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Baseball should come clean for Roger Maris

Saturday marked the 50th anniversary of his record-setting 61st home run, a feat that wasn't appreciated in its time, and has been largely forgotten through the steroid era.

October 01, 2011|Bill Plaschke
  • Former Yankees slugger Roger Maris at Yankees Stadium in 1960.
Former Yankees slugger Roger Maris at Yankees Stadium in 1960. (Louis Requena / MLB Photos )

In a central Florida high school locker room, two sons are preaching.

Before every baseball season at St. Francis High in Gainesville, coaches Kevin and Randy Maris talk to their team about the evils of steroids.

Unspoken through their words, but clear in their voices, is the revulsion for the drugs that swallowed the legacy of their father.

"We talk to them about the damage," Randy Maris said.

In a North Dakota shopping mall, old neighbors are waiting.

In the town where Roger Maris grew up, his museum is located in a corner of Fargo's West Acres Shopping Center. It is next to a pet store and a health clinic. It is down the way from Sears.

It is a free display, the collection of Maris memorabilia sitting behind glass and seen daily by window shoppers eating corn dogs and toting JCPenney bags. The museum also has a tiny room showing an hourlong Maris video for fans who can sit in one of nine original Yankee Stadium seats.

One day, when people finally realize what they are seeing, maybe all nine seats will be regularly full.

"Usually there's about six or seven people in there, at most, but we do think interest is picking up," said Rusty Papachek, the mall's general manager. "We really hope people are starting to see Roger as baseball's true home-run champion."

On the first full day of the major league playoffs Saturday, a baseball world shrugged.

It was the 50th anniversary of The Shot Forgotten 'Round The World, a home run that nobody wanted Roger Maris to hit, a home run that nobody seems to remember, a record that has been lost under a pile of syringes and sleaze.

On Oct. 1, 1961, Maris, right fielder for the New York Yankees, hit his 61st home run and broke Babe Ruth's 34-year-old season record.

There were barely 23,000 fans in the Yankee Stadium stands. There was barely a buzz on the streets of a city where fans hoped the record would be broken by Maris' more gregarious teammate Mickey Mantle.

Baseball immediately slapped a figurative asterisk on the record because Maris had set the mark in a 162-game schedule while Ruth had completed it in 154 games. Never mind that Maris had hit the homers in fewer plate appearances. Never mind that the pressure of catching Ruth had caused Maris' blond hair to fall out in clumps.

After three decades of living with that qualifier, Maris' record disappeared in 1998 when it was eclipsed by the St. Louis Cardinals' Mark McGwire (70) and the Chicago Cubs' Sammy Sosa (66). Three years later, the record fell again, to the San Francisco Giants' Barry Bonds (73), the three Maris bashers sharing but one thing:

They have either been strongly suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs or actually admitted it.

Which today leaves Maris where, exactly?

Several years before his death from lymphatic cancer in 1985, the disillusioned slugger told reporters, "They acted as though I was doing something wrong, poisoning the record books or something. Do you know what I have to show for 61 home runs? Nothing. Exactly nothing."

On the weekend of the 50th anniversary of baseball's greatest forgotten feat, those words still ring true.

Maris should be considered the all-time home-run champ, but baseball officials can't simply change the record books, so he's not.

Maris could be in the Hall of Fame based on that season alone, but his career numbers don't meet Cooperstown's standards, so he's not.

Maris should have been honored and remembered on every field where they played major league baseball this weekend, but the entire extent of a memorial celebration occurred Saturday outside the fence that surrounds the footprint of the demolished old Yankee Stadium.

Andy Strasberg, a former baseball executive who is a close friend of the Maris family, gathered two buddies at the site and pointed his cellphone to the patch of grass that was once right field.

At exactly 2:43 p.m., the time of Maris' record-setting homer, Strasberg pushed a button on his phone and it played the radio call of Maris' blast.

"Some people were walking around looking at us, but we're the only ones who heard it," Strasberg said.

When he finished, Strasberg phoned Pat Maris, Roger's widow, and told her of the impromptu service.

"Pat said, 'Thanks for thinking of me,' " Strasberg said. "Can you imagine that? Their family is still thanking somebody for thinking of them?"

This is the Maris way; quiet, unassuming, grateful. This is, perhaps, also the Maris curse. The same quiet dignity with which Maris endured the most difficult record chase in baseball history is worn by his family in their mission to make their father remembered.

Such deportment often gains more respect than results, so throughout a baseball world that was forever changed by Roger Maris' presence, Saturday was nonetheless a day like any other day.

"We're not out there whining or griping," said Randy Maris, one of six Maris children. "We know the truth, and we just hope that everyone out there eventually knows it too."

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