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Sixty-two Reasons to Smile

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Sixty-two Reasons to Smile

Aaron Judge and baseball’s not-yet-exhausted capacity to inspire October 11, 2022
Arts and Culture

It’s been said a thousand times that baseball is about failure. You want to know why Holden Caulfield, the American teenager par excellence, wears his hat turned around on his head like a catcher, cherishes his dead younger brother’s baseball mitt, and dreams of catching innocent kids before they fall off a cliff? Because life, like baseball, is a failure, until it is a success, and then it is a failure again, and so on—out of the cradle endlessly pitching, striking out, hitting and catching, until life fails, period. That’s why.

Until Aaron Judge hit his 62nd home run last Tuesday evening against the Texas Rangers, thereby breaking the American League home run record held since 1961 by another Yankee, Roger Maris, it didn’t seem like anything more could be said about baseball being the great metaphor for American life. But then Judge’s ball—hit at a velocity of 100.2 miles per hour, we were told by Statcast—sailed into the air. Metaphor beckoned, and you felt you had to try.

A Bronx kiss to the Texas Rangers, who kept their promise not to pitch around Judge as so many pitchers on other teams had during his path to Number 62, an embarrassing display of stinginess that was like putting an organic carrot in a bun and selling it as a hot dog. If those pitches made, as they did, Judge’s mother shake her head in frustration and indignation—a woman who, on the evidence of the cameras, has the eyes of someone who knows that love requires you to roll up your sleeves—then they should start impeaching pitchers.

Of course it’s nearly impossible for any single event in America to grab the collective attention anymore. Judge himself seemed to be vying with the conditions of contemporary American life as much as he was with the ghosts of Maris and Babe Ruth, whose American League record Maris had breached. There was the scrutiny. There was the pressure. (After Number 62, Judge said that hitting it was not a joy, an honor, or a thrill, but a “big relief.”) There were the layers of diagnosis and prognosis, and the involutions of Statcast gnosis.

Most of all, there were, in the stands, and on the giant stadium screens, not just his mother, his father, and his wife but also Maris’s three sons and daughter, on hand at different times. And during endless postgame interviews, in a rite that can seem like a crucifixion when the subject is a manager who has lost a game or a player whose talent is in jeopardy, Judge had to keep repeating how important it was for the team to win, how little the record mattered compared with the team’s success, and so on. You almost rolled your eyes at what seemed like the orchestrated suppression of ego—almost. But this guy seemed to mean it.

Fairy tales, from Peter Pan to Harry Potter, are often about kids who lost their parents or who don’t know their parents. Judge is a biracial kid who didn’t know and still doesn’t know, and says he has no use for knowing, his biological parents. He was adopted by Patty and Wayne Judge, both white, both public school teachers, who raised him and his brother, also adopted, in a town called Linden in Northern California. Shy, gigantic, awkward, guileless, Judge seems humbled by the enigma of his origins into the artless evasion of his vulnerable grin.

In The Brothers Karamazov—Dmitri to Ivan to Alyosha: Out!Father Zossima says that suffering is the inability to love. In the faces of Judge’s parents, though, and in the faces of the Marises, stricken by the possibility of their father’s precious record being broken yet moved by Judge’s gifts and grace—in these faces, there was no hint of suffering. Dante wrote of love as the unmoved mover of the universe. Is that the final force behind Judge’s velocity? Can Statcast puzzle it out?

After a few years in the minors and a few injuries, Judge made an inglorious start with the Yankees in 2016, a season cut short by an injury. It was in 2017 that he began to slug his way to national attention, and that was his best season until last year. That 2017 season was also the first and last time he took part in the Home Run Derby, winning it, but hurting his shoulder as a result. Achilles didn’t do exhibition boxing, did he? Bat after bat, season after season, you watched him get better, gradually learning not to swing at tempting outside pitches—outside pitches being, to the 6’7” Judge, what banks were to Willie Sutton. Pitchers were flattering his physical uniqueness—that reach!—in order to undermine it.

In Balzac’s novel, The Wild Ass’s Skin, the protagonist is given a magic shagreen that grants his every wish but shrinks each time a wish is fulfilled. Sluggers are like that—they strike out ten times for every home run. Some seasons, as the Yankees floundered and suffered outrageous defeats, you wished that Judge would be more like a Brett Gardner or Ronald Torreyes (both dearly missed), solid, reliable hitters who, like the humble infantryman, win games inch by inch, base by base.

But sluggers, like every human prodigiously original enough to affect history, endure their gifts as much as they revel in them. Judge made up for the agony he sometimes inflicted on his fans with the ecstasy of a throwing arm of precision and speed. And then, as if doubling his nature, this season Judge became one of the best run-producers in the game.

Through all the revolutionary changes taking place in America, touching the most fundamental and intimate sources of life, Judge made his way toward Number 62, and he did so through the similarly revolutionary changes that are arriving in baseball. Even as scouting reports and the most comprehensive examination of a hitter’s characteristics in the history of the game have made hitting the ball harder and harder, Judge hit the ball harder and harder. To add insult to the ever-present threat of injury, these days not only does Tommy John surgery extend a pitcher’s life, and in some cases enable him to throw faster, but doctors sometimes use a cord made of Kevlar to replace the damaged tendon.

The game itself tests the boundaries of democratic tolerance. The all-time home run champ, Barry Bonds, used steroids, but he maintains his rank in the record books. The Houston Astros cheated their way to victory in the 2017 World Series; they kept their title. In our atmosphere of unremitting public persecution of personal flaws, baseball wears its tolerance and forgiveness of corruption like a badge of redemption and second chances. It’s lousy, and it’s philosophical. The acceptance of gross imperfection acknowledges what we used to call human nature—before you needed a username and password to get access to it. If America were truly like baseball, then the revelation that in a grossly imperfect democracy people try to cheat in elections, as they always have, instead of inciting cries of an imminent fascist revolution, would cause a collective shrug and a Judge-like determination to push on.

But we live in a digital age where heightened senses become easily bored and can only be satisfied with more heightening. The greatest threat to American democracy is ennui, which makes hysteria a thrill. The slowest team sport there is, baseball throws into solitary relief each of its players, tells dozens of individual stories in the course of a game, the cascade of statistics and baseball lore recited by the broadcasters deepening the tale with explicating factors and forces that, at any moment, can be made irrelevant by one irreducible biographical act.

Inevitably, the game will be changed to make it go faster. But in September and into early October, Judge kept working, refusing to lose his temper when some cautious careerist pitched around him. He pushed through all the mega-distraction and mega-technology and mega-inanity masquerading as “news,” just a lone guy swinging a bat, a kid from Linden, California and the Bronx trying to ignore the sirens of money and fame and the hovering Furies of failure. For a few weeks in September, crowned by that soaring ball into the Texas sky last Tuesday night, you could almost think that everything was going to be okay.

Photo by Bailey Orr/Texas Rangers/Getty Images

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