Maris clan: Howard would be worthy of record

Dan Wetzel: Let's crown a real home run king

When Ryan Howard’s picture flashed across the television screen, Randy Maris turned to his younger brother Rich with a puzzled look.

“Who’s he?” Randy asked.

Rich had a quick answer: He might be the guy who breaks their father’s home run record.

Make no mistake, the Maris family still believes the true single-season home run record belongs to Roger Maris, who hit 61 in 1961, even though baseball’s record book lists the top two seasons for accused steroid users – Barry Bonds, with 73 homers in 2001, and Mark McGwire, with 70 in 1998.

However, if Howard – the 6-foot-4, 252-pound Philadelphia Phillies first baseman with 53 home runs – finishes the season with 62 or more, Maris’ family will gladly cede the crown.

“In my mind, I feel Ryan Howard’s clean,” Rich Maris said Tuesday from his home in Gainesville, Fla. “If baseball’s doing what they’re supposed to be doing and say they’re doing – I feel bad for people bashing him. Right now people should be looking at baseball saying it’s cleaned up.”

Maris first learned of the 26-year-old Howard when he won the Home Run Derby at this year’s All-Star Game in Pittsburgh. He watched on TV as Howard hit his 45th home run Aug. 22 against the New York Mets. And all of a sudden, eight home runs later, Howard is conjuring up memories of the summer of ’98, when McGwire and Sammy Sosa dueled to break Maris’ record and the Maris family watched and cheered.

“It’s kind of bittersweet,” said Maris, 42 and the fifth of six children. “At the time, it was quite a feat. My dad’s record was obscure up until that point. No one really challenged it. A couple guys came close. We all thought [Ken] Griffey would be the one to do it. And then it was like, ‘Boom.’

“We were in awe. It seemed to happen so fast. We were along for the ride like the rest of the country. Every time McGwire hit one, it was like, ‘Wow, he did it again.’ And now you just look at that and laugh.”

Every year, Maris said, McGwire’s foundation sends a check for $6,200 to the Roger Maris Celebrity Benefit Golf Tournament.

“Mark’s a really great guy,” Maris said. “It’s too bad everything has happened.”

In front of a House committee in March 2005, McGwire, confronted on the subject of steroid use, said: “I’m not here to discuss the past.” Sosa, who exceeded 61 home runs three times, said he did not use “illegal performance-enhancing drugs.”

The scrutiny on Bonds has been even greater. In grand-jury testimony leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle, Bonds admitted to using steroids, though he said he did so unknowingly. The book “Game of Shadows” alleges Bonds used a cocktail of performance-enhancing drugs after watching McGwire and Sosa hog the sport’s limelight.

“With the McGwire thing and the Bonds thing, everybody thought the record was so far out there, it’s not even attainable,” said Maris, who has not met Bonds. “My dad’s pretty much an afterthought. All of a sudden, it’s like everyone has this new perspective, like the heck with McGwire and Bonds.”

Already there is a buzz surrounding Howard, the second-year player who won National League Rookie of the Year last season. Were Howard to approach 62 home runs, Maris said, the discussion of his father’s record – itself once asterisked because he played in a 162-game season, and the previous record holder, Babe Ruth, played in 154 – would surface again.

In North Dakota, where Maris was born, the state Senate passed a resolution in 2005 urging commissioner Bud Selig to restore Maris’ home run record. Major League Baseball is not planning a celebration unless Howard exceeds Bonds’ 73 home runs, not Maris’ 61.

“It’s nice what the people in North Dakota are trying to do, and I think there’s a lot of sentiment,” said Maris, whose father died of cancer at 51 in 1985. “In time, we feel baseball will do the right thing if Ryan Howard doesn’t break it and no one approaches it anymore.

“Of course I hope my dad’s record stands. I’m sure Hank Aaron isn’t going to be especially now rooting for someone to break his 755. You’ve got a record, you want to hold on to it.”