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Baseball should come clean for Roger Maris

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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.”

The Maris family feels that baseball could start by somehow working the truth into at least the footnotes of history.

“I just feel that there has to be some kind of notation in the record books that talked about that steroid era,” Randy said. “There needs to be some kind of denotation.”

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He thinks about how his family graciously accepted its fate when it watched McGwire break his father’s record in St. Louis in September 1998. He thinks about how embracing his siblings were when they watched McGwire point to them in the stands and tap his chest near his heart.

He thinks, then, about the pain and hurt they felt years later upon listening to McGwire acknowledge he did it with steroids, essentially admitting it was all a scam. McGwire actually called Pat Maris to apologize for being dirty when he broke the record, but the hurt remains.

“I don’t think we were mad, we were just really disappointed,” Randy said. “We’re just all really sad that he didn’t come clean earlier. It just hurts to think that our father’s record was broken by people who were tainted.”

The family is hurt equally by knowing that Maris will probably never receive the vote he needs from baseball’s Veterans’ Committee that would give him entrance into the Hall of Fame.

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“I think it’s a travesty, to tell you the truth,” Randy said. “It should be based on more than career stats. Obviously, somebody doesn’t want him in there.”

Maris is one of only two players who won consecutive most-valuable-player awards who are not in the Hall of Fame. There is some thought that to admit Maris now would be tantamount to officially admitting the existence of the steroid era. It would certainly take some forward thinking to allow him inside, but serious consideration should be given.

Although Maris’ statistics are an issue — he had more than 100 runs batted in only twice and more than 40 homers only once, with a career average of .260 — shouldn’t there be a bust in Cooperstown for a guy who broke baseball’s most glamorous record under the most difficult of circumstances in the cleanest way possible?

There has never been a slugger like Roger Maris in 1961, and there might never be one like him again. Shouldn’t that count for something?

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“Nobody should ever have to endure what my father went through that season,” Randy said. “We just feel his entire contributions should be considered here.”

George Steinbrenner gave Maris a plaque in Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park, an honor that Maris called the greatest of his life. But everyone who believes in Maris’ battle — which was immortalized several years ago in the brilliant movie “61*" — knows he deserves more.

Some just shout it louder than others.

For the last couple of years, folks driving around Fargo have been shadowed by giant Maris love notes. For a cost of about $6,000 monthly, Newman Outdoor Advertising has used three of its billboards to display Maris’ photo, the number 61 and the words “Fargo’s Roger Maris … Legitimate Home Run King.”

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Owner Russ Newman knows he is preaching to the choir. He knows these signs probably will have zero effect in making the world remember or reward his beloved star. He doesn’t care.

“I finally had enough of the bull,” Newman said. “All of this alleged juicing, c’mon. You tell me, if Roger is not the home run champion, who is? Who? Nobody. It’s him. It will always be him.”

Newman said the signs will remain up, no matter what the cost, until Maris is inducted into the Hall of Fame.

“It’s a damn shame he’s not in there, and we’re not going away until he is,” Newman said.

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It is a bit quieter at Maris’ grave site at Holy Cross Cemetery in Fargo, where fans have honored his memory by surrounding his headstone with caps and balls and a unique tribute that Maris would have loved.

It’s a stack of four coins. Two quarters, one dime and one penny. Unlike his legacy, they add up. Unlike his record, their 61 will forever shine.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke


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