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Home runs come easy to Yankees star Aaron Judge

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

It's not often the Red Sox will concede that the Yankees have a special player.

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ALEX CORA: Well, he's been amazing. He's been really good. With everything that is going on, what they doing in the division and all the contract stuff and the free agent, you know, he's locked in.

SUMMERS: That's what Red Sox manager Alex Cora said about Yankee slugger Aaron Judge. Judge hit his 57th home run of the season the other night against Boston, and he's got a chance to surpass one of the league's most cherished records. For more, let's bring in Washington Post national baseball writer Chelsea Janes. Hey, Chelsea, welcome back.

CHELSEA JANES: Thanks for having me.

SUMMERS: OK. So like I just mentioned, he just hit homer No. 57. Remind us about this record that he's chasing.

JANES: Well, it's a very complicated record. He is chasing the record for most home runs in a single season, which seems fairly straightforward. But the problem is that in the late '90s and early 2000s, that record was broken several times by people who have since been found to have been using steroids and, you know, in layman's terms, cheating. And so the record that he is close to is 61 home runs in a season, which is held by Roger Maris back from the early part of the 20th century. And that's the one that everyone says, this is clean. We know no one was cheating for this. But there are more on the horizon, including Barry Bonds, who hit 73 home runs. And so there's sort of this push and pull of which you believe is the real record. How much do you worry about cheating, and how far can Aaron Judge go through those numbers?

SUMMERS: OK. And I guess I have to ask, I mean, this is a record that is associated with the Yankees. So does that put more pressure on Aaron Judge to deliver?

JANES: I think so. I think that one of the things that people really can't imagine until they sort of see it firsthand is the difference in the pressure that you feel as a New York Yankee versus pretty much anywhere else in the baseball world and, you know, in a lot of places in sports. And the fans there know what they're talking about. They have a very low tolerance for being disappointed. And he has raised the bar. And so, you know, I think, you know, for him to do this, he's got to do it the right way. He's got to say all the right things. You know, you don't want to take down a legend's record in New York and do it in a way that is disrespectful. So he's walking a fine line and having an incredible season under really tremendous scrutiny.

SUMMERS: And we should just be clear here - Aaron Judge, as a player who is known for hitting a ton of home runs - back in 2017, he hit 52, last season, 39 - any sense of why he is having, frankly, such a breakout incredible year?

JANES: One reason is, you know, he's healthy. It's a long season, and in years past, he has not been able to stay healthy the whole time, which has limited his opportunities. From what I've heard from talking to people close to him, he's also just sort of matured. He's learned what to swing at, what not to swing at. He's been really patient. He hasn't really gone through any slumps this year, which is really rare for a baseball player. He's just sort of been able to cruise with his swing where he wants it. And I think sort of everything has come together at the perfect time for him. But, you know, more than anything, this is what this guy can do when he's healthy, and - knock on wood - he's been healthy.

SUMMERS: We've talked a lot about Aaron Judge. But I want to ask you, how's the team doing? How are the Yankees doing this year?

JANES: You know, they started off on a really historic pace. It looked like they were going to be one of the more dominant Yankee teams in history. And a large part of that was what Aaron Judge was doing. In August and in recent weeks, they've really fallen off the table. They've gone from chasing all-time win records to just trying to win their division and kind of skirt safely into the playoffs. And so they've got a lot of injured guys. They've kind of had a lot of things thrown their way, and they're kind of trying to hang on for dear life, which makes what Aaron Judge is doing all the more impressive because instead of having a lot of people around him and not having to carry the load, he's really had to carry the load, and not only hit home runs for the record but sort of do all this to help the team stay afloat. And somehow, he keeps doing it.

SUMMERS: That is Washington Post national baseball writer Chelsea Janes. Thank you so much for coming back and talking to us.

JANES: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Gus Contreras
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.