Maris Then; Tudor Now? : Plotting the Mortal Pain of an Immortal Chase

The Washington Post

Heaven protect us from achieving a greatness that the world decides we do not deserve.

Better that we do evil, then repent. For that, we'd probably be forgiven.

For Christmas, let us hope that, next baseball season, neither Brett Butler nor Kirby Puckett hits safely in 57 consecutive games. Please, don't let it befall Steve Balboni or Tom Brunansky that either should hit 62 home runs.

Mortal men can be crushed by immortal deeds.

Wasn't that the moral of Roger Maris' career?

Right to the end, Maris never caught a break. When he died Saturday of cancer at the age of 51, that ridiculous asterisk still was beside his name in the record book of the public mind.

No baseball player in history ever has had his accomplishments so denigrated or received such criticism for the sin of having performed too well.

When I was 13 years old in 1961, I hated Roger Maris. Why? Because I was supposed to hate him. Every baseball fan did. And no fan is more serious or certain than a 13-year-old. My finger was on the baseball pulse then as it never again will be. I knew for certain how to feel about this Mr. Roger Maris.

Memory says that during one Sunday doubleheader in Washington, Maris hit two home runs and Mickey Mantle hit three. Whether the record book would say such a five-homer day ever happened I neither know nor care. What matters is that I remember cheering all of Mantle's homers and booing Maris as though he were the incarnation of some evil principle. It's a safe bet most of the crowd did the same.

Maris, you see, made a horrible mistake for which--by most accounts--he paid bitterly the rest of his life.

He hit too many home runs.

He could have atoned for 59.

Sixty-one, never.

That figurative asterisk--a separate category created for records set in 162-game, rather than 154-game, seasons--was his scarlet punctuation mark.

"The fun was gone after the '61 season," Maris said, 20 years after the fact. "It was the aftermath that was so hard to explain. There wasn't a ballpark I had relief in. They booed me at home, and they booed me on the road. It wears on you."

"Maybe I wouldn't do it all over again if I had the chance," he said on other occasions. "I think it wasn't worth the aggravation.

" . . . Going after the record"--Babe Ruth's sacred 60--"started off as such a dream . . . It would have been a hell of a lot more fun if I had never hit those 61 homers. . . . "

In 1960, Maris hit 39 home runs; he was a young star on the rise. In 1961, under the adrenaline thrall of his pursuit of Ruth, he had 142 RBI. In 1962, he drove in 100 runs, but he already was a battered man, at 27. His career never left another statistical ripple.

Maris, whose hair fell out during the Ruth chase, never returned to a Yankees old-timers day until 1978. He accepted one public speaking engagement in 19 years. When TV asked to buy the rights to make a movie of his life, he refused, terrified that it would start the circus anew. In retirement, his goal was simple--to achieve a perfect anonymity. Twice in recent years I casually introduced myself to him (as a reporter) at baseball functions. He looked at me as if I'd pulled a loaded gun on him.

To imagine what happened to Maris requires an act of imaginative recreation.

Maris not only broke the most famous record in the sport at that time. He broke it playing in Ruth's town for Ruth's team and even playing Ruth's own position (right field). Not only did Maris usurp the crown of a dead king, he stole that crown from the rightful heir--Mantle, the man who played next to him in the Yankees' outfield and who batted next to him in the Yankees' order.

Mantle was handsome, glamorous and properly anointed as the greatest power-hitting switch-batter in history. His home runs were "Ruthian"--the highest compliment.

Maris was in all ways pronounced deficient. With his flattop haircut, he looked more Hessian than handsome. At 26, the introverted, proud young man from Fargo, N.D., did not have a fraction of the charm, sophistication or patience to deal with becoming one of the most famous and controversial figures in America.

It might help our sleep to believe Maris was a reclusive oddball figure, uniquely ill-suited to fame. For years he was portrayed as an anti-social grouch. With time, a contrary profile emerged. Now, as eulogies roll in, he's painted as a family man, a loyal friend, a modest down-to-earth guy proud of his unselfishness as an all-around ballplayer.

Unfortunately, we have to look back no further than the last game of the most recent season to get a chill. Perhaps Maris' experience, on a smaller scale, is far more frequent than we like to think. This year, John Tudor of St. Louis played the Maris role. On June 1, his career record was 52-50.

Thereafter, until the final game of the World Series, he was 22-2.

Tudor--a rigid, proud man in the Maris mold--found himself a center of national attention. He loathed the experience. Curt with the press and abrupt in public, he seemed like a man holding on for dear life to maintain his magical form on the field.

Many (including me) tended to nag Tudor for his gracelessness in the spotlight, and others took off the gloves and ripped him.

By the Series' seventh game, Tudor had feuded with the media ("What do you need to get a press credential, a driver's license?") and even made a veiled threat to punch a reporter who asked why he didn't seem to be enjoying himself.

When Tudor was knocked out of the season's culminating game, he punched an electric fan in the dugout, sending himself to the hospital. When this was announced in the press box, it brought laughter, an inspired off-color joke mocking Tudor (which is still making the rounds) and even a few cheers.

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