MILWAUKEE — The large crowd that passed on the weekly Friday fish fry at the local supper club Friday night came to see and cheer Aaron Judge, whose batting exploits had never before been viewed at this comely National League park in this wonderful Midwestern city. The fans could not possibly have been disappointed. Hardly anyone ever is.
Everyone knows he is threatening to break Roger Maris’ Yankees and American League home run record, and will likely get it. And now he is up to .311 and bidding to win a batting title while doing so. No one under 60 has ever seen a clean season like this. So they come out.
To a man, his teammates consider it a privilege to witness history, and be a small part of it. The fans just want to catch a glimpse of the five-tool-player closing in on 61 home runs, and 36,011 fans attended in one of the two smallest major league cities.
“He’s a special man, and it’s a special season,” Josh Donaldson said of Judge. “It’s one of the more special seasons in a long time, since the steroid era.”
Judge is a clean hero who’s about to be crowned, and folks want to bear witness. He has 57 homers, and as long as thrill-seeking pitchers continue to pitch to him, and they do thanks partly to manager Aaron Boone’s batting orders, he will top Maris. The march toward home run history appears almost inexorable now. We have seen that coming for weeks. The potential batting title feels like a nice bonus, and that could mean more history because if he gets there, that likely will give him the Triple Crown (he had a double-digit lead in RBIs as of Friday).
It’s one of those unreal seasons unfolding before our very eyes. Like Mickey Mantle in 1956. Or Yaz in that Impossible Dream season of 1967. Or Barry Bonds and his helpers any year in his late 30s.
Now that Judge is within four home runs of Maris, it’s an event, and that was the case in this great baseball city that was home for years to Hank Aaron, who like Maris was a true home run champion. Judge debuted in 2016, two years after the Yankees last came to the nicely-named American Family Insurance Field, befitting this Midwestern city which, as the slogan says, is a great place by a great lake.
They do appreciate greatness here, so they must like Boone’s Judge-centric lineups, which are specifically designed to get him as many at-bats as possible, and to entice the opposing manager to pitch to the man who continues to carry this first-place team and wrapped up the MVP weeks ago. So it was no surprise that the crowd booed when Brewers manager Craig Counsell, a local hero from Whitefish Bay, a quintessential Midwestern suburb 15 miles (and also 15 minutes) north of here, chose to become the 17th manager to intentionally walk Judge.
By that point, Judge, in his new leadoff spot, already had two hits, and had boosted a batting average that’s moving toward league leader Luis Arraez and threatening to take the Triple Crown. If he manages that, he’d be the first Yankee to do it since Mantle 1956.
And don’t put it past him.
Judge has been the best player in the league from Day One, and the crazy thing is, he’s getting better. He keeps proving new things along the way. He started as a power-hitting right fielder. Now he is a leadoff hitter. He has become a high average hitter. He owns this league now.
Everything to know about Aaron Judge and his chase for the home run record:
Judge entered the season as a productive albeit injury-prone slugger, and will exit as an all-everything superstar. The Yankees needed a center fielder, so he became a outstanding one. They needed a leader, and he has taken over, becoming a captain without the title.
As he has gone from the biggest star on a team of stars to the one healthy star carrying a team beset by injury, he remains the same guy. He desired to eschew distraction, and he is unflappable as ever.
“He hasn’t changed,” Donaldson said.
They need him at leadoff to prevent the savvy managers from walking him, and it has worked. He has been walked intentionally walked less than once a week, though it’s happening more frequently. Either times have changed, as Boone indicated, or the Yankees manager is outsmarting the opposition. By batting him first and putting the Yankees’ next best hitter second, whoever that is depending on health (for now it’s Giancarlo Stanton), he forces the other team to pitch to Judge.
Which is what the fans want to see. Fans reveled in his two early hits (there’s a strong Yankee contingent following now). And his mid-game strikeout courtesy of someone named Justin Topa drew cheers, too. Just seeing him do his thing enthralled them. Seeing him fail brings a thrill, too.
“I’ve ceased being amazed,” Boone said. “It’s a remarkable season by a remarkable player.”