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For Fans Who Should Know Better

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Mudville: September 29, 2022 3:11 am PDT
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BY KEVIN KERNAN

At its best, baseball is about legacy, what you did for the game, what you leave for others and what the game has done for you that you can pass along to future generations.

That is baseball from the heart.

Roger Maris’ Legacy of 61 has stood the test of time. His family is a wonderful baseball family and Roger has left his mark in so many ways, most notably the 61 home runs in 1961 which still stands as the American League record and is considered by many the True Major League Home Run Record.

Barry Bonds has the number 73 in 2001 but anyone who has surpassed Roger’s 61 home runs is tainted by PEDs; and that’s why in my heart of hearts, I still consider 61 home runs the legitimate single-season home run record.

Aaron Judge, a class act, is challenging that mark this season, trying to keep it in the Yankee family. Going into Sunday’s action Judge has crushed 52 home runs.

A legacy can be left in many different ways, not just baseball. There is the Sanford Roger Maris Cancer Center in Fargo, North Dakota. Every year there’s the Roger Maris All-Star Week with 100 percent of the funds raised going to support cancer research and patient care at Roger’s namesake. The golf tournament and week of activities comes from the heart of the Maris family and will again take place in June 2023.

Roger’s family remains devoted to baseball and helping others and that’s why The Story this week is visiting with Roger’s son Kevin, a longtime baseball coach at Oak Hall School in Gainesville, Florida and the elite Florida Hardballers. This past season Kevin posted his 300th win at Oak Hall, a tremendous accomplishment for the former Oak Hall student.

“There is so much failure in the game, you have to learn to overcome that failure to have success. Without failure, how are you going to learn?”

“I just enjoy developing young players,’’ Kevin Maris told BallNine. “Having the luxury of passing on the knowledge that Dad gave me and I was lucky enough to get from him and from his ex-teammates through different years and conversations. And to pass that on has been a real treat for me.

“We started a team called the Florida Hardballers and we have teams from 8U all the way up to 18U,’’ Maris said of the Gainesville-based organization he started along with John Colacci.

What a treat it must be to learn from someone who learned from Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle, and other great Yankee and Cardinal teammates. That is real baseball knowledge being passed from generation to generation.

“We’ve been running the Hardballers since 2006 and the kid who plays for Florida, Wyatt Langford, was with us since he was in the seventh grade,’’ Kevin Maris said.

Langford, an outfielder, led the Gators in just about every offensive category this past season and is expected to go as high as No. 3 in the 2023 draft.

This is one of the things I like most about baseball. Roger Maris was signed in 1953 by the Cleveland Indians, the same year I was born. In ’61, Roger blasted 61 home runs, when I was eight years old, helping to establish my love for baseball. Here I am now at the age of 69 and I’m talking to Maris’ son Kevin who had a strong helping hand in Wyatt Langford’s development.

That’s 70 years of the game connected as one.

That is part of the beauty of baseball as well.

Kevin Maris.

I have known the Maris family since the The Great Home Run Chase of 1998, which, in retrospect, really wasn’t that great, considering the circumstances surrounding Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa – but this is not the time to dwell on that.

This is a time to celebrate Roger Maris, what he accomplished under the most difficult of circumstances, and the legacy he left behind in the game and the world.

Kevin, 62, one of Maris’ six children, is devoted to the game. This is a baseball family. Roger passed away in 1985 at the age of 51. His wife Pat and he were high school sweethearts and were married in 1956 at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Fargo; and she has always, to this day, been a great fan of baseball.

Maris has yet to get into the Hall of Fame but I believe he is a Hall of Famer, establishing a record that has stood the test of time, chasing both a record and a ghost, beating Babe Ruth’s mark of 60 home runs set in 1927, and twice winning MVP honors, 1960 and ‘61.

Maris’ teams won seven pennants and three World Series, and in 1967 in the seven-game victory for his Cardinals over the Red Sox, Maris batted .385 with seven RBI and a 972 OPS. The right-fielder was a complete ballplayer, not just a slugger; and his impact on the game remains vital up until this day with Judge trying to chase down his record.

The M&M Boys were the heroes of my childhood. Maris teaming with Mickey Mantle gave the Yankees a 1-2 home run punch for the ages. Think of it, here we are 61 years later and Roger Maris remains an impact player in baseball. That’s incredible. That’s Hall of Fame worthy.

As for Aaron Judge, the Maris family are fans of the Yankee slugger. Of course they would love to see their father’s record continue to stand but in Aaron Judge they have someone to admire in the way he carries himself and plays the game. If Judge breaks the record, it will be in good hands.

“He’s a fun player to watch and to see the things he has done and accomplished so far, he’s a good representation of the game,’’ Kevin told BallNine. “He handles himself as a Yankee very well on and off the field. He’s a breath of fresh air to watch.’’

Yes he is. And he is knocking on 61’s door.

