By Sweeny Murti
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Nineteen years ago Roger Maris’ family watched their dad’s record fall. Now they are hoping it happens again.
“I think for baseball it’s exciting. We’re enjoying watching it,” Roger Maris, Jr. told me last week as Giancarlo Stanton continued his march toward what some still call the real home run record, even though it’s now the seventh-highest total in single-season history.
On Sept. 8, 1998 Mark McGwire hit home run number 62 — on his way to 70 — and broke Maris’ 37-year-old home run record.
The thing is, it was broken again that same year by Sammy Sosa, who hit 66 homers and finished second to McGwire in an epic race that captivated baseball fans everywhere.
McGwire and Sosa both bettered Maris again in 1999. And then in 2001 Sosa passed it for a third time, the same year Barry Bonds blasted 73 home runs to set the mark that still stands today.
The Maris record of 61, set as a Yankee in 1961, was cracked six times in four years. As the bubble burst and baseball left the Steroid Era and entered the Testing Era, nobody chased down 61 home runs again. But that’s about to change.
Stanton is within range of that once magical number, with 54 home runs entering Tuesday. Stanton’s Marlins have 19 games to go in the regular season, which ends on Oct. 1, the same day Maris hit his 61st home run in ’61.
And Maris Jr. is hoping that Stanton gets there.
“I really love the guy,” Maris Jr. said. “I think he’s an awesome talent. He’s so fun to watch. I love his character and everything else. Obviously, you don’t want your dad’s record surpassed, but by the same token just like with Mark McGwire, we were happy for him to do what he did. And we also know records are made to be broken. Dad always said if someone broke it, more power to him.”
Within a year of Bonds setting the current standard in ’01, the lid began to blow off the Steroid Era and the new records were being questioned more than admired. After McGwire publicly admitted his PED use for the first time in 2010, he called the Maris family to offer an apology.
“He didn’t have to call, there’s no reason he had to make that phone call, but he took it upon himself to do it,” Maris Jr. said. “You’ve got to give a guy credit to come out and admit what he did because it wasn’t easy. He apologized. It is what it is. I don’t think there was any malice. I don’t think he was trying to hurt my dad or my family.”
After Stanton’s pursuit of another long-standing home run record — homers in eight consecutive games — ended last month at six games, he proclaimed his desire to shoot for the magic number of 61, admitting there is taint to the numbers of the previous era.
Maris Jr. doesn’t sound bitter when asked about PED-infused sluggers pushing his dad out of the record book.
“I think that era was what it was,” Maris Jr. said. “It speaks for itself. It’s a whole new deal now.
“I think people knew, and I think I was aware of what was going on at the time. But, I mean … what are you going to say? I don’t think a lot of people were that fooled about what was going on. It just was what it was.”
Now the excitement is back, for Maris Jr. anyway, who said he has been following Stanton since he broke into the majors in 2010, knowing full well he was the kind of slugger that could reach 61. He watches highlights regularly, checks the box scores, and even had planned a trip from his Jacksonville area home to Atlanta last weekend so he could meet Stanton in person. That trip, however, didn’t happen because of Hurricane Irma.
Yankees slugger Aaron Judge also caught his attention this year after hitting 30 home runs before the All-Star break.
“The first time I saw Judge, I’m like ‘Oh my God, he’ll hit a million home runs!’” Maris Jr. said. “He’s another guy that’s capable of hitting 60 or 70 home runs, no problem. And I thought he was on pace to do that this year, too. So both those guys to me are just amazing, amazing talents.”
And even after seeing how things unraveled from the late 1990s to the early 2000s, Maris Jr. doesn’t view either Stanton or Judge and their pursuit of his father’s old record with any skepticism.
“I’m really not (skeptical),” Maris Jr. said. “I think both these guys are clean. I think they are both big strong guys. And I think the way baseball has gone through their drug testing and everything else I don’t think there’s any reason to think these guys aren’t legit. And I think that’s what makes their run towards 61 a little more exciting for the average Joe, that we feel this time around it’s going to be a clean deal.”
So will a new mark set by Stanton this year become known as the “clean home run record?”
“We all kind of know what went on,” Maris Jr. said. “So I think in the court of public opinion I think a lot of people look at it as though there are two records. There’s Bonds’ record and there’s my dad’s record.”
Maris Jr. admits it would be “cool” if a Yankee, like Judge, managed to reclaim the record held by Babe Ruth for 34 years before Maris. Judge will have to wait his turn for another year as a long second-half slump stalled his pursuit. But Stanton has the number within reach and the countdown is on.
Maris Jr., his four siblings, and his mother are all rooting for Stanton, knowing that Roger Sr. would be, too.
“You want to see people achieve greatness,” Maris Jr. said. “If he hits what he hits — Gosh, just pat him on the back and congratulate him and tell him, ‘Great job.’”
Please follow Sweeny on Twitter at @YankeesWFAN