So now, and by a lot, Giancarlo Stanton is the home run hitter to talk about in a home run season for baseball. He had 18 homers in August and 30 in the 51 games since the halfway point in the season. Now Giancarlo Stanton of the Marlins is the one who is about to make 60 and 61 magic home run numbers again in baseball, the way they used to be before the asterisk era. All the way through the T-Mobile Home Run Derby at the All-Star Game, we talked about Aaron Judge and his home runs. Now Stanton has turned the whole sport into a Home Run Derby.
"It's been fun," his manager Don Mattingly said from Washington on Wednesday morning. "No, check that: It's been amazing. There are two types of home runs, in my opinion. They're the kind I used to hit. Those fall into the category of, 'Is that gonna go?' And then after the ball clears the fence it's, like, 'Oh yeah, it got out.' And then there's the kind [Stanton] hits. The only question with them, in his category, is how far they're gonna go."
"I know there are people who say the ball is juiced now," he said. "Whatever. Say they're right. All that would mean with Giancarlo is that his balls might only go 450 [feet] instead of 470."
Then Don Mattingly, once considered the best player in the game before his back betrayed him, one of the best hitting coaches in the game before he became a good enough manager to have this Marlins team hanging around .500, said this:
"There's hot in baseball. And then there's what we've been watching with this guy."
It was Judge who absolutely was the slugger everybody wanted to see, to talk about, all the way through that Home Run Derby at Marlins Park. But now Judge has faded, and the story of the end of the baseball summer is Stanton. He is the one who hits baseballs out of sight. He is the one who makes big-league ballparks look like the Little League field in your town, or mine. Finally, he has a season that is as big as that $325 million contract on which he is working, one even as big as the rumors that the Marlins might actually try to move him this winter once Derek Jeter is in charge of the baseball operation.
This is something out of the past, the baseball summer of 1961, when Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle chased 60, which had first become a magic number when Babe Ruth hit 60 in 1927, and Maris finally got to 61. But here is the thing: As far as Stanton hits them and as often as he hits them these days, the only thing he cannot do is hit his way to October.
Unless the Marlins get even hotter than he has been, and unless all the teams in front of them in the NL Wild Card race start falling away, when this season ends Stanton will have played nearly 1,000 games in his MLB career without getting a single swing in the postseason.
And the person who understands this as well as Stanton is his manager, Mr. Mattingly, who is the greatest Yankee to never play in a World Series; who didn't get his first at-bat in the postseason until Game 1 of an AL Division Series against the Seattle Mariners in 1995. The Yankees and Mariners played a memorable five-game series that year, one of the best first-round series of all time, one the Mariners finally won when Edgar Martinez knocked in Junior Griffey with the winning run in Game 5.
Game 5, as it turned out, would be the last game of baseball Mattingly played in the big leagues. He was 34 years old. But when he finally did get his shot at October, he hit .417, with 10 hits and a home run and six RBIs, and was the best player on the field. When Mattingly finally did get his shot at October, he made the most of it, after 1,785 games in the Major Leagues.
"Listen," Mattingly said. "I know as well as anyone that you can only control what you can control. I'm not going to speak for [Stanton], but obviously he wants to play in a winning situation, which means a postseason situation, just because everybody does. But the one thing I tell myself when I look at his situation is that he's in the prime of his career. He's always taken care of himself. I know he's had injuries, but he's always in shape. I mean look at him. He's always carved up.
"Basically what I'm saying is that he's still just 27 years old, and there's obviously a lot left in the tank. If the early part of his deal wasn't the way he would have liked it, believe me there's a lot of story left with this guy."
Then I asked Mattingly about himself, and his own star-crossed career with the Yankees, and not just because of the way a bad back eventually stole the whip and magic from his swing. He talked about how the Yanks won 97 games in 1985 and missed the postseason. And we both talked about 1994, the best Yankee team on which he played, one that seemed to be destined to play the Montreal Expos in the World Series that year, before the season ended in August, and there was no World Series, because of the ugliest labor fight of them all.
In a quiet voice Mattingly said, "You just wanna get there. To October, I mean. You wanna get there and you wanna see how you're gonna react. There are never any guarantees about timing in your life. You never know where life, or your career, is going to take you. But there's a part of you that always knows that if you never do get the chance at the postseason that it's going to be painful.
"That was it. I had to know about myself. I had to know if I'd be able to step up. I knew I could handle pressure, but I wanted to see if I could handle that kind of pressure. Would I have the right focus? Would I be able to have that focus every single time at-bat. Would I have an understanding of what it took to be the kind of hitter I'd been at my best when my team needed me to be that kind of hitter in games that mattered like those games did."
There was a long pause and then Don Mattingly said, "Listen, I know there's a lot of guys who never got a shot. At least I got mine."
Someday Stanton, who hits the kind of shots he does these days, will get his. You just wonder where. And if it is in Miami, if next year finally arrives for him the way it did for Donnie Baseball, you hope that the manager he has now is still around to see it. Maybe they can make a World Series together.