As Giancarlo Stanton Chases Roger Maris' 61 HR Mark, Roger Maris Jr. Cheers

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistSeptember 19, 2017

MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 05:  Giancarlo Stanton #27 of the Miami Marlins hits during a game against the Washington Nationals at Marlins Park on September 5, 2017 in Miami, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Roger Maris Jr. was listening. He always listens. Because as long as there is baseball and as long as there are home runs, if he listens hard enough, his father is still close to him.

So yes, when Miami Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton tossed a shoutout to Maris Jr.'s father last month, you bet it came through loud and clear.

You see, over the past two decades, we've been through Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire (twice) and Sammy Sosa (three times). We've watched McGwire break the single-season home run record in 1998 (70), Bonds up the ante in 2001 (73) and other 62-plus efforts during the cartoonish seasons of 1998-2001 that made Roger Maris' old record of 61 in 1961 seem almost quaint by comparison. He now ranks all the way down at seventh on the all-time single-season home run list.

And yet, there was Stanton last month, en route to constructing possibly the greatest long ball season we've seen since Bonds', noting he still considers Maris' 61 to be the record.

"I did see that, and I think a lot of people feel that way," Maris Jr. told Bleacher Report in a recent phone conversation. "The record books don't indicate that, but in the court of public opinion, I think a lot of people think that is the record even though it's not in the books.

"Kind of like when Dad hit 61, a few people thought differently at that time, too. It's interesting Stanton is shooting for that, and it's exciting to watch him play."

Single-Season Home Run Leaders
PlayerNo.Season
Barry Bonds732001
Mark McGwire701998
Sammy Sosa661998
Mark McGwire651999
Sammy Sosa642001
Sammy Sosa631999
Roger Maris611961
Babe Ruth601927
Baseball-Reference.com

It says a mouthful regarding both baseball's revered numbers and the permanent stain from the steroid era that a man who spent the entire 2016 season with Bonds as his hitting coach would then approach a milestone home run mark one season later and...completely discard Bonds in favor of digging back into history.

Maris Jr.'s father is not in the Hall of Fame, yet he doggedly continues to be remembered in his own unique way as a historical figure. Seasons come and seasons go, yet Roger Maris never goes out of style. And it is touching to Maris Jr. and his three brothers and two sisters.

"It obviously makes you feel good knowing he's in good light with the people who follow baseball and with the general public," Maris Jr. said. "There's never a time that goes by when you don't think that's great."

Maris Jr., who lives in Gainesville, Florida, was scheduled to be in Atlanta for the Marlins-Braves game two Saturdays ago, and he was supposed to meet Stanton for the first time. While Hurricane Irma forced Maris Jr. to cancel, Stanton smashed No. 54.

Meanwhile, Maris Jr. this month is preparing to launch 61 Outfitters, a clothing company specializing in fishing and hunting caps designed to honor his father.

That Stanton happens to be stirring memories of the former New York Yankees slugger in the same month that the Maris family is gearing up for the launch of a clothing line that plays off Roger's accomplishment is not lost on Maris Jr. He's seen enough to know that timing is everything in this game.

While Maris Jr., 58, doesn't watch baseball as much as he once did, he does pay attention, especially to MLB's annual Home Run Derby. And you bet he noticed it was Stanton at last summer's event in San Diego who set a Home Run Derby record by slugging...61 homers.

Roger Jr. playing a game of pepper with his father, Roger Maris.
Roger Jr. playing a game of pepper with his father, Roger Maris.Photo courtesy of Roger Maris Jr.

"It's all flowing together," Maris Jr. said.

In a way, it always has. One of he and his wife Danis' two daughters, Brie, 24, interned for the Yankees a couple of summers ago, and the family has been invited back to Yankee Stadium several times for various ceremonies: the 50th anniversary of Maris' 61-homer season, the final game at old Yankee Stadium, Opening Day in new Yankee Stadium, a Roger Maris bobblehead giveaway.

"The Yankees have always been very good to us," Maris Jr. says. "George Steinbrenner was extremely gracious with my dad, and the Steinbrenners to this day always have been very generous with us."

Roger Maris died of cancer in December 1985, at the age of 51. The family's highest-profile baseball date since then, of course, was its attendance at St. Louis' Busch Stadium on the night in 1998 when McGwire broke their father's record with his 62nd home runfive of Roger's six children were in attendance: Roger Jr., Richard, Kevin, Randy and Sandra. Those images remain indelible, and it was especially emotional that evening not only because of the record but also because Roger Maris finished his career in St. Louis.

Maris Jr. vividly remembers plenty of nights running around that old ballpark as a kid, and playing pepper there with his father. While the family talked about its "disappointment" following McGwire's steroids admission, even that doesn't overshadow their fondness for him personally. After the steroids admission, McGwire phoned Pat Maris, Roger's widow, personally to apologize.

"What happened happened," Maris Jr. said. "He admitted what he did, he said he was sorry, and I believe he was. I think he's a pretty great guy. He didn't have to say that. Like when he was under oath to Congress and he took the Fifth, most people would have tried to protect what they did and lied through their teeth. That shows character, for him to come clean and be upfront about it. You've got to give him kudos for that."

From a distance, Maris Jr. still views 1998 mostly in a positive way.

"Sosa and Mac, in my mind, I related it to my dad and Mickey [Mantle]," he said, referring to the two Yankees who dueled in '61, when his dad finished with 61 homers and Mantle 54. "When Dad did this, he was the first guy to do it where the media was really [outsize], when you had television and print, radio; everybody was fighting for stories at the time, but there was nobody in the locker rom to protect him. There was no press secretary. He would be sitting in the locker room for hours answering question after question, and if he didn't answer the 100th question, he was a jerk."

It was quite an education, Maris Jr. said. And then, "to see Mark break the record and get all the adulation, you think about what it was like for Dad."

ED REINKE/Associated Press

He's never met Bonds. He was watching on television the night the Giants slugger broke McGwire's single-season record in '01, albeit with far different emotions.

"In the moment, pretty much everyone kind of knew what was going on," Maris Jr. said. "The home runs were just getting out of control. One year they did it, then everyone's hitting 65, 67. Then there was a point where the record was going to be so far obliterated.

"It used to be that every year someone got off to a hot start and there was a number that was attainable. Now, it's not even attainable."

At the time, Maris' achievement was controversial because Babe Ruth was—and remainsa beloved legend and because Maris broke the Babe's single-season record in the first season in which MLB expanded its schedule to 162 games. Previously, clubs had played 154 games.

But while Maris' Yankees played eight more games in 1961 than Ruth's Yankees in 1927, Maris wound up with just seven more plate appearances than Ruth in their historic seasons (698-691). And it took Maris three fewer plate appearances to hit 60 compared to Ruth (684-687). Maris then hit No. 61 in his 696th plate appearance of the '61 season.

There's no telling what Roger Maris would have thought of McGwire and Co., but Maris Jr. said: "I think he would have loved it. I think he'd have been right there with it. He loved the long ball. I don't think he's any different than any other person in this country who lived through that whole time. It was like, Wow. There was a wow factor to the whole deal."

That wow factor re-appeared with Stanton for a time in August and early September, but he's now hit only one home run in his last seven games. Nevertheless, Maris Jr. is rooting for him.

"When he first came into the league and I saw his first homer, I thought, 'Oh my God, who is that?'" Maris Jr. said. "The way he turned on the ball, the power he exuded. Ever since then, I've been a big fan, following him. He's just incredible. When he first came up, you were just in awe if you were a fan and enjoy the long ball.

"I was like, 'How many home runs is he going to hit?'"

    

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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