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Opinion: Aaron Judge might break the true single-season home run record

Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees at bat against the Boston Red Sox during the fifth inning at Fenway Park on September 14, 2022 in Boston, Massachusetts.
Maddie Meyer
Getty Images
Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees at bat against the Boston Red Sox during the fifth inning at Fenway Park on September 14, 2022 in Boston, Massachusetts.

Aaron Judge looks like Paul Bunyan in Yankee pinstripes. He has shoulders like boulders, and when he hits home runs—and he has struck 57 this year—his bat looks light as a matchstick as he smacks a ball into the stands.

If Mr. Judge hits just five more home runs in the 18 games left in the regular season, he will reach 62. Many fans, including me, will consider this the real all-time single season home run record. Yet public attention to Aaron Judge's home run quest seems strangely muted.

Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa all hit more than 62, a generation ago. But we now know they did it with the help of performance enhancing drugs.

There is no reason whatsoever to suspect Aaron Judge has taken any banned substance. He seems a modest and appealing 30-year-old man, who was adopted as an infant and grew up in a small farming town. It's kind of a Superman story.

Aaron Judge hit 52 home runs in 2017, his rookie season, and seems to have been steadily working toward this mark. Yet many sports fans may be suspicious of anyone's new milestone.

This season, seven major league players have been suspended after random drug tests.

Some cases may make you roll your eyes. Pedro Severino of the Milwaukee Brewers had Clomiphene in his system, which can soften the side effects of steroids. But the drug is generally used to induce ovulation. You may wonder if the Brewers' catcher was trying to conceive a child, or conceal the use of steroids.

It has been 61 years since Roger Maris hit 61 home runs in 1961. Players are now multi-million-dollar enterprises who hire their own nutritionists, physicians, and trainers, and don't gorge, as Babe Ruth did, on hot dogs and beer. We should expect modern players, with their superior fitness and training, to smash longstanding records.

But one of the enduring effects of the drug scandals in sports is to make us wonder how much of what we see is for real. For every player caught by random tests, how many are missed? And how many great athletes, like Lance Armstrong at the Tour de France, may turn out to be accomplished cheats?

The use of drugs in sports seems to have made many fans mistrust some of the magic we see on the field. It is sad if the misdeeds of some of baseball's biggest frauds cast doubt on Aaron Judge's swing for the record books.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.