Over the past half-century, how many young boys have daydreamed about stepping to the plate in the big leagues, taking a swing at a fat curveball, and breaking Roger Maris’s home run record?
That once seemingly unbreakable record, 61 home runs in a single season, has burrowed deeply into our culture, not just for the incredible achievement that it represented but also the cheap shots the Yankee outfielder endured in the course of setting it in 1961.
Indeed, even after it was officially shattered, Maris’s record retained its aura. Several players in baseball’s steroid era of the 1990s and early 2000s did record more home runs. But as evidence emerged that those feats were fueled by performance-enhancing drugs, they have faded in the popular imagination.
Thus the celebration for Aaron Judge, another Yankee outfielder, who on Tuesday blasted his 62d home run of the season.
Officially, Judge only broke Maris’s American League record. But in the record book of popular opinion — the records that fans respect, the records that Little Leaguers chase on their fields of dreams — he also became baseball’s all-time single season champion. Baseball now conducts steroid testing, lending confidence that Judge’s accomplishment is legit.
Strangely enough, it was Maris whose record was questioned at first. Not because of anything he did in the course of smashing Babe Ruth’s old mark of 60 home runs, but because his season lasted 162 games, instead of the 154 games played in Ruth’s era.
For a sport that cherishes its history so much, the reality is that baseball has changed its rules and practices so much over the centuries that comparing players from different eras will always be an imprecise exercise. But in breaking Maris’s 61-year-old record, without steroids, Judge has put down a new marker for future generations to dream of breaking.
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