has, over the course of 155 games, brought back the old days that only ever existed in my imagination. If you had asked 9-year-old me what Babe Ruth actually looked and played like, I would have imagined Aaron Judge. Just look at this fuckin’ guy. He’s 6-foot-7, weighs nearly 300 pounds, and hits the ball harder and farther than should seem possible. To see him do what he’s done this year—it’s worth reminding yourself that even aside from the 61 homers he’s having one of the best offensive seasons ever—has been like watching a myth come to life.
All of this is made sweeter by the fact that the Yankees tried to lowball Judge in the offseason and were willing to let him enter next winter as a free agent. There again was the arrogance that has most recently come to define the Yankees, the idea that the institution will always be greater than the people chosen to uphold it. In one season, Judge has inverted that equation. This guy didn’t earn his future place in Monument Park by putting in his time and becoming an effective steward of winning culture; he took it by force. Earn his pinstripes? From who? He doesn’t even play for the Yankees. He plays for The Yankees.