Aaron Judge gets to be the phenomenon because he does his work in New York, in Yankees pinstripes. So he is larger than life, Brobdingnagian, instantly mythic. He’s the legend in his time, the millennial Babe Ruth. The surname lending itself to the puns and “All Rise” placards and to fans in black robes and powdered wigs — that doesn’t hurt.
It isn’t new, of course. The tale rings familiar in South Florida. The template, the original, has been playing for the Miami Marlins for (can you believe it?) eight years.
Pushed into the shadows by the onset of football, by the NBA’s headline-dominating summer and by his own team’s usual numbing mediocrity, Giancarlo Stanton is having one of the greatest seasons in Miami sports history. It is worth celebrating on its own merit and because the national credit given contemporaries like Mike Trout and Bryce Harper seldom finds Stanton. I’m not sure Stanton even gets the full embrace he should at Marlins Park, where the Fish open a six-game homestand on Friday night.
Stanton has many of the trappings of superstardom. The record contract. The towering homers that make crowds gasp. The first name of a long-maned character from a pulp romance novel. Countering that, though, he plays for a team missing the playoffs for a 14th consecutive season, in what nobody might call a hotbed baseball market. Neither is Stanton’s personality as big as his physical stature or the distance of his home runs. He does not exude bubbling joy the way Jose Fernandez used to.
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Yet his career is turning epic even if his persona falls short. Stanton is joining the highest company. Among home-grown, team-drafted pro athletes, only Dan Marino and Dwyane Wade had careers of greater accomplishment here. And Stanton — with 246 career home runs at age 27 entering Thursday’s game — is just coming into the meat of his prime. You’d find him on it if Cooperstown had a watch list. Five-hundred home runs seems reasonable if health allows — and maybe a short-sell. Consider: Among the all-time top-five career home run leaders, only Babe Ruth’s HRs-per-game percentage was higher than Stanton’s currently is.
That Stanton is having his best season — an MLB-leading 39 homers after Thursday’s game, on pace for 56 — is all the more remarkable in the context of his having been hit in the face by a fastball in the final days of the 2014 season. Stanton rarely speaks of this, but his fear and anxiety in entering a batter’s box early in 2015 were real, and nearly suffocating. Sometimes, he would be so distracted that the pitch popping into the catcher’s mitt would jar him — because he hadn’t realized the ball had even been thrown.
Luckily, Stanton survived that awful injury and its aftereffect to save his career and see it better than ever. He was an inch or so away on that teeth-shattering fastball from perhaps being Tony Conigliaro, who had surpassed 100 home runs by age 22 for the Red Sox in 1967 before being struck near the eye and missing all of ’68. By 1971, at age 26, “Tony C” was effectively done.
Stanton, just getting started, is on target to obliterate the Marlins’ long-standing season record of 42 homers set by Gary Sheffield in 1996, and his average HR distance of 417.29 feet is the longest by an MLB leader since the stat became official in 2013. Stanton also is on pace to challenge the Marlins’ season RBI mark of 121 set by Preston Wilson in 2000. Less known, Stanton has become an accomplished defender who leads all NL right fielders in putouts and range factor. Oh, and unacclaimed, his strikeout rate is at a career low.
League MVP? There is an argument. No chance if you consider only guys from contending teams, alas. But if MVP is an individual award — and isn’t it? — Stanton must be included high in the conversation. I’d remind that he was MVP runner-up in 2014, when he totaled 37 homers (a total already surpassed) for a team that had a .475 winning percentage to this year’s .473.
The question always looming over Stanton is the residue of the Jeffrey Loria ownership and why so many fans count days until it ends: When will he be traded?
This franchise’s track record makes many fans almost afraid to get too attached to Stanton, for the fear — the assumption — he’ll be gone in a salary dump. After all, didn’t Loria heavily backload Stanton’s contract to make him relatively cheap now but mega-costly down the road?
Stanton has a no-trade clause and can finish his career here if he wishes, but it’ll take commitment to make it happen. The Marlins must show him a pledge to build and spend so he doesn’t think the playoff drought will go on forever. The new owners, likely fronted by the Derek Jeter group, also must resolve to spend more than they’d like to honor Stanton’s escalating deal.
A commitment to Stanton would be such a sweet symbol of the coming ownership change. The new group will arrive as heroes merely by being anybody but Loria. Nothing though would start this franchise’s new chapter better than if those new owners made clear that Stanton is the cornerstone, isn’t going anywhere, and will retire with Miami.
Marlins fans, who have endured all manner of loss for too long a time, deserve that.