Maris' family wants his HR record to stand Children remember slugger's struggles

August 05, 1998|By COX NEWS SERVICE

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- They are among the millions of baseball fans who grab the sports page first thing each morning to follow the Great Home Run Chase of 1998.

Thirty-seven years ago their father was involved in a similar chase when he said: "Records are made to be broken."

Two weeks ago Roger Maris Jr., the second of six children in the Maris family of Gainesville, said: "My family doesn't want to see Dad's record broken."

The Marises have been saying that for years, well before Roger Maris died of cancer in 1985. Now, however, they see the increasing vulnerability of his record -- 61 home runs in 1961. It's right there in fine print every time they open the Gainesville Sun to check Dad's progress in the Chasing Roger Maris Chart.

Here's what they saw Saturday morning: After 108 games, Mark McGwire -- 45 home runs, Ken Griffey Jr. -- 41 home runs, Sammy Sosa -- 42 home runs (after 110 games). Roger Maris -- 41 home runs.

"That doesn't mean we'd have any ill-feeling toward anyone," Roger Maris Jr., 39, continued. "Dad was proud of that record. We definitely want him to keep it."

Especially after everything he went through to get it. The Marises remember the stigma he carried to his grave for achieving what many baseball fans in 1961 hoped would never be accomplished. The newspaper's chart doesn't mention any of that.

But Maris' family -- his widow Pat and his brother Rudy and his mother Connie and his six kids -- and all his old golfing buddies see it as clearly as the black-and-white photograph of his 61st home-run swing that frames the chart.

Pat Maris sees the strangers who used to show up on her doorstep in Kansas City, hoping for a peek of the porcupine-topped New York Yankee who had sneaked home in late August 1961 to hold his infant son Randy for the first time.

She sees the patches of skin on the back of her husband's head where his crewcut was falling out, a reaction to the stress the 26-year-old slugger felt as he closed in on what was then considered the most sacrosanct of baseball records -- Babe Ruth's 60 home runs in 1927.

Maris' four sons, who have their dad's eyes and chin, were either too young to remember 1961 or born later. But they remember how the chase followed their dad to Gainesville, where he moved after retiring in 1968. Their parents' red-brick house (with a staircase bannister spoked with baseball bats) overlooks the seventh green of the Gainesville Golf and Country Club.

Kevin Maris, who coaches a baseball team that plays at Roger Maris Field, hears his dad on the links as he prepares to sink a 4-foot putt: "Pressure? I don't know the word."

Randy Maris, an amateur golfer born Aug. 21, 1961 ("No home runs that day"), has studied the old newsreels from that summer. He sees the reporters around Dad's locker asking questions like, "Do you cheat on your wife?"

Richard and Roger Maris Jr. hear the frustration in their dad's voice as he chats with friends about his stormy relationship with the New York media, how he thinks it probably denied him what he always felt was his rightful spot in Cooperstown.

Now, 13 years after his death with his picture in the paper every morning and the reporters calling to ask about him every day and his name mentioned on TV every night -- it's as if Roger Maris is alive again.

It's like 1961 all over again. Only this time he and Mickey Mantle aren't chasing Babe Ruth. This time he's being chased by McGwire, Griffey and Sosa.

And once again, the underdog is Roger Maris. It says so right there in the chart, where Griffey is on a pace to tie, Sosa is on a pace to beat, and McGwire on a pace to shatter Maris' mark, a record he held longer than the mighty Babe did.

But it's August now. And Randy Maris knows, "Dad hit quite a few home runs at the end of the year." He sounds as if he's certain of the outcome when he says, "Dad's going to catch up here pretty soon."

That's what he's hoping.

Not long after his father died, Randy Maris met Mark McGwire at a baseball card show in Orlando. Randy was shopping for memorabilia to stock the Roger Maris Museum, which is a 70-foot-long display case next to a pet shop at the West Acres mall in his father's hometown of Fargo, N.D.

"The organizer heard who I was and introduced us," Randy Maris said. McGwire, who hit 49 home runs the year before as a rookie for the Oakland A's, was at a table signing autographs. "He drops what he's doing and comes over and shakes my hand ...

"I honestly don't remember what we talked about. Real low-key small talk. But he was a real classy guy."

When McGwire complained two months ago that he felt "like a caged animal" because of the reporters who surrounded him during batting practice, Randy Maris knew exactly what he meant.

Pub Date: 8/05/98

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