Archive for Sunday, August 27, 2006

Commentary: Time to restore 61 as HR standard

August 27, 2006

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It was 45 years ago this week, and Roger Maris' hair had not yet begun to fall out. A bigger milestone awaited, but on Aug. 22, 1961, Maris hit a home run off of Ken McBride of the Los Angeles Angels that had its own place in history.

It came in an unlikely place, a Wrigley Field that was in Los Angeles, not Chicago. It's not likely many people remember, but the home run made Maris the first player to reach 50 in August.

I know because I was at the Roger Maris museum in Fargo, N.D., a few weeks ago, sitting in one of the old seats taken from Yankee Stadium, and watching grainy black and white films from that year.

Actually, museum isn't exactly the word for the tribute to Maris tucked away next to a pet store in the West Acres Shopping Center. Exhibit case might come closer to describing it, though it's more than you see anyone building for Mark McGwire these days.

The people who run the mall say 7 million shoppers visit every year. On this summer afternoon, none of them seemed to have any interest in Fargo's hometown hero. The little museum was empty and quiet, save for the frenzied announcer in the video that kept running in a loop on a big screen TV.

Maybe the crowds are bigger in the winter when no one wants to be outside. Or maybe 61 just doesn't mean that much anymore.

The record, of course, was shattered by sluggers bulked up on who knows what. During a stretch of four years it was broken six times, and now 73 stands almost obscenely on top of the single-season home run list.

Barry Bonds may have a giant asterisk placed next to his record, but it's one home run mark that will likely never be broken. Baseball is testing for steroids, and home run totals are shrinking more than McGwire did after he retired.

A glance at baseball's home run leaders in the last week of August says a lot about whether Major League Baseball's testing program is working. It must be, because these are the kind of numbers your grandfather's favorite sluggers were putting up.

The fact is, no one is hitting home runs anywhere near like they did in a five-year stretch from 1998 to 2002 when a handful of players with Incredible Hulk physiques made a mockery of one of baseball's most hallowed marks.

Baseball players don't look nearly so bloated anymore. And neither do their home run totals.

Unfortunately, the records remain to remind us that chemistry in the clubhouse isn't always such a good thing. The numbers may be suspect, but as long as they're allowed to stay in the record books, clean players won't have a chance of matching them and fans won't have a chance to enjoy a home run race.

So maybe it's time 61 means something again.

Let's begin by taking the bulked-up records and wrapping them in a giant asterisk. Maris had to live the rest of his life with the stigma of one, even though it was never actually in the record book.

Treat the records as the aberration they are, and make 61 the gold standard once again. Restore Maris to his rightful spot on top of the single-season home run list, and let a new generation of players take their crack at his home run mark.

Bud Selig and his multimillionaire owners should lead the way. They owe it to baseball to restore order because they looked the other way and pretended everything was fair and square when they knew that it wasn't.

The folks in Fargo would certainly be happy. Business would pick up at the Roger Maris museum.

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