Sixty-one years ago, when Roger Maris hit his 54th home run in the Yankees’ 140th game, he did so while driving a pitch from Tom Cheney into the bullpen in right field as he was in the middle of a Murderers’ Row.
Indeed, the hit on September 6, 1961, in the fourth inning of an 8-0 victory over the Senators, was immediately followed by a walk for Mickey Mantle, a two-run home run by Johnny Blanchard , a single from Elston Howard and another two-run homer from Moose Skowron.
It was like that throughout the season in which the Bombers set a major league record with 240 home runs en route to a 109-53 record followed by a five-game World Series win over Cincinnati.
Throughout the legendary franchise history, there are 1961, 1927, 1998 and 1936. They represent the Yankees’ Mount Rushmore seasons. This year it is not those.
Six decades and a year later, Aaron Judge is chasing Maris’ American League record of 61 hits atop an order that in recent weeks has looked like Skid Row. The roster has been thinned by injuries and their aftermath on Giancarlo Stanton, Anthony Rizzo, Matt Carpenter, DJ LeMahieu and Andrew Benintendi and further diluted by poor performances.
It’s a good thing batting averages don’t matter anymore, or someone might have to call attention to the fact that the batting order at the stadium for Monday’s tilt vs. the Twins featured guys hitting .216, .219, .200, .176 and .200 … with numbers worse than that in the fortnight.
Nonetheless, Judge went deep for the third game in a row, his two-run drive to left field in the sixth inning breaking a 2-2 tie en route to a 5-2 triumph at the stadium over their Minnesota patsies, against which they’ve gone 112-39 (.742) — including the playoffs — since 2002.
The hit was his 54th of the season in the Yankees’ 135th game. He is ahead of the pace of Maris. Barry Bonds’ inauthentic record 73 of 2001 might even be in sight given Judge’s ferocious onslaught over the past two weeks in which the No. 99 has hit eight homers in 43 at-bats in 13 games.
He is Atlas with the world on his shoulders.
However, he won’t talk about it. He won’t talk about Maris. I won’t talk about the case. He won’t talk more about 61 than he will talk about his contract and his apparent upcoming free agency. He performs. Others marvel.
“I don’t have anything for you,” Judge said when asked about Maris. “I’m just trying to do everything I can to help us win. I show up and I’m ready to go.
The home run flow somehow seemed more organic when the Yankees were partying like it was in 1961 during the first half of the season, when Stanton, Rizzo, Carpenter and LeMahieu almost provided the kind of cover for Judge like Mantle did for Husbands.
But now…there are for practical reasons no Yankees in the order capable of providing cover. It doesn’t seem to matter.
“If I manage to hit something, I have to be ready,” said Judge, who was back in his usual No. 2 spot in the order, this time behind Gleyber Torres. “I like when I have my boys kicking behind me, but if not, then what?
“You have to show up when you are in the top three in order. You must post every day.
Judge, who doubled in the first and scored on Josh Donaldson’s two-out single, is a picture of equanimity. Maris’ hair fell out in clumps from the pressure he felt while chasing American icon Ruth’s iconic 60’s. Judge has his cake and eats it too.
What, the judge is worried?
“It’s just not important to me,” said number 99. “It’s important that we win. It’s important that we win the division. It’s not all about me, that I go 0 for 4 or 4 for 4.
“The record is an offseason talk.”
If Maris had handled the spotlight so well, he might have turned 70. But there were extenuating circumstances. He was chasing Ruth. He was wrestling his favorite son, Mantle, all summer long. He stared at a virtual asterisk.
The judge operates with a clean slate. He is the favorite son as he tracks down history and #9.
“I am very careful [to the chase]. I love the story of the game,” manager Aaron Boone said. “He’s so equipped for it. It’s a constant conversation and he’s equipped for it all because he’s so focused on winning and on his job.
A guy lost his hair and his peace of mind in the chase. The other represents the epitome of peace and placidity. From #9 and Murderers’ Row to #99 and Skid Row.
“He’s equipped,” Boone said of Judge, “for any show you’re going to put on him.”
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