Maris family hoping for Hall call
Roger Maris died in 1985, never coming close to election to the Hall of Fame
Maris set a record with 61 home runs in 1961; that mark stood for 37 years
Mark McGwire broke the record in 1998, but recently admitted using steroids
Interest in the Roger Maris Museum, located in a hallway between the Spencer Gifts and the Nails Pro in the West Acres mall in Fargo, N.Dak., has this week been unusually strong. "We get a lot of walkers out there, and sometimes they walk by and only glance at it," says Jim McLaughlin, 84, who in 1984 co-founded the museum, which features 72 feet of memorabilia-filled display cases and a video room devoted to the accomplishments of one of his state's most favorite of sons. "The last couple of days, though, they've come in and really looked at what he did. It's been a little hectic."
"Hectic," of course, might mean something different in North Dakota than it does elsewhere. But one result of Mark McGwire's admission on Monday of that which we already knew -- that he used steroids before, during and after the 1998 season in which he hit a record-setting 70 home runs -- is that it has once again put into the national spotlight on the name of Roger Maris, whose hallowed 37-year-old single-season record of 61 homers McGwire broke. In fact, on Monday morning, about an hour before he began his day-long apology tour, McGwire called Maris's widow, Pat -- who lost her husband to Hodgkin's lymphoma in 1985, too young at the age of 51 -- to warn her of what was coming.
"She had no idea he was going to call," says Kevin Maris, 49, the third of the six Maris children, who was reached on the phone by SI.com on Wednesday afternoon as he oversaw practice for the baseball team of St. Francis Catholic High School in Gainesville, Fla., where he is the head coach. "He just wanted to let her know that something was going to be coming out, and he wanted to express how sorry he was for the whole scenario. He was apologizing to my mom, and he wanted to apologize to Dad and the kids.
"She told him she was disappointed to hear that. That she was sorry he chose to go down that road. She told him that hopefully something good can come from this, that hopefully there will be other things in his life that will turn out better after this all comes out. Mark has a lot to offer those guys, the Cardinals [McGwire will this season serve as the hitting coach for his old club in St. Louis] and he's experienced some things in baseball that nobody did but Dad."
Among those things is the stress of chasing baseball's single-season home run record -- stress that made Roger Maris's hair fall out in patches when he was pursuing Babe Ruth's mark of 60 -- and Kevin Maris insists that he and his family are not among those who hold ill will toward McGwire. "It's unfortunate, what took place with Mark," he says. "It's disappointing that he had to make the choice of going the steroid route. That's a tough decision for anybody, and when you do that you have to understand there are going to be repercussions when and if it's brought to light. It's tough that he had to go through this. He's really a pretty good guy. The times we've had to talk to him and stuff, he's been a pretty genuine guy to us. You could see that when he was talking [with Bob Costas on the MLB Network] about having to reveal it to his family, teammates, [his Cardinals manager Tony] La Russa, when he had to call my mom. You could see the emotion coming out. You knew deep down it was killing him to have to bring that to light to them. He is a family guy, and that definitely had to be painful."
There could, Maris acknowledges, be at least one positive result of McGwire's admission, as it concerns his father's legacy. "The family would like to see Dad get into the Hall of Fame," Maris says. Roger Maris never came especially close to election in his decade-and-a-half on the writers' ballot -- he received a high of 43.1% of the vote in 1988, his 15th and final year of eligibility, well short of the 75% required for induction. But he is one of two of the 24 multiple Most Valuable Player award winners who are Hall-eligible but have yet to make it in, Maris notes -- the other is Dale Murphy, who appeared on the ballot for the 12th time this year -- and even though his career statistics are not extraordinary (.260 average, 275 home runs), few have been better than was his father at his peak. Maris says that he hopes the Veterans Committee, in whose hands his father's Hall of Fame fate now rests, will take particular note of that fact, now that his name is once again prominent amid the transgressions of his slugging successors.
"He had a stellar career," Kevin says. "He did things in the game that no one has ever done. It would be nice to see baseball right a wrong that has been going on now almost 50 years. I think a lot of fans assume he's already in there, and when we tell him he's not, they're in awe, in shock. It would be nice to see baseball right an injustice."
On Tuesday, no less a personage than Byron Dorgan, North Dakota's outgoing junior U.S. senator, again took up Maris's Hall of Fame cause. "The Hall of Fame should recognize what most Americans already know: Roger Maris is the legitimate home run record holder," Dorgan said. "Unlike his successors, Maris broke Babe Ruth's record without the use of performance-enhancing drugs."
The issue of what is to be done with baseball's record books is also to be determined. Three men -- McGwire, Barry Bonds (who currently holds the single-season home run record, due to the 73 he hit in 2001) and Sammy Sosa -- have exceeded Maris' 61-homer mark, and all three have been strongly connected to performance enhancing drugs. "The home run thing, we know Dad did it with hard work," Kevin Maris says. "Back then, he didn't even lift weights, it wasn't part of his thought process. It's going to be a tough decision for Major League Baseball. It's not up to us to decide one way or the other. They'll get it right. They've got a lot of stuff to sift through, things are going to come out. It's not an easy decision on anyone's part. We feel Major League Baseball is going to do the right thing."
Of course, this is a situation in which there might be no "right thing." The Hall of Fame's Veterans Committee might choose to induct Maris, or they might not. Major League Baseball can in its books do whatever it wants with McGwire's erstwhile record. Put an asterisk next to it. Italicize it. Strike it through. Erase it. It won't change history. We know what McGwire did, and how he did it, just as we know what Maris did. We know what happened.
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