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For Fans Who Should Know Better

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Mudville: November 30, 2022 1:46 pm PDT
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BY KEVIN KERNAN

Aaron Judge saved the Yankees’ season, but this story is about much more than setting a home run record and keeping it in the Yankee family.

In the end, the Aaron Judge Story is about family.

The Judge family, the Yankee family, the Maris family, the Steinbrenner family, the family of fans that unite baseball. This was the family reunion that baseball and the Yankees desperately needed. It was joyful and honest in every way and many people consider Judge the authentic single season home run champ with 62, not just the American League single season home run champion.

There is no way now the Yankees can let Aaron Judge walk away as a free agent. The first thing Hal Steinbrenner needs to do is visit with Judge during this down time before the ALDS, and offer a deal that keeps Judge in pinstripes the rest of his career.

In that way, the Yankees will go into the postseason with a singular purpose.

Be proactive. The Yankees and Hal Steinbrenner can make up for the contract mistakes that have been made throughout Judge’s career by the team, constantly undervaluing Judge, never offering him that long-term deal so many other star young players across the baseball universe received. At the 11th hour, the Yankees made an offer of a $213.5 million, seven-year extension.

Judge turned it down and bet on himself and hit the jackpot.

End all the free agent talk before the Yankees postseason begins in the ALDS.

Judge’s message is pretty simple. It’s not: “Look at me.’’ It’s “Look at us.”

The second thing Hal should do is give VP of amateur scouting Damon Oppenheimer a significant raise because it was Oppenheimer and his scouts who landed Judge, with the 32nd pick of the first round in 2013.

Judge has held up his end of the bargain with his incredible, nearly Triple Crown season – but also as the leader of these Yankees. The playoffs will be what the playoffs will be – but the Yankees need to take care of the most important member of their family; and in essence thereby take care of their devoted pinstriped fan base.

Too many crazy things have happened when a player hits free agency (witness Freddie Freeman jumping to the Dodgers) and the Yankees and Brian Cashman have been playing with fire all along the way, in this case.

The Yankees did not see Judge’s amazing potential from the beginning, as I did in 2015, as I wrote about last week, and that is mind boggling. In the end they didn’t trust the player because they were too in love with their process.

There are so many bad actors in baseball and the Yankees had, right in front of them, the real deal in every way and did not recognize it.

You can be sure his teammates recognized it. That’s why you never saw a happier bunch than the Yankees after Judge hit No. 62 on Tuesday night.

Family is at the center of it all. You can make baseball into a science project with all the launch angle, spin rate, exit velocity data you want; but in the end, the question is “does the team play like a family?” – and yes, the Bronx Zoo was a family, a dysfunctional family as Goose Gossage told me many times, but a family.

It’s the only way a team can come together to win a World Series and the Yankees have won only one World Series since 2000. When Roger Maris hit 61 in ‘61, the Yankees won it all that year, as they did in 1962. They would have won in 1960 too if not for Bill Mazeroski’s miracle home run. In 1960 and ’61 Roger Maris was the AL MVP. Judge will win that award this year.

Here at Baseball or Bust I’ve made clear the importance of family on the ballfield. It doesn’t just happen. You have to have all the right components and most of all, the right leader. The Yankees have that in Judge and that is because of his family.

Think about it, that Patty and Wayne Judge adopted Aaron at one day old in the same manner they adopted his older brother John, and all that is pretty much a miracle in itself.

This story could have turned out with a much different result.

ARLINGTON, TX - OCTOBER 4: Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees hits his 62nd home run of the season against the Texas Rangers during the first inning in game two of a double header at Globe Life Field on October 4, 2022 in Arlington, Texas. Judge has now set the American League record for home runs in a single season. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)

Patty and Wayne believed in family first and they raised Aaron to have the right moral compass to make him the natural leader of the Yankees, the head of their family.

Who knew that the baby who was born on April 26, 1992 and officially came into their lives the next day would break Roger Maris’ single-season AL home record and become the first player not linked to PEDs to break Maris’ 61 total, 61 years after Maris set the home run mark, breaking Babe Ruth’s magic mark of 60.

Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa all have steroid skeletons in their closets.

This entire story is the stuff of Hollywood as Judge has brought joy, emotion, and team back to a game that has been overtaken by individual numbers, algorithms, joyless front office robot creators, and MLB executives who have managed to mess up baseball, mostly by taking away the heart and soul of the game, to be replaced by cold numbers and legislative rules.

After Judge blasted No. 62 in the first inning Tuesday night at Globe Life Stadium in Arlington, Texas, the reaction of the fans and his teammates, and Judge’s professional and smiling trip around the bases, were spectacular. Notice there was no bat flip, no look at me moment, it was all about family and the Yankees were so happy as a team.

The Yankee family was there to greet him at home plate and every player, coach, and everyone associated with the Yankees was wearing a tremendous smile, and the value of that moment cannot be oversold.

Fate was in play that second game of a split doubleheader, of course. Here we were with Judge leading off against Texas’ Jesus Tinoco with the Yankees carrying a 99-61 record. At the end of the night, after No. 99’s 62nd home run, the Yankees record for the season was 99-62.

