Sixty-one years ago when Roger Maris hit his 54th home run in the Yankees’ 140th game, he did so by driving a Tom Cheney pitch into the home bullpen in right field while in the middle of a Murderers’ Row.
Indeed, the blow that came on Sept. 6, 1961, in the fourth inning of an 8-0 victory over the Senators, was followed immediately by a walk to Mickey Mantle, a two-run homer by Johnny Blanchard, a single by Elston Howard and another two-run homer off the bat of Moose Skowron.
That was the way it was throughout the season in which the Bombers set a major league record with 240 home runs on their way to a 109-53 record followed by a five-game World Series victory over Cincinnati.
Throughout the franchise’s fabled history, there are 1961, 1927, 1998 and 1936. They represent the Mount Rushmore of Yankees seasons. This year is not those.
Six decades and a year later, Aaron Judge is chasing Maris’ American League record of 61 hitting at the top of an order that over recent weeks has resembled Skid Row. The lineup has been thinned by injuries and their aftereffects to Giancarlo Stanton, Anthony Rizzo, Matt Carpenter, DJ LeMahieu and Andrew Benintendi and further diluted by poor performance.
It’s a good thing batting averages don’t matter anymore, otherwise someone might be obligated to call attention to the fact that the batting order at the Stadium for Monday’s tilt against the Twins featured guys hitting .216, .219, .200, .176 and .200 … with numbers worse than that over the fortnight.
Nevertheless, Judge went deep for the third straight game, 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 patsies from Minnesota, against whom they have gone 112-39 (.742) — including the postseason — since 2002.
The blow was his 54th of the season in the Yankees’ 135th game. He’s ahead of Maris’ pace. Barry Bonds’ inauthentic record 73 from 2001 might even be in sight given Judge’s ferocious assault over the last couple of weeks in which No. 99 has hit eight home runs in 43 at-bats over 13 games.
He is Atlas with the world on his shoulders.
He won’t talk about it, though. He won’t talk about Maris. Won’t talk about the record. Won’t talk about 61 any more than he will talk about his contract and apparent upcoming free agency. He performs. Others marvel.
“I’ve got nothing for you,” Judge said when asked about Maris. “I just try to do whatever I can to help us win. I show up and am ready to go.”
The flow of home runs somehow seemed more organic when the Yankees were partying like ’61 during the first half of the season, when Stanton, Rizzo, Carpenter and LeMahieu were providing almost the kind of cover for Judge as Mantle did for Maris.
But now … there is for practical purposes not one Yankee in the order capable of providing cover. It does not seem to matter.
“If I do get something to hit, I’ve got to be ready,” said Judge, who was back in his usual No. 2 spot in the order, this time behind Gleyber Torres. “I like it when I have my boys hitting behind me, but if not, so what?
“You’ve got to show up when you’re in the top three in the order. You’ve got to post up 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 as a result of the pressure he bore as he chased down American icon Ruth’s iconic 60. Judge is having his cake and eating it, too.
What, Judge worry?
“It’s just not important to me,” said No. 99. “It’s important that we win. It’s important that we win the division. It’s not all about me, whether I go 0-for-4 or 4-for-4.
“The record is offseason talk.”
If Maris had handled the spotlight so well, maybe he’d have hit 70. But there were extenuating circumstances. He was chasing Ruth. He was battling favorite son Mantle through the summer. He was staring down a virtual asterisk.
Judge is operating with a clean slate. He is the favorite son as he tracks down history and No. 9.
“I am paying close attention [to the chase]. I love the history of the game,” manager Aaron Boone said. “He’s just so equipped for this. It’s a constant conversation and he’s equipped for all of it because he’s just so focused on winning and doing his job.”
One guy lost his hair and peace of mind in the chase. The other represents the epitome of peace and placidity. From No. 9 and Murderers’ Row to No. 99 and Skid Row.
“He’s equipped,” Boone said of Judge, “for whatever show you’re going to bring his way.”