Kevin Maris (r) with Mike Zunino

Kevin Maris then made this terrific point about what Judge is accomplishing this year after what happened with Bonds, Sosa, and McGwire.

“The sad thing is Judge is getting a little cheated for not chasing the Major League overall record because of all that other stuff,’’ Kevin said. “I don’t know how you can acknowledge guys that have cheated the game. Because baseball is made of numbers. Without the numbers in baseball, what is baseball?’’

I mention to Kevin Maris, in my opinion, this should be the Real Home Run Chase because this is the Real Number, 61.

“Without a doubt,’’ Maris said. “That’s public opinion and you have your doubters that are hung up on anybody getting it any way possible – whether it’s cheating or not cheating – and that’s just not how life should be.’’

There should be standards upheld. Do it the right way.

“Absolutely,’’ Kevin said. “The right way is the only way to do it. Dad taught us do it right the first time or don’t do it. Do it first class. If you can’t find a way to do it that way, you just don’t do it.’’

Kevin Maris then told this story about the brilliance of Howard Cosell and the Asterisk Controversy regarding Babe’s 154-game schedule in 1927 compared to Roger’s 162-game schedule in 1961.

“Howard Cosell came to our house one year in Gainesville to interview Dad,’’ Kevin recalled. “The first thing out of his mouth was ‘Roger, do you realize there was never an asterisk put in the record books,’ and that was the first time Dad had ever heard that. I don’t think any writer had realized that with all the years they were reporting there was an asterisk and this and that. There was talk of it back in the day. Howard Cosell was phenomenal, brilliant, he always researched his subjects before he did the interviews. He went to the archives and looked at the official record books and said there was no asterisk ever put in the book. I thought that was phenomenal on his part to tell Dad that.’’

No asterisk. And the number 61 beats 60 any day of the week.

World Series Preview, New York Yankees Roger Maris (9) in action, at bat vs Washington Senators, Washington, DC 8/13/1961 (Photo by John G. Zimmerman/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images/Getty Images)

That is all part of Roger Maris’ legacy. Now we are generations removed from that time.

Four players that Kevin Maris has coached have made it to the Majors, including former Marlins pitcher Brian Ellington, who played for Maris at Oak Hall and the Florida Hardballers.

Maris also worked with the Rays’ Mike Zunino before the 2021 season, when the catcher bashed 33 home runs. “He came over and we worked out and ended up making some tweaks to his swing and he ended up having an All-Star season,’’ Maris said.

Keeping the legacy alive in so many different ways.

“The family is doing well, Mom is walking two or three times a week, she is doing really well,’’ Kevin said, and then laughed and added of all the family activities: “We keep her in shape.’’

As for the Roger Maris Celebratory Golf Tournament, that too has stood the test of time.

“We are in our 39th year now,’’ Maris said proudly.

“Dad not only has that legacy in baseball that is monumental, but he’s got a new legacy in a whole different area in life with the Roger Maris Cancer Center, where he is saving lives and improving lives up in North Dakota and has just done phenomenal things for the region.’’

Then this powerful comment.

“Not many times in life you get to leave a legacy as big as Dad did in the game – and then to have just as big a legacy left, being created in another fashion that is astronomical, we’re pretty proud of that,’’ Kevin said.

And proud they should be and that too should be considered part of the Hall of Fame discussion for Roger Maris: the number of lives he has touched through the decades of work of the cancer center.

At the end of any conversation with baseball people I often ask a simple question that gets some in-depth answers.

“What does it mean to be a ballplayer?”

Kevin Maris did not disappoint.

“Being a ballplayer,’’ he said, “you learn so much in life. There is so much failure in the game, you have to learn to overcome that failure to have success. Without failure, how are you going to learn. So when most people have failure, they concentrate on the failure. Dad had always talked about it just being a speed bump. You come to it, you either keep living in the failure, or turn around and go back the other way scared, or you can learn to figure out a way to get over it and move on to the next one. Because you know what? There are always speed bumps in life. After you get over one there will be another one.

“Being a baseball player, there are so many lessons you can learn on and off the field that can take you farther in life. I have had some players who have come back to me. Twenty-five years later I get a call from some kid. He was an outstanding ballplayer, played for me in American Legion ball. He called and asked me after 25 years to come and have lunch, and I hadn’t talked to him for 25 years. We went to lunch; my Mom and I, and my wife, and his Mom, and him and his wife and kids came and he was saying how much he had learned through my program on how to do the little things to perfection.

“This guy was a pancreatic liver transplant specialist and he is at the top of his field. He talked about what he incorporated through the baseball season under me and he takes it and incorporates it into his surgery team and that means the world to me.

“That’s what makes me want to keep coming back even though it is 25 years later I find that out,’’ Kevin Maris said. “To hear those types of stories from kids I coached over the years makes it all worthwhile.

“It doesn’t get any better than that.’’

No, it doesn’t. That’s quite the baseball legacy right there.

The Legacy of 61.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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