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Why Aaron Judge’s chase for 61 is deserving of our attention

By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist

Aaron Judge isn’t chasing 73. He isn’t chasing Barry Bonds, or Mark McGwire, or Sammy Sosa. He’s chasing Roger Maris, he’s chasing 61, and it is a weighty, worthy, feel-good chase.

Ask Judge himself and he’ll tell you he’s not chasing anyone, or anything, in particular, except an improvement in the recent form of a New York Yankees club that has plummeted over the past couple of months.

He says that because he’s supposed to say it and because it helps, too. He’s a team player with individual aspirations, and it doesn’t loosen the grasp of pressure to be chatting about statistics all the time.

“When you show up to work every single day with a plan and a mission to go out here and win the game, you don’t get caught up in individual numbers, good or bad,” Judge told reporters. “I’m not downplaying it, I just don’t like talking numbers. We can talk about numbers and all that kind of stuff when the season’s over with and we can review, but for right now, the most important thing for me is getting some wins.”

Judge’s surge to 51 home runs with 31 games remaining puts him on pace for 63 as of early Friday. That’s a mark that would, of course, slide above Maris’ haul from 1961, which stands as both a Yankees and an American League record.

[Aaron Judge Home Run Tracker: 11 Away From Breaking AL Record]

To many, it would establish him as the true all-time home run single-season champ, because of the steroid era curse that will always be attached to Bonds’ 73, McGwire’s 70 and Sosa’s 66, men far more deserving of an asterisk than Maris, whose tally was tagged because it came in a 162-game season whereas Babe Ruth’s 60 took only 154 games.

“Judge, like Maris, is doing it the old-fashioned way,” wrote Jon Heyman in the New York Post. “While batting in the two spots historically reserved for table-setters, and shuttling between right field and center, and by playing in the most publicized walk year and with the pressure of knowing he left $213.5 million on the table, Judge is putting together one of the greatest seasons of all time.”

One of the cruelest things in sports is for a fan to see something wonderful and be told later that it wasn’t real. That’s why it still hurts to talk about the time where PED use exploded. That’s why fans have never forgiven McGwire and Sosa – and Bonds especially. Because they made mouths drop in amazement but then left us all feeling cheated.

Judge’s trek toward immortality hasn’t transcended American sports and crept its way into the day-to-day obsessiveness of American life, because that’s not how baseball works anymore.

Gone are the days, long gone, if we’re being upfront about it, where such slow burns as a pennant race or a home run chase could transfix the country, even when it involves something as impressive as a mountain of a man smashing balls with spectacular force and majestic ease.

It is an other-worldly achievement regardless, and a real one, and it is special because of its comparison to what’s happening this year as much as it is to history. Judge has smacked it out of the park 15 more times than second place Kyle Schwarber, while operating in a league where everyone throws fire, where pitchers operate with fresher arms, there are fewer second and third looks, and the balls don’t trampoline off the bat in the same way they did for a couple of years.

The Yankees are no more loved outside their own fanbase than they ever were, although the Los Angeles Dodgers have perhaps surpassed them as the team everyone wants to beat and the Houston Astros gave neutrals an impeccable reason to dislike them.

The Yankees are still the Yankees – yet while the pinstriped slide in the back half of the season has been greeted with some glee, few have it in their hearts to wish ill upon Judge, a pro’s pro who backed himself contractually and has justified it even more deeply with every dynamic dinger.

If only Maris was afforded the same respect back in the day.

The New York media were a grizzled bunch who played favorites back then, sometimes spitefully. Their idea of the perfect record buster didn’t include Maris, the reserved man from North Dakota. They wanted Mickey Mantle; every boy’s hero, The Mick, the star – and they didn’t hide it. The story of how the stress made Maris’ hair fall out prematurely has become a woven part of the fable.

I’m not sure the argument needs to be had as to whether this makes Judge the all-time greatest, or not. Perhaps that is best saved for if, and when, he does get by Maris. That, in itself, will be no easy obstacle to surmount. Judge’s homers have often come in clusters this year, and everything might hinge on if he can time a run at just the right moment.

We know this much. Judge is going to get more focused the closer he gets to the target. He’s going to get paid handsomely, too, and probably by the Yankees, at season’s end. And he’s going to be the AL MVP ahead of Shohei Ohtani, if he keeps going at the pace he has been.

He’s brought some certainty to a timeless, yet unpredictable sport. He’s given the legacy of Maris, who died in 1985, an appropriate contender for its defining achievement. He’s defied logic but not science, and he’s offered himself up as a believable champion for baseball’s present age.

It’s hard to root for the Yankees – if you don’t, you probably never will. It’s not so difficult to make an exception for a single player who’s attempting something remarkable, though. Not so tough to hope he makes it, and surprisingly easy to say simply this: good luck.

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter at @MRogersFOX and subscribe to the daily newsletter.

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