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Nightengale: Aaron Judge at 50 is a Worthy Rookie Home Run King

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New York Yankees' Aaron Judge watches his three-run home run against the Seattle Mariner during the fifth inning of a baseball game Friday, July 21, 2017, in Seattle. Photo: AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

Finally, for the first time in more than a half-century, we have a home run record we can truly celebrate.

Aaron Judge, one of the most likable, genuine, young athletes in sports, set a major league record Monday afternoon by becoming the first rookie in history to hit 50 home runs in a season.

The record no longer belongs to Mark McGwire, who hit 49 home runs for the Oakland Athletics in 1987, then decades later saw his steroid use come to light.

It belongs to Judge, and for that, we can celebrate for the first time since Roger Maris hit 61 home runs in 1961, breaking Babe Ruth’s record.

Sure, to be honest, Major League Baseball widely celebrated the night of Sept. 8, 1998, when McGwire hit his 62nd home run of the year, eclipsing Maris, at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. He crossed home plate, lifted his son Matthew high in the air, walked over to the stands, hugged the Maris family, and America ate it up.

There were suspicions the record was tainted, with he and Sammy Sosa waging a dynamic home-run race, but there were only whispers. No one wanted to believe McGwire was in the heart of the steroid era until he confessed himself on national TV, years after he was undressed by a congressional committee.

This rookie home run record isn’t nearly as famous. It wasn’t as if 49 was a household number, even if McGwire famously skipped a chance to hit 50 to witness Matthew’s birth.

If Miami Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton, with 57 homers, reaches 62 homers by the end of the year, his feat will be much more renowned. It will be the most by any hitter not linked to performance-enhancing drugs since Maris.

Yet, no matter how you want to slice it, and no matter how much anyone will want to argue, it still won’t be a record.

The single-season home run record is 73 set by Barry Bonds in 2001. McGwire has the second-most with 70. Sosa is third with 66.

If Stanton hits 62 home runs, he’ll have the seventh-most homers in a single-season.

A tremendous accomplishment. A fabulous season. But no record.

Bonds’ record will stand until someone hits 74 homers one day, perhaps lasting even longer than Maris’ mark that stood for 37 hears, or Ruth’s that lasted 34 years.

This isn’t the Olympics. No one can ever strip away Bonds’ record. There are no NCAA officials to vacate home-run totals. Bonds may have been juiced, but so was nearly half of the game. He was hitting homers off dozens of pitchers using performance-enhancing drugs, too.

But this one by Judge, in this era of rigorous if not bulletproof drug testing, now this is a record.

Someone will beat it one day, maybe soon considering this day and age of juiced balls, information-hungry hitters and smaller ballparks, but no one can ever diminish it.

He joins Ruth, Mickey Mantle and Alex Rodriguez as the only players in Yankee history to hit 50 homers in a season; it’s the second-highest homer total by a right-handed hitter in franchise history.

The Yankees, who clinched a playoff berth over the weekend, spent the postgame lauding Judge’s accomplishments, even campaigning for him to win the American League MVP award over Jose Altuve of the Houston Astros.

The only one who refused to pay attention was the guy who was embarrassed to even take a curtain call, the first of his career.

“I don’t know, I really haven’t thought about that,’’ Judge said of his MVP chances. “I don’t try to think about that, especially with what this team has got going on with this playoff push.

“I’d rather be in a good position in the playoffs and holding up a World Series trophy than holding up an MVP trophy.’’

And to anyone who has ever met Judge, the gentle giant at 6-foot-7, 285 pounds, they know he’s sincere about every word that comes out of his mouth.

You want to know where those record home-run record balls, No. 49 and No. 50, are headed now that the Yankees retrieved them for Judge?

“I’ll give them to my parents,’’ said Judge, who grew up in tiny Linden, Calif., “especially with all of the sacrifices they made for me over the last 25 years.’’

You want to know what he actually thought when he hit No. 50, setting the record at Yankee Stadium?

“I can’t thank my teammates enough,’’ he said, “and this organization for putting me in this position. It’s an incredible feeling.’’

You want to know what he was thinking just before he crossed home plate, pointing towards the sky?

“The Lord,’’ Judge says. “He put me in this position. He blessed me with so many opportunities in my life. Just a quick moment to thank him.’’

This is Judge, beloved as any young star in New York since the days of Derek Jeter.

He treated everyone the exact same as when he showed up to spring training as a long-shot to make the team, to commanding the game’s attention with his monstrous first half, to winning the All-Star Home Run Derby, to his ugly struggles in August, to hitting 13 home runs alone in September.

“To put on the pinstripes,’’ Judge says, “it’s extraordinary. Just being able to play one game with the Yankees is quite an honor.’’

The real honor is that we now have a home run hero again, breaking a record that we can all celebrate, wishing one day that he spends a magical season without ever going into a home-run funk.

The year he hits 74 home runs.

By Bob Nightengale

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook

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