As Aaron Judge inched closer to 62 home runs last week, a series of striking new rituals took shape at Yankee Stadium. At the games I attended, the more than 43,000 fans booed furiously each time a pitcher, any pitcher, threw Judge a pitch outside the strike zone. They audibly sighed when Judge managed only a single or a double. At one game, some even cheered on the hated Boston Red Sox, hoping they’d score enough runs to get Judge another at bat. The anticipation before each pitch was like nothing else I had ever witnessed, a collective longing for history on a mass scale. Once the ball left the pitcher’s hand, the crowd fell into a hush, as if they had been ushered, by accident, into a tennis match.
Judge will not set the single-season homer-run record — Barry Bonds, with 73, holds that safely — but he is vying to be the champion of those not tainted by the steroid era. For many fans, that makes Roger Maris’s mark of 61 the number to beat. On Wednesday, Judge matched Maris in Toronto; on Friday, he has another chance to reach 62 at Yankee Stadium.
Judge’s pursuit has been a pleasure to watch for baseball fans, but it has also been a boon for baseball — the sort of singular achievement that gets non-fans to pay attention. Ratings for the YES Network, the team-owned TV network, have surged to their highest point since Derek Jeter retired in 2014.
Jeter, the five-time World Series champ, was one of the last Yankees to enter the popular consciousness, thanks to his propensity for clutch moments, postseason theatrics, and serial hook-ups with A-listers. Jeter may have received outsize attention for being on the Yankees, but there were plenty of players of his generation who broke through to the broader American culture. Ken Griffey Jr., the swaggering Seattle Mariners center fielder, charmed millions with his backward ball cap, liquid batting stroke, and winning smile. Griffey was the face of a video-game franchise and made cameos on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and The Simpsons (along with other baseball players who were big enough names that a prime-time audience was expected to know who they were). And before they were embroiled in steroid scandals, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were two of the most popular athletes in America, headlining the summer of ’98 as they shattered Maris’s home-run record. Cal Ripken, Jr., Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Roger Clemens, and, relatively recently, David Ortiz were all either famous or infamous, lending at least some weight to the argument that baseball was the national pastime it aspires to be.
Of course, baseball hasn’t been the actual national pastime for quite a while; the NFL took that crown decades ago and has grown only more dominant over the past few years, despite all its well-known problems. The NBA, too, has long eclipsed MLB in terms of pop-culture awareness, though precipitous ratings declines may yet drive basketball from its perch. Baseball’s slow pace has gotten only slower in recent years (a problem the league is desperately trying to fix), and it’s been a tough fit for the social-media age.
Baseball in 2022 is best understood as a regional sport that is followed intensely in populous pockets of the country. Football may get bigger ratings, but New Yorkers will always be more invested in the fates of the Yankees and the Mets than the Giants and the Jets. Chicago still belongs to the Cubs, not the Bulls or the Bears. Boston is a Red Sox town. The Lakers and Dodgers share Los Angeles. In the Midwest beyond Chicagoland, it’s difficult to rival the devotion of St. Louis Cardinals fans.
But baseball is at its healthiest when its stars can cross over into the mainstream. The unrivaled best ballplayer of the 2010s was Mike Trout, the Los Angeles Angels outfielder who is, by any metric, one of the greatest to ever play the game. But Trout is mired on the West Coast and has never played in the World Series or even won a playoff game. He is also quite bland: a paragon of metronomic, if forgettable, consistency. Mostly devoid of flair or charisma, Trout’s one quirk is his fervent devotion to meteorology. In a previous era, Trout probably would have crossed over anyway, along with players like Mookie Betts, the exciting Dodgers superstar, the Mets ace Jacob DeGrom, and the Blue Jays’ Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
Right now, there’s still a void, and Judge can step into it. It must be acknowledged he is working against forces beyond his control. Mass fame, in the atomized 2020s, is far harder to achieve than it used to be, with manifold distractions and numerous silos for consumers to retreat into. Still, there are some elemental factors that make Judge a uniquely captivating superstar for baseball to rally around, the kind of player who can easily tug new fans into the sport.
It begins with the simple reality of the home run. As gaudy as Trout’s stats may be, he has never hit 50 homers in a season, let alone 60. Fans still love the long ball. And Judge is dominating, in equal measure, both the conventional and the advanced stats. Analytics-minded writers, analysts, and fans — I am certainly one of them — have spent decades demeaning batting average, but it is what many fans still want to believe in, the stuff that feeds imaginations. Judge is threatening to win the Triple Crown (most home runs, most runs batted in, and the highest batting average in the American League), an incredibly rare feat that’s only been pulled off once in the past 50 years. His on-base and slugging percentages are, by far, the highest in the league, and if he manages to finish with the best batting average, too, he will be one of a handful of ballplayers in the history of the game to lead the league in home runs and the so-called slash stats.
Beyond that, Judge is gigantic. He stands six-foot-seven and weighs 282 pounds yet plays the outfield like a man one hundred pounds lighter. He steals bases with ease. His throwing arm is astounding; he can, with little effort, flick perfect strikes from the warning track to second base. Of all the all-time greats, he probably most recalls Mickey Mantle, who won the Triple Crown in 1956 and became, for a certain slice of the postwar generation, an idol on par with any Beatle or Rolling Stone. Off the field, Judge is a devout Christian who married his high-school girlfriend and lets leak almost nothing about his personal life. He is something of a cipher, like the maniacally private Joe DiMaggio, but there is no dark edge to Judge’s personality. His teammates genuinely adore him. When the game is over, he just wants to be left alone. His swagger, if understated, is still evident.
It matters, too, that he’s crushing homers in New York, which is baseball’s de facto capital. The Angels’ Shohei Ohtani is a fabulous two-way phenom who is among the very best pitchers and hitters in the American League. His breakout appeal is limited, though, by his location and the fact that his team (despite his and Trout’s presence) is a perennial loser. If Ohtani lands in New York or Chicago or even moves to the neighboring Dodgers, that may change.
Judge can make his move right now. A deep run in the postseason for the Yankees will be a bonanza for MLB. Even better if Judge can patrol the outfield in the World Series, where he’s never been, pitted against the Dodgers or maybe the Mets. On that kind of stage, he would become the transcendent star baseball desperately craves. Judge could, perhaps, stand with Steph Curry and Patrick Maholmes as one of the most recognizable athletes — under the age of 35, at least — in America. For a sport chasing the fans of tomorrow, there’s no better opportunity.