Aaron Judge hit his 62nd home run of the Major League Baseball season on Tuesday, Oct. 4, driving a slider from pitcher Jesus Tinoco 391 feet just over the left field wall at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas. The Yankees outfielder grinned as he rounded the bases. The crowd exploded with euphoria. It’s not every day you see baseball history at the ballpark.
Judge’s home run was anticipated breathlessly by the sports media. It felt like it took forever for Judge, the league’s far-and-away home run king, to hit number 61 to tie Yankees legend Roger Maris on Sept. 28 and then to break the record on Oct. 4. Why the media hoopla? It’s technically not the Major League record. Well, it’s the Yankees record—yes. It’s also the American League record—yes.
But Judge is also the first player to hit 62 home runs in a season without the aid of banned steroids. His blast is a reminder that baseball is still crawling out of one of its darkest eras, and an opportunity for some catharsis.
The steroid era of baseball defined my childhood. It was a batter’s game, though it’s true that many pitchers were using, too. Baseball thrived as the biggest guys on the field became the biggest names in the sport. Growing up a Yankees fan has so many privileges, but it also had let-downs. For every slim and nimble Derek Jeter, there was a player who looked like Jason Giambi, a man of impossible bulk, whose neck looked larger than his head. Even a checked swing could send the baseball soaring.
The biggest of the big hitters of the steroid era were Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa. In the record books, each of these men has more home runs in a single season than Judge, but none did it honestly. They did it using performance-enhancing drugs, or PEDs, something the MLB has worked hard to rid from its game in the decades since. But while these men will never see Cooperstown, the Baseball Hall of Fame, because sportswriters wouldn’t vote for them, the league has not purged their names from the record books. Their dishonesty, which showed contempt for the game above all else, is a black mark on baseball’s history as America’s pastime.
Baseball is a game of statistics and, as such, a game of counterfactuals. What if the league was never segregated? What if players throughout the ages didn’t use various drugs to get ahead? How do you judge history when the balls change, the bats change, the stadiums change, the climate changes, the league changes? How do you judge history against itself?
The steroid era nearly broke baseball. The Mitchell Report ruined my childhood heroes: suddenly Roger Clemens didn’t stand so tall on the mound. When the icons of my youth were named in the Mitchell Report, a 2007 congressional investigation into the use of steroids and human growth hormone in the league, baseball couldn’t turn back.
In the years since, the MLB instituted a stricter drug-testing program that largely cleaned up the game. But players still broke the rules and got caught, including the remarkable and complicated Alex Rodriguez, another Yankee favorite of mine, who was suspended for the entire 2014 season after admitting to using banned substances.
The MLB is ostensibly out of its steroid years, but these heartbreaks still happen: This year Padres shortstop Fernado Tatis Jr., one of the brightest young players in the league, was suspended 80 games for using a PED called Clostebol. Tatis was for many fans the face of baseball. Now, he’ll always have an asterisk next to his achievements.
“This is judgement day!” Yankees radio announcer John Sterling said as Judge crossed home plate and celebrated with teammates. “Case closed”
Judge did it cleanly. Without super-powers or potions or even braggadocio. In interviews, Judge speaks about winning games—not breaking records or his upcoming contract negotiations or his MVP year or his Triple Crown race.
Judge’s home run shows that after years of controversy and cheating, sometimes a honest day’s work is enough. Sometimes good guys win. Cheaters be damned. Judge is the single-season home run king.