Archive for Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Commentary: For Maris supporters, Howard chasing real record

Phillies slugger escapes cloud of suspicion that has plagued home-run hitters Bonds, McGwire, Sosa

September 20, 2006

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Gary Ficek's day often begins the same way. Over breakfast, his youngest son will flip open the sports section to tease him about Ryan Howard's latest home run for the Philadelphia Phillies.

For Ficek, the numbers are tougher to swallow than dry oatmeal. He is among the loyal group of North Dakotans following what they consider the "real" home run chase. Entering play Tuesday, Howard had 57 homers and 12 games remaining, giving him a shot at surpassing the 61 Roger Maris hit in 1961.

"I'm definitely nervous," Ficek said. "This is the first legitimate approaching of the record."

The word "legitimate" is key. The only players to surpass Maris' mark - Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa - have been tainted by steroid allegations.

Natives of Maris' home state insist the record wasn't broken; it was stolen.

Ficek, an attorney in Fargo, trademarked the phrase "The Record is Still 61." He created T-shirts and operates a Web site by the same name, www.therecordisstill61.com.

North Dakota state Sen. Joel Heitkamp went so far as to sponsor a resolution asking Commissioner Bud Selig to reinstate Maris' 61 as the official record. Major League Baseball ignored the request, just as Maris supporters continue to ignore McGwire, Sosa and Bonds.

But Howard? That's a different story.

"I have absolutely no problem with Ryan Howard," Heitkamp said, when reached on his cell phone Friday. "If he gets to 62, then he is the new all-time single-season home run record, period. And I'll be cheering for him. So will a lot of people.

"We cheered for Sosa and McGwire, too, before we realized what was really going on there."

Maris grew up in Fargo, where he was a high school star in baseball and football. Heitkamp met him once, in 1983 at the American Legion World Series in Fargo, two years before Maris died of cancer.

Maris' record stood for 37 years before Sosa, McGwire and Bonds combined to break it six times from 1998 to 2001. Each has since been embroiled in controversy about illegal performance-enhancing drugs.

Sosa and McGwire embarrassed themselves in front of a Congressional committee with their non-answers about steroids; Bonds reportedly told a grand jury that he took an illegal substance unwittingly because he thought it was flaxseed oil.

"We should have had the common sense to know better," Heitkamp said. "It didn't take Dick Tracy to figure it out."

Howard, though, has remained above suspicion. He is massive but in a Ruthian way - right down to the roly-poly belly. Unlike some of the beanpoles-turned-behemoths who have come before him, Howard (listed at 6-foot-4, 252 pounds) has always been big.

As his older brother, Chris, told USA Today: "The only juicing Ryan has ever done is apple or orange. Anyone who knows us can tell you that he is the smallest boy in the family."

Chris is 6-5, 270. Corey, Ryan's twin, is 6-6, 250.

None of that, sadly, guarantees that the Phillies first baseman is clean. Heitkamp concedes it's frustrating that big home-run totals must now be greeted with skepticism.

But Howard has remained so far above the fray that even North Dakotans are welcoming the challenge. If he indeed reaches 62, Howard will inherit Maris' mantle.

"If, as I expect, there is no hint of scandal or allegations of drugs, we'll call it a day," said Ficek, of therecordisstill61.com.

Even if Howard doesn't get there this year, the Maris camp has reason to remain nervous. At 26, the Phillies' cleanup hitter is the third-youngest player in history to reach at least 57 home runs; Jimmie Foxx was 24 in 1932 and Babe Ruth was 26 (three months younger than Howard) in 1921.

Howard is having a huge second half. Since the All-Star Break, he is hitting .365 (second in the National League during that span), with 28 home runs (first), 68 RBIs (first), 58 walks (first), 21 intentional walks (first) and an .816 slugging percentage (first). His performance has helped revive the Phillies' chances in the wild-card chase.

It has not, however, commanded the attention that accompanied previous home run chases. Howard knows that. He grew up in the St. Louis area, which means he remembers the Big Mac circus.

"People can say what they want, but what McGwire and Sosa did in 1998 was good for the game," Howard told USA Today. "Everyone loved that home-run race. It's tough now because there's a cloud over this game. Hopefully, that storm cloud will break up one day. Baseball needs that."

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