(AP) — Aaron Judge had gone seven games since his last home run, 34 plate appearances of fans quieting to a hush and snapping photos with every pitch.
Then with the score tied in the seventh inning on Wednesday night, he drove a 94.5 mph belt-high sinker to left, a no doubt rocket. He had tied Roger Maris’ American League record of 61 home runs in a season, what many fans consider baseball’s “clean” standard for the sport.
Judge’s two-run homer lifted the Yankees to an 8-3 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays and brought relief to the 6-foot-7 slugger, who admitted having to try to block out distraction.
“Getting a chance to sit at 60 for a while there with the Babe was nice,” he said, “but getting a chance to now sit at 61 with another Yankee right fielder that hit 61 home runs and MVPs, world champions, this is pretty cool.”
Judge has seven games to break the record, starting with a series opener against Baltimore at Yankee Stadium on Friday night.
His 117.4 mph drive off left-hander Tim Mayza (8-1) snapped a 3-3 tie and took just 3.8 seconds to land 394 feet from the plate. Judge watched the ball clank off the front of the stands, just below two fans who reached over a railing and tried for a catch. He pumped an arm just before reaching first and exchanged a slap with coach Travis Chapman.
“Definitely some relief getting to 61. You try not to think about it, but it creeps into your head,” Judge said. “I was hoping it would get over the fence. I didn’t know at first. I didn’t want to be standing at home plate when it hits the wall.”
The ball dropped into Toronto’s bullpen and was picked up by Blue Jays bullpen coach Matt Buschmann. He and Toronto closer Jordan Romano held onto the ball before turning it over to Yankees reliever Zack Britton, who made sure it got to Judge.
“We just wanted to get it in the right hands,” Romano said, prompting Judge to call it ”a classy move.”
Judge’s mother Patty and Roger Maris Jr. rose and hugged from front-row seats. Judge appeared to point toward them after rounding second base.
“She’s been with me through it all, that’s for sure,” Judge said. “From the Little League days, from getting me ready for school, taking me to my first couple of practices and games, being there for my first professional game, being there for my debut, and then now getting the chance to be here for this, this is so special. We’re not done yet.”
Judge was congratulated by the entire Yankees team, who gave him hugs after he crossed the plate.
“He’s as beloved as they come,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “I think everyone is just so excited for him.”
Judge moved past the 60 home runs Babe Ruth hit in 1927, which had stood as the major league mark until Maris broke it in 1961. All three stars reached those huge numbers playing for the Yankees.
Maris hit No. 61 for the Yankees on Oct. 1, 1961, against Boston pitcher Tracy Stallard. Maris’ mark has been exceeded six times, but all have been tainted by the stench of steroids. Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs in 1998 and 65 the following year, and Bonds topped him with 73 in 2001. Sammy Sosa had 66, 65 and 63 during a four-season span starting in 1998.
“He should be revered for being the actual single-season home run champ. That’s really who he is if hits 62,” Maris Jr. said. “I think baseball needs to look at the records. And I think baseball should do something.”
Judge is hitting .313 with 130 RBIs, also the top totals in the AL. He has a chance to become the first AL Triple Crown winner since Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera in 2012.
“It’s tough at times at Yankee Stadium, for sure, when you got 45,000 standing on their feet for every pitch,” Judge said. “You hear the noise. You hear the buzz. But when I step out on that field, when I step in the box, all the hype, all the noise, it goes aside and you got to focus on competing.”
He became just the fifth player to hold a share of the AL season record. Nap Lajoie hit 14 in the AL’s first season as a major league in 1901, and Philadelphia Athletics teammate Socks Seabold had 16 the next year, a mark that stood until Babe Ruth hit 29 in 1919. Ruth set the record four times in all, with 54 in 1920, 59 in 1921 and 60 in 1927, a mark that stood until Maris’ 61 in 1961.
Maris was at 35 in July 1961 during the first season each team’s schedule increased from 154 games to 162, and baseball Commissioner Ford Frick ruled if anyone topped Ruth in more than 154 games “there would have to be some distinctive mark in the record books to show that Babe Ruth’s record was set under a 154-game schedule.”
That “distinctive mark” became known as an “asterisk” and it remained until Sept. 4, 1991, when a committee on statistical accuracy chaired by Commissioner Fay Vincent voted unanimously to recognize Maris as the record holder.
After the game, plate umpire Brian O’Nora presented Judge with the lineup card. Judge isn’t sure what he will give the Hall of Fame.
“They took my home run bat from my first game and I went in a massive slump after that,” he said, “so I don’t know if I’ll be giving them anything just yet.”
Judge and Maris Jr. met for the first time outside the Yankees clubhouse following the game. Maris Jr. has attended every game since Judge hit No. 60 on Sept. 20.
“It’s the ninth day I’ve been here,” Maris Jr. said. “He wears 99. Dad wears 9. It’s just kind of weird the way it all kind of went together. So now I’m thinking, OK, we’re going to go to Yankee Stadium and he’ll probably hit 62 on Oct. 1, when dad hit his 61st.”