McGwire's contrition validates Maris' 61-home-run record

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WALLA WALLA — It’s time to send baseball’s single-season home run record back to Fargo, N.D., where it belongs.

Mark McGwire’s confession this week that he was using steroids when he hit 70 home runs in 1998 is all the evidence I need to conclude that Fargo’s Roger Maris is still the home run king.

Never mind that Sammy Sosa hit 66 homers the same year McGwire hit 70 or that Barry Bonds hit a ridiculous 73 home runs in 2001 to eclipse McGwire’s record. Anyone who believes Mark McGwire was using performance enhancing drugs and that Sosa and Bonds were not is in complete denial.

The record belongs to Maris, who hit 61 home runs in 1961 when he surpassed Babe Ruth, who had held the record for 34 years after his 60-homer season in 1927. McGwire said as much in his confession when, among others, he called Maris’ family and apologized for his charade.

For the record, Maris’ record stood for 37 years before McGwire outslugged Sosa in a dramatic finish to the 1998 season.

At the time, the memorable showdown was credited with revitalizing interest in the National Pastime. Little did most of us know back then that it was a drug-induced euphoria.

McGwire had never hit more than 49 home runs in a season before he connected for 52 in 1996. That was several seasons after he began experimenting with steroids in the early 1990s, according to his confession.

He hit 58 homers in 1997, the year in which he was traded from Oakland to St. Louis. Then came the record-breaking 70 homers in 1998, followed by a 65-homer season in 1999.

That was an average of 61 home runs per season over a four-year span.

Injuries — steroid related, perhaps? — limited McGwire to fewer than 400 at-bats in each of the next two seasons and he retired following the 2001 campaign.

Sosa was almost as prolific.

In the first nine years of his career — split between the Rangers, White Sox and Cubs — Sosa never hit more than 40 homers in a season. But in a four-year span beginning in 1998, he slugged 243 homers, just two fewer than McGwire accrued from 1996 through 1999.

All the while, Barry Bonds was reportedly seething in San Francisco. And considering that the only thing bigger in all of baseball than Bonds’ biceps and hat size was his ego, that hardly came as a surprise.

But even though Bonds didn’t begin his big league career in Pittsburgh as a bona fide home run hitter, he became one. And his consistency, beginning as early as 1990, suggests he didn’t need any chemical help sending baseballs into the cheap seats.

In the 11 seasons leading up to his record-breaking 73 home runs in 2001, Bonds averaged 37 homers per season, including a career-best 49 homers in 2000. In three seasons following his record year, he averaged 45-plus homers per season.

It’s not realistic to suggest that the 73-homer season was nothing more than an anomaly. I would suggest, instead, that his three subsequent seasons would have been more comparable to 2001 had opposing pitchers not wised up and walked Bonds 578 times, nearly 200 free passes per year.

As for poor Roger Maris, well, he wasn’t exactly the model of consistency, either. Prior to 1961, Maris’ career best was 39 home runs in 1960. And his 33-homer season in 1962 was the only other in which he eclipsed 30 homers.

But standing next to the likes of McGwire, Sosa and Bonds, Maris would have looked like junior high school kid. His three-year surge that produced 133 home runs, an average of 44 per season, was no more drug induced than the Babe’s greatest seasons. Unless, that is, you count hotdogs and beer.

Rather, Maris’ success was the by-product of that old real estate slogan: Location, location, location.

Prior to the 1960 season, Maris was traded from the Kansas City Athletics to the Yankees.

That gave the left-handed, dead-pull hitting Maris the opportunity to take aim at old Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch. And it didn’t hurt that Maris was located in the No. 3 hole in the Yankees’ lineup, right in front of Mickey Mantle.

I wasn’t a big Roger Maris fan back in the ’60s. It was probably the pinstripes.

But as the years went by, I learned to appreciate what he went through in New York and what he accomplished. And knowing that we were practically neighbors growing up — Fargo, after all, was just 90 miles up the road — his place in baseball became a matter of regional pride.

So I was not amused in 1998 when McGwire and Sosa closed in on Roger’s record. I hoped against hope that neither would achieve it.

But I paid attention. And I was in front of the television the night McGwire hooked a low line drive just inside the left-field foul poll at Busch Stadium in St. Louis for his 62nd home run of the season.

I was impressed, however, with the class McGwire displayed that night. He was humble and went out of his way to share the moment not only with teammates, family and friends but also with the Maris family, several of whom were in attendance.

That made it a lot easier.

Then, when all the ugliness of the steroid era began to bubble to the surface and McGwire’s name was muddied, I lost that respect for him. Now that he’s come clean, for whatever reasons, at least some measure of that respect has returned.

But that home run record still belongs in Fargo.

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