By Frank Pingue
(Reuters) – New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge has captivated the baseball world as he blasts his way up the all-time single-season home run list and his power surge is welcome news for Major League Baseball after years of declining viewership.
Long touted as “America’s national pastime”, MLB has been struggling to appeal to younger fans due partly to the length of games and slow pace of play but Judge’s plate appearances have suddenly become appointment viewing.
So for the first time in a long while it appears all the stars are, for now, aligning in MLB’s favor thanks to Judge and his mighty swing.
“Not only is it just a great thing that’s happening but there’s other reasons that make it even better: it’s happening in the media capital of the world and it’s happening to a guy everybody likes,” said Bob Dorfman, sports marketing analyst at Pinnacle Advertising in San Francisco.
“There’s no real controversy around him, he’s a matinee idol, good looking, great personality, liked around the league.”
Baseball fans have long held a fascination with soaring home runs and the mighty men who hit them, a love affair launched by Yankees great Babe Ruth, whose towering drives changed the game forever and brought him the nickname of the Sultan of Swat.
Judge this week launched his 60th home run to move into a tie with Ruth for the eighth most in a single MLB season and one shy of tying the American League single-season record set in 1961 by Roger Maris.
The top six spots on the all-time list of single-season home runs are occupied by a trio of National League players — Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa — who were suspected of, or admitted to, using performance-enhancing drugs.
Bonds has admitted using steroids but said his trainer led him to believe he was taking flaxseed oil and arthritis cream. In January, Bonds missed out on gaining entry into the Baseball Hall of Fame in his 10th and final year on the ballot.
Although many baseball fans have taken issue with Bonds being regarded as the home run king, McGwire feels it will one day be a moot point as he expects that label to ultimately belong to Judge.
“I think he’ll finish with at least 65 home runs this year, and then position himself to hit, get to 73 to 74 in the next five to eight years,” McGwire, whose home run battle with Sosa in 1998 enthralled a nation, said in a USA Today report last week when Judge had 55 home runs on the season.
“I really believe he’ll have that opportunity. He’s going to get close to it, and say, ‘Where can I bunch in nine more homers?’ God willing that he stays healthy, he’s going to do that, too.”
Judge will get his next chance to draw level with Maris later on Thursday when New York open a four-game homestand against the Boston Red Sox.
As for breaking the single-season home run record of 73 that Bonds set in 2001, that will be a tall order this year as Judge would need 14 homers over the Yankees’ final 14 games but the interest in the chase should thrill MLB nonetheless.
“It you remember those ads when McGwire and Sosa were battling it out – ‘Chicks dig the long ball’, well Major League Baseball executives dig the long ball too,” said Dorfman.
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto, editing by Ed Osmond)