Baseball and Roger Maris: Still Special

OK. I’ll admit it. I enjoy watching baseball, especially as the teams advance to the playoffs and World Series. What I like about baseball — and what is missing from pro football even during the Super Bowl — is the drama that comes from meeting opponents over the course of a long season in games that really matter day after day.

Last night the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves completed their historic meltdowns in September as they failed to reach the playoffs despite entering the month with large leads for the wild card berths in both leagues.

Great drama. And great sporting events that engage fans and communities in something more than a once-a-week tailgating and food and drink orgy.

Here’s from the NYT, “One Out Away, Red Sox Lose to Cap September Meltdown“:

There has been great cruelty and suffering for the Boston Red Sox and their famed nation across the decades. But seldom has a bizarre set of circumstances ever occurred that left them with the sick and sinking feeling they had shortly after the clock struck midnight Wednesday night at Camden Yards.

Taking a one-run lead into the ninth inning against the Baltimore Orioles, one out away from a 3-2 victory and an extension of their season, closer Jonathan Papelbon surrendered three straight hits as the Red Sox dropped a 4-3 decision to put their postseason fate into the hands of the Yankees in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Moments later, Evan Longoria homered to give the Tampa Bay Rays an 8-7 victory in 12 innings and the American League wild-card berth, finishing off a historic collapse by the Red Sox, who led the Rays by nine games on Sept. 4.

Ouch.

And the Atlanta Braves finished much the same way and will now have the opportunity to watch the St. Louis Cardinals in the playoffs.

My fondness for baseball goes back to my days as a kid growing up in Pittsburgh during the ’50s when baseball was still the national pastime and radio still ruled the media.

And I remember listening to Bob Prince and Jim Woods call the Pittsburgh Pirates games on KDKA during the summer of 1961 when Roger Maris shattered the record that no one believed would ever be broken: Babe Ruth’s amazing 60 home runs in a season.

Maris broke that record 50 years ago this weekend on October 1, 1961, and Maris, who died in 1985,  is finally getting the recognition that he deserves. Here’s from the NYT, “Maris Honored at Yankee Stadium“:

It was a scene Roger Maris himself would not have imagined back in 1961 when he deposited a home run over the short porch in right field to etch his name in history: his wife, Pat, and six children standing on the infield grass at Yankee Stadium, receiving a thunderous ovation from the crowd in recognition of his record-breaking feat.

Maris’s 61st home run on the last day of the regular season meant there was a new long-ball king; a shy right fielder from Fargo, N.D., supplanting the transcendent Babe Ruth. During his chase and in its aftermath, critics, fueled by the news media, were quick to defend Ruth’s record of 60 and argued that the new mark was not legitimate because of the 162-game schedule — eight games longer than Ruth’s. Among them was the baseball commissioner at the time, Ford Frick, who separated the two records in the league’s official record book. The distinctions were kept until 1991.

But half a century later, with his family representing him, Maris was honored for the feat before Saturday’s game against the Boston Red Sox. The Yankees paid tribute to Maris, who succumbed to lymphoma in 1985 at the age of 51, with a video presentation and invited some of his teammates, including Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford and Bobby Cerv; the man who caught the baseball, Sal Durante; and Mickey Mantle’s two sons, David and Danny.

“As time went on I think people started appreciating more what he did in that time,” said Roger Jr., who threw the ceremonial first pitch. “I think for him, he was proud he did what he did. He wasn’t seeking any recognition, but I think he felt he could’ve gotten more recognition instead of some of the bad press he got.”

The delayed acceptance of Maris’s feat is recognized — his plaque in Monument Park, which was erected one year before his death, goes as far as to say it was presented in “belated recognition” of the achievement. On Saturday, his sons Roger Jr. and Randy said their father felt the pressure and criticism while setting the record.

“I think that’s a thing with the old regime the Yankees had,” Randy Maris said, referring to Yankees ownership at the time. “They didn’t really protect him too much during that season from the press, and the press turned a lot of fans against him. He sort of resented that a little bit.”

Maris went on to hit only 275 career home runs and batted only .260 for his career, but Randy and Roger Jr. maintained that their father belonged in the Hall of Fame, citing his dominance over a brief period (he is one of 12 players in history to win the Most Valuable Player award in consecutive seasons), his winning (he played in seven World Series in the 1960s, winning three), his fielding, and injuries diminishing his production and longevity (he played 12 seasons and battled injuries during those years).

Maris, of course, eclipsed the Babe long before baseball’s big hitters began taking the drugs that turned their biceps into basketballs and their testicles into peanuts.

So in my book Roger Maris still stands for something special — and his accomplishments speak to an era in this country when baseball was still the national pastime.

 

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