Aaron Judge, the Triple Crown and the relentless pursuit of home run No. 61

NEW YORK — Aaron Judge probably doesn’t sneak up on people all that much, sheer stature and all. But as hard as it must be for a 6-foot-7 behemoth who stands out like a beacon even in a room full of other meticulously sculpted professional athletes to do anything stealthily, it’s even harder to sneak up on 61 home runs. Not when a record number of people tune in to watch a mid-week game against the last-place Pittsburgh Pirates and the league itself streams his at-bats — and only his at-bats — live, and every ball he’ll see has been pre-tagged with proprietary technology.

On Sunday in Milwaukee, Judge hit Nos. 58 and 59. Sixty had to wait until Tuesday only because the Yankees didn’t play Monday. Entering Wednesday’s game, Judge was homering every 8.82 at bats. Only Babe Ruth, Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and Josh Gibson have had better single-season rates (he is third in career rate, behind only McGwire and Ruth). In the leadoff spot, he gets four or five at-bats every game. So that’s a home run in almost every other game.

In that sense, Judge was due for a day off from making history. But try telling that to the 46,175 fans who arrived in the Bronx on the very last day of summer beating themselves up over being a day late to see Judge tie Ruth in single-season home runs and hopeful that Roger Maris’ mark — the AL record and one that some fans consider the last clean home run high — would be next.

It will be, just … not yet.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 21:  Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees takes his turn at bat in the seventh inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Yankee Stadium on September 21, 2022 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees takes his turn to bat in the seventh inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday night in the Bronx. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) (Elsa via Getty Images)

Before the game, manager Aaron Boone considered the strategic logic, or lack thereof, of giving Judge anything to hit. As he approaches Bonds territory, shouldn’t he get the Bonds treatment? I mean, an at-bat that ends with Judge on first is an at-bat in which he does not hit yet another home run.

“I think they should go after him,” Boone said with a smirk.

That strategy, employed early in the game, resulted in a couple of doubles. After the second bounced into the stands just above the 318 marker down the left-field line, fans were subdued. In section 203, where the famed Bleacher Creatures sit, someone lamented, “How’s he going to get the home run record hitting doubles?”

“He’s going for the Triple Crown,” someone else replied.

And it’s true. In some ways the 61 of it all obscures the fact that — record or not — Judge is having perhaps the best offensive season of all time. Counting stats and big round numbers erase the variable context of different eras, collapsing Ruth and Maris and Bonds and Judge onto a single scale where only they exist. But we know — now better than ever — how league-wide conditions are like waves that players surf, to varying degrees of success.

Judge’s 60-plus home runs are a spike in a season of relatively depressed longballs; he has 20 more than Kyle Schwarber in second place. Only Ruth, swatting dingers before everyone else caught on to their majesty and efficacy, enjoyed greater cushions in his league-leading home run seasons. And while Judge’s doubles do little to move the needle on the many trackers his chase has inspired, they kept him atop all the Triple Crown categories. Baseball is an ecosystem that supports biodiversity — from burly, free-swinging power hitters to lithe speedsters and precise on-base machines. As a physical extreme, Judge should be good at one, while sacrificing the others. This season, he has challenged that assumption with a bold proposition: What if one body could be the best at all the things?

But thousands of phone cameras aren’t rolling every time Judge stands in the batter’s box to catch him flex his hitting fundamentals.

“The second double, I didn't know if it was foul. I didn’t hear any cheering so I didn’t know what was going on,” Judge said postgame. “Fans packed it out to see us win a ballgame and see some homers, so I think I gotta cut out this double stuff.”

A joke, of course. Judge has professed to care only for team wins and staying focused on the larger goal so often that he has gotten coy about the whole endeavor. The questions don’t sneak up on him anymore, either.

That singular storyline — seriously, two different Yankees hit grand slams in the past 10 innings and still the coverage will center on Judge — radiates through every play, imbuing the ebb and flow of game action with extra-communal stakes. Everyone is there to see the same thing, calculating the ramifications of each play in unison.

When Judge grounded out in the seventh on Wednesday, it seemed the chase had been put on ice for the night — not deflated, but merely delayed. Except then the Yankees sent more and more men to the plate in the bottom of the eighth en route to a 14-2 rout, and suddenly there was a game within the game: Would Judge bat again?

Anthony Rizzo predicted he would, telling Judge, “You better lock in.”

“He can see the future every now and then,” Judge said.

It’s absolutely absurd to expect a home run in any one at-bat ever. Even to hope it, when the game is on the line or history is at stake, is willful dereliction of any level of baseball understanding. Odds are, it’ll be an out. Judge beat those odds, anyway, walking on four pitches. Each ball eliciting heartier boos from the fans who saw their I-was-there-when story slipping away.

With 14 games to go, it seems almost a foregone conclusion that the home run will come. The big one, and then another, and maybe even some more. It won’t be a surprise, but it’ll be a shock, anyway. Isn’t that sort of funny? That we can see it coming makes the moment loom larger.