It's hard to believe that it has been almost 20 years since Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa dazzled us all with their pursuit of Roger Maris' then-record 61-homer season from 1961. It was a time when baseball came back to the fans after the bitter 1994-lockout that canceled that season's World Series.
1998 was the pinnacle of the sport at that time. We had heroes. McGwire and Sosa were our heroes. The Yankees won a record 125 games, and baseball once again reminded us why it is and will always be our national pastime.
As we all know, some 19 to 20 years later, 1998 was just that a mirage. Allegations, followed by testimony, followed by one embarrassment after another proved that McGwire and Sosa, and soon Barry Bonds were all using steroids. The great home run seasons? The records? They all meant nothing.
In fact, Jose Canseco's proclamation that the majority of players were using steroids, disturbingly seemed more plausible by the day.
We'll never forget the grand jury hearings with McGwire and Sosa. No one will forget Rafael Palmeiro pointing his finger at congress, denying allegations that turned out true. We'll never forget Bonds denying and denying and denying he never juiced, and who will forget Roger Clemens and his snake oil-salesman lawyer when "the Rocket" was accused multiple times of drug use.
It was a time that left all of us baseball fans suspicious about what players were doing behind closed doors. Anytime someone started hitting home runs, the first guess would be that that person was on steroids. It was also a time that put Baseball Writers in a huge pickle that they still can't get out of when it comes to the Hall of Fame. Clemens, Bonds, McGwire, Sosa -- likely will never get into the hallowed Halls of Cooperstown because of steroids. If they ever do, it might be another 5 to 10 years from now.
Alex Rodriguez, who was the most recent steroid case, likely will face even greater scrutiny when his name comes up for the Hall of Fame in a few years. The allegations and reports will likely cost A-Rod any chances of getting in on his first ballot.
While some of the steroid noise has calmed down in recent years, we now have a young guy named Aaron Judge who is on pace to do something we haven't seen since the infamous steroid era, hit 60-plus homers.
Judge is having one of the best rookie seasons in Major League history. He leads the American League in runs scored, batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS and WAR. He also leads the AL in homers with 22. He is second in the AL in RBI with 49 and seventh in the league in hits with 75.
Judge is amazing. And according to Business Insider, Judge is on his way to 60 homers this season, the first time we have seen that since 2001 when Sosa hit 64 and Bonds hit the infamous 73. But if you believe that we now play in a clean era, perhaps Judge has a chance to become the true home run record breaker. Perhaps, and somewhat fitting, he gets a chance to tie and break Maris' record of 61.
We certainly haven't seen any Yankee come close to 60 homers in a given year since Maris, which makes Judge's pursuit even more fascinating. Even A-Rod's best homer season in 2002 produced only 57 homers while he was playing for Texas.
In recent years we have seen some players come close to the 60-homer plateau, only to fall just short. Ryan Howard hit 58 homers for the Phillies in 2006. Jose Bautista blasted 54 in 2010 for the Blue Jays. Rodriguez hit 54 in 2007 for the Yankees, and David "Big Papi" Ortiz hit 54 in 2006. The most recent 50-homer player was the Orioles' Chris Davis, who hit 53 in 2013.
So it isn't easy, and recent history suggests that Judge may fall short. But consider the ferocity in which this man is hitting the baseball, there is really no telling when Judge will cool down. Judge has been hitting consistently over .300 since April 28, and has not had a hitless streak longer than two games (May 21 and 22) during that stretch. He has also had 24 multi-hit games already this season, and the Yankees have played only 61 games!
A lot of hitters his size, which is 6-for-7, usually have a weak zone, sometimes up and in, sometimes down and away, and thus far, nobody has figured it out. He is hitting .409 on pitches inside and low, .524 on pitches middle-in, and .500 on pitches over the plate but outside. Yes, he has struggled a bit with pitches up-and-in, but his tremendous batting average everywhere else on the plate makes it very difficult for pitchers to locate properly on this guy. In short, there is nowhere, right now, to put the baseball.
What makes Judge's pursuit of certainly the greatest rookie season we have ever seen even more enjoyable is the fact we have not heard any steroid talk. No rumors. Nothing. This is a good thing. It shows how far we have come from the infamous steroid era of the late 90s'/early 00s. We no longer question. We no longer call for investigations. We just enjoy the ride while it lasts.