Maris sons watch with mixed feelings

Monday, September 7, 1998

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

maris sons
Roger Maris Jr., right, sits with his brothers Randy, Kevin and Rich at Sunday's Cardinals game. Roger is holding the bat their father used to hit his 61st HR.
(AP photo)
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ST. LOUIS -- Roger Maris Jr. will miss having the home run record in the family, but his greatest regret may be the reception his father never had.

He has watched the nation embrace the exploits of Mark McGwire, and he wonders why it was so different for his dad. He wonders why an achievement that was once considered sacrilege is now being celebrated like the liberation of Paris. He wishes his dad could have lived to see this day, or had once been the object of so much adulation.

He is resigned that his father's record is about to fall. He is not yet at peace with perceptions.

"If you are Roger Maris Jr., you are going to wish that your dad could have got what Mark McGwire and the rest of these guys are getting," Maris' eldest son said Sunday evening at Busch Stadium. "And that is the energy and the love the people are throwing at him -- not just in baseball, in America.

"Everyone knows who Mark McGwire is. Everyone is pulling for Mark McGwire, and they want to see him do this, and I think that would be just an outstanding feeling for my father. And, yeah, I wish that would have happened for him."

Roger Maris has held baseball's single-season home run record for 37 seasons -- three years longer than did Babe Ruth -- but even now his acceptance is incomplete. When Maris surpassed Ruth's record in 1961, then-Commissioner Ford Frick decreed that the record would not be recognized as definitive because Maris' mark was set in a162-game season instead of the 1927 standard of 154 games.

For the sake of headline writers, if not historical accuracy, Frick's narrow distinction became known as the "asterisk." It helped perpetuate the notion that Maris was not quite worthy of succeeding Ruth, and served to taint the reputation and sour the disposition of a fine player who never sought much more than privacy.

"We grow comfortable with records," Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig said Sunday. "And while we all say very easily that records are made to be broken, there are some records, when they are broken, that bother people."

Long before he died in 1985, Roger Maris had become one of baseball's most tragic figures. His greatest triumph was trivialized by Frick's technicality, and his subsequent inability to approach his 1961 numbers made his lasting fame seem almost a fluke. Except for Pete Rose, he may be the most notable omission from baseball's Hall of Fame.

It was Maris' misfortune to chase Ruth's record while playing beside the more glamorous Mickey Mantle, in the ballpark Ruth had made possible, for the franchise Ruth had made famous. Though he was twice the American League's Most Valuable Player, Maris was never the favorite of Yankee fans, and was ultimately their scapegoat when he hurt his hand and lost his power.

Watching McGwire's failed attempt at No. 61 Sunday at Busch Stadium, Maris' four sons were struck by the outpouring of affection from the spectators. When Reds starter Brett Tomko walked McGwire in the fourth inning on four pitches, each ball was booed as an act of abject cowardice. When McGwire lined a long drive barely foul on the first pitch of the sixth inning, the collective groan could be heard in Illinois.

"Actually, I had a reporter sitting next to me when he swung, so I really didn't see it," Roger Maris Jr. said. "He hit it and everyone went, "Rah, rah,' and I looked up like, "Where is it?' Then I saw it kind of peeling off in the left-field corner.

"How did I feel? I really didn't get a chance to feel anything because it happened so quick . . . . Although I know (the record) is right on the verge of being broken, it really hasn't set in yet. I don't know how I am going to feel. It is kind of a numb feeling. You are kind of in a dream living this whole thing out."

The Maris brothers -- Roger Jr., Kevin (the crewcut image of his father), Randy and Richard -- attended Sunday's game as guests of major league baseball. Their mother, Patricia, was unable to attend because she was hospitalized Sunday morning after experiencing heart irregularities on the flight to St. Louis.

The brothers were not sure how long they would follow McGwire's chase.

But they are baseball fans. Earlier this summer, Kevin and Richard traveled from their home in Gainesville, Fla., to Atlanta to check out the guy chasing their dad's record. They were unable to find a single reason to dislike Mark McGwire.

"Mike Shannon (the Cardinals broadcaster) asked if we wanted to meet him," Richard Maris said. "The obvious answer to that was, "Hell, yes.' We didn't talk baseball. We didn't talk about my dad. We didn't talk about records. We talked about golf, and where he grew up.

"He's like a big kid. He's All-American. You cut him open and he's red, white and blue."

Richard Maris said his dad would have liked Mark McGwire, and this is easily understood. The man who reaches 60 homers has only so many people he can relate to.

Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your e-mail at tsullivan@enquirer.com

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