ARLINGTON, TX - OCTOBER 4: Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees rounds the bases after hitting his 62nd home run of the season against the Texas Rangers during the first inning in game two of a double header at Globe Life Field on October 4, 2022 in Arlington, Texas. Judge has now set the American League record for home runs in a single season. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)

The weight of Judge’s home run burden was felt by all the Yankees and that is because they care so deeply about Judge. I’ve seen it in the Yankees clubhouse and on the field. Judge commands respect because he gives respect. And the Yankees have grown closer as a result of this home run chase.

Pulling in the same direction means so much in baseball. You could almost see players like pitcher Gerrit Cole, who manages to get himself into trouble on the mound by overthinking, say, “If Aaron Judge can handle the pressure of 61, I can handle the pressure of what the game throws at me.’’

As an aside, thank goodness the Yankees did not stoop to the level of other teams and “let the kids have fun’’ with a goofy home run celebration. Imagine if Judge had to be pushed in some laundry cart 62 times like the last place Red Sox did with their home run hitters, or imagine if Judge had to wear an oversized football helmet as did the Marlins, or put on a skanky home run jacket like the Blue Jays.

There is something to be said for putting your head down and circling the bases like Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, and Roger Maris did. It’s a sign of dignity, something we lose a little bit more of each day in this world.

Judge also took off the pressure on the Maris Family.

Again, I have had many conversations with the Maris family since 1998 and I saw how excited they were back then when Big Mac took their father’s bat and said, “I touched Roger’s bat and held it to my heart.’’

All that became family frustration when the McGwire truths came out. In a way, the Marises were heartbroken. They had put their trust in Mark McGwire and were severely burned. He let them down.

Here we are, 24 years later, and the Maris family had to charge down the same path. They needed to have a player they could trust but they got that in Aaron Judge and the fact he’s a Yankee made it even better. You can see how Roger Maris Jr. bonded with Patty Judge during the chase.

I will go a step further and bring a little “Field of Dreams” into play here.

Aaron Judge was there to “ease his pain.’’

Ease the pain the Maris family felt after the McGwire fiasco.

ARLINGTON, TX - OCTOBER 4: Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees celebrates with teammates after hitting his 62nd home run of the season against the Texas Rangers during the first inning in game two of a double header at Globe Life Field on October 4, 2022 in Arlington, Texas. Judge has now set the American League record for home runs in a single season. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)

When I spoke to Kevin Maris in early September you knew he wanted his father’s 61 legacy to go on but if Judge were to break his father’s mark, the family would appreciate it being done by the classy Judge. Nothing can take away from Roger’s accomplishment, and the fact there were people rooting against him way back then made it that much more of a challenge.

The way Judge approached the Maris record, tied it and then naturally felt a little pressure and began to press a bit; he even slammed a helmet into the rack. That showed the pressure was mounting.

Judge brought new light and appreciation to Maris’ difficult ‘61 in ‘61’ journey and that was a wonderful thing – and all part of the process of having the Maris family at peace with Judge hitting 62 home runs. ‘62 in ‘22’ has a good ring to it, as Roger Maris Jr. noted.

Afterwards, Aaron Judge thanked God, his family, his wife, and the Maris family. They were not empty words. You could tell those words came from the heart of Aaron Judge.

Before we go any further, Bonds still has his record (although tainted); the single season mark of 73 home runs in 2001 belongs to Big Barry Bonds. The irony there is that Judge was nine years old and living in Northern California so like all the fans in the Giants fan base back then (and again, I was at those games at AT&T Park and saw how much the Giants fans embraced Bonds), young Aaron Judge appreciated the amazing ride to 73.

I am not a big believer in just throwing away records. I also believe that there were a lot of Bonds, McGwire, and Sosa fans who were in their baseball formative years back then and they fell in love with the sport because those suddenly bigger than they once were sluggers were knocking home runs all over the park.

So who are we to take that joy from those fans?

There is no doubt that Bonds got upset with all the accolades coming McGwire and Sosa’s way after the ’98 Great Home Run Chase and he suddenly went all in on his PED plan. Bonds was hitting home runs for himself, and they happened to benefit the team. Judge, on the other hand, clearly, in every at-bat, was hitting for his team; and that’s why he would take the walk or the single or the double – and to me, not even looking at the PED aspect, this makes Judge’s 62 that much more impressive.

Judge’s message is pretty simple. It’s not: “Look at me.’’

It’s: “Look at us.’’

(Photo by Cooper Neill/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

He wants the Yankees to succeed and now they have that postseason opportunity to build off an amazing individual accomplishment and make it a team accomplishment by winning a World Series. Other teams, including the pitching-rich Astros, do stand in their way – as Rob Manfred and his Merry Men have turned October into a March Madness run; more TV games, more money is the mantra.

Time will tell where the Yankees end up and BallNine will be watching carefully along the way; but certainly Aaron Judge has done everything in his power to bring this team together.

That it came with the exclamation point of 62 home runs makes it unforgettable.

If Aaron Judge gets the hit that gives the Yankees a World Championship, you can be sure even if it’s only a single and not a home run, you will see even more joy in his face, in that of  the Yankee family and of the Judge family.

In my lifetime, I’ve seen Maris break Ruth’s record (I was eight). I’ve seen McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds do their thing and grow to cartoonish proportions to set their marks; and now I’ve seen Judge, a giant of a man who carries himself softly, hit 62 home runs.

Here’s hoping 62 stands for 62 years … and the player who does come along to break it has as much class and as many family values as does Aaron Judge.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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