The Magical 61: A Number For Kings

61 years ago, in 1961, Roger Maris hit his 61st home run of the season. The feat has not been duplicated by a non-cheating player since.

Sometimes there is a poetry to baseball, and sometimes the poetry is based in numbers. There are symmetries and comparisons. There are equalities and tiny differences that are huge in the game. For six decades, plus a year, Roger Maris has held the home run record. That record is in danger of finally falling.

“What are you talking about?“ some of you are screaming. I know. I know. Mark McGuire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds all hit more than 61. So the answer is, “Sure. But how many of them did it the same way Maris did?” That number is “zero.”

The home run king was a hero in this country and around the world for a century. The all-time and the season kings were hoisted on our metaphorical shoulders. Names like Ruth, Gehrig, Robinson, Mantle, and Schmidt wore the crown of greatness every year…until the cartoonish summers of the steroid era. That’s when the stain on the game came: the bold proclamations of innocence as the drug tests came back positive and the apologists gasping and grasping for, “Well, everyone else is doing it.”

The men who hit those homers during the era of the stain are no more kings than any other pretenders to a throne. There is no pomp and circumstance when the arrive in a room. There are no tributes when another year passes. There is…nothing, except a feeble, “Well, everyone else was doing it.”

But now a behemoth of a man, a cross between Dave Winfield and Paul Bunyan, is on the precipice of real history: of being the first man in 61 years to hit 61 home runs…under the same playing conditions, more or less. And when he does, may we all celebrate the home run king again and the fun of seeing the ball fly out of the ballpark. May we celebrate the fun of 61 dingers, 61 taters, 61 moon balls, 61 hot shots, 61 blasts and 61 see…you…laters! May we celebrate a man in pinstripes finally tying the record of another pinstriper and may we remember how damned difficult it is to hit a baseball 330 feet. May we celebrate a freckled gap-toothed grin from one of the biggest, if not the biggest, kids to ever play the game.

Yes, Aaron Judge is one swing from tying what still should be the home run record and I pray he does. If nothing more than a screw you to the pretenders to the throne, it will give the next generation of fans someone to look up to. It will give those of us embittered by the steroid era a modern-day king to celebrate. And maybe…just maybe, some of those apologists will see the difference between their fraud of a hero and this great kid after he has just tied the record. And then they will look again after he breaks it. And maybe those apologists will say, “No one else has ever done this.”

And then, maybe, we can really put the steroid era behind us as we celebrate a new king, a hero, a man who has clubbed the most home runs in a major league season. And maybe then we can forget about those unworthy aspirants to the throne and let them fade away into an oblivion that includes no love and no hall of fame plaque. May we then be able to say for the first time since 1998, “There is a new home run king and his name is not Roger Maris. His name is Aaron Judge. Long live the king.”

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