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Seeing 61 in A New Light

April 11, 2005
April 11, 2005

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April 11, 2005

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Seeing 61 in A New Light

Roger Maris knew plenty of hitters who he figured took steroids. He saw guys blow up like Macy's floats. He saw hitters turn baseballs into SuperBalls, fly-outs into homers. He saw good players become greats.

This is an article from the April 11, 2005 issue Original Layout

Roger Maris Jr., that is, the eldest son of the late Yankees rightfielder.

At 6'5", 230 pounds, he played on a barnstorming semipro softball team and in various leagues until four years ago, trading taters with massive mechanics and bulked-up bellhops. "C'mon! You could tell instantly!" says Maris, 46, who lives in Gainesville, Fla. "The water weight they carry in the face. The way the muscles are so sharp and lean and cut. The zits all over the back."

In fact, in 1999, one of Maris's teammates, Devin Jackson, attacked 49-year-old neighbor Ugurhan Onsan, kicking him and beating him with a TV. Onsan died from massive brain injuries. The Florida state attorney argued that Jackson was a known steroid user who killed Onsan during a steroid rage. Instead, the judge found Jackson innocent by reason of insanity. He remains in a mental facility.

"Guys kept telling me, 'Get on [steroids],'" Maris recalls. "They'd say, 'Think how big you could be!' But my philosophy was, if you can hit a homer 300 feet, why do you need to see it go 350 feet? These guys just get addicted."

Every day reports of steroids in the major leagues draw another mustache on the legacy of today's sluggers. Every day his father's amazing season of 61 natural home runs seems more shiny and true. Every day somebody comes up, shakes his hand, looks in his eyes and says, "To me, your dad still owns the record."

Hey, the way things are going, his father may have the record back by the All-Star break.

So the $64,000 question: When he looks at Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, does Maris think they all broke his dad's 1961 record cleanly, or does he believe they were 'roided up like WWE wrestlers on Picture Day?

"I can't say," he replies. "I mean, you can look at them and form your own opinions. They're huge! You're aware that the potential was there to use [steroids]. Anybody could use them. There were no tests then."

Does he think Bonds took steroids unwittingly as the Giants leftfielder told the BALCO grand jury, according to leaked testimony? "Not too many people believe that," Maris says. "And now we've got the girlfriend thing." (Kimberly Bell, who says she was Bonds's former mistress, claims that Bonds told her he was using steroids.)

Does he think McGwire was clean? "Well, he went up there [before Congress on March 17] and didn't deny it, but he didn't say he did it either," says Maris, who hasn't seen McGwire in person since Big Mac hit number 62 in 1998. At the hearings McGwire looked 50 pounds lighter and 15 years older. "Really, sometimes I didn't even think it was him."

And Sosa, who seemed to lose his ability to speak English in front of Congress after 20 years in America? "Well, he denied it.... But if all these guys didn't do it, why is nobody suing [Jose] Canseco?" Maris wonders. "I've seen what steroids can do to a guy's size. But until there's more proof, I don't want to say Dad's record was broken illegally. But I have my suspicions."

You and a few hundred million others.

The mind boggles at the thought of how many home runs his dad would've hit on steroids, HGH, creatine or andro. "He was naturally big anyway," says Maris. "He got all his muscles doing rail-roids. [Roger Sr. laid railroad track for his father, a foreman.] So, I don't know, a lot more than 61, I guarantee you. A lot more."

Funny how life turns out. Twenty years after his death Roger Maris is finally catching a break. People are clamoring for asterisks on other sluggers' records. Writers are wondering how a two-time MVP who held the coolest record in baseball for 37 years isn't in the Hall of Fame. You think he's getting his hair back too?

"It comes down to this," says his eldest son. "When it's all said and done, baseball will have a decision to make on what to do with the record." Even though see-no-evil commissioner Bud Selig has no intention of going down that dark hall? "Yeah, well, we never had Congress involved in [baseball's steroid problem] before either," Maris says. "Things change."

Yeah, well, some of us don't have to wait for a commissioner or panel or act of Congress to find the truth. As far as I'm concerned, the home run mark belongs to a shy, big-boned guy from Fargo, N.Dak., who belted 61 on nothing more than Lucky Strikes and Pepto-Bismol.

And if McGwire or Sosa or Bonds makes it into Cooperstown before Roger Maris, the lights ought to be turned off and the doors never opened again.

Now that would be a dark hall. ■

• If you have a comment for Rick Reilly, send it to reilly@siletters.com.

Twenty years after his death Roger Maris is finally catching a break. People are clamoring for asterisks on other sluggers' records.
COLOR PHOTOPETER READ MILLER