When Mark McGwire broke Roger Maris’s single-season home-run record in 1998, Maris’s family was a very visible presence at St. Louis’s Busch Stadium. After hitting homer No. 62, McGwire climbed into the stands down the first-base line and embraced Maris’s sons and daughters, who’d gathered to watch one of the most celebrated records in sports fall after months of anticipation. (Maris died in 1985.) Kevin Maris, the second of Roger’s four sons, said at the time that he was rooting for McGwire to surpass his father’s mark.
Between 1998 and 2001, the Maris record would be shattered six times: twice by McGwire, thrice by Sammy Sosa, and once by Barry Bonds, whose 73 homers in 2001 remains the MLB record. But Bonds and Sosa are widely thought to have used performance-enhancing drugs, and McGwire has admitted to doing so. The fact that no player has hit 60 homers in 21 years makes the late ’90s and early aughts look even more anomalous and has led some to argue that Maris’s record is still the legitimate one. (Others disagree.)
Now Aaron Judge, the gargantuan Yankees slugger, is closing in on 61. And Kevin Maris, who these days feels differently about that 1998 season, believes Judge is on the brink of becoming the real home-run champ. Maris spoke with Intelligencer about why he believes his father is still the record holder, how he feels about Judge’s epic season, and why Major League Baseball needs something beyond an asterisk to handle steroid-era achievements.
How closely are you following Aaron Judge’s season?
I’m a baseball guy. I coach high-school baseball down in Florida, and I watch whenever I get the chance to.
Are you rooting for him to get to 60, or 61, or beyond?
I just like to see a good, competitive challenge. I don’t think anybody likes to see their own record broken at the end of the day, but if he does it, I’ll be happy, tip my hat to him, and be excited for him. I love watching competition and seeing guys reach pinnacles. Not many guys get to do that or have the opportunity to do that. Back when Dad did it, he was facing the icon of the game, Babe Ruth. It wasn’t any bigger than Babe Ruth, and the trials and tribulations he went through during that stretch — he didn’t have it easy. He had death threats.
How different is it for someone like Judge, who doesn’t appear to have any of that hate coming his way?
I think it’s definitely different. Babe Ruth was baseball, so it was a whole different atmosphere. I don’t Judge has that aspect to deal with, which is good. Nowadays, there’s a lot of excitement. This home-run record of 61 has always been such a draw. I think it draws a lot of people to the game.
Do you consider 61 to be the real single-season record?
Well, you know, Dad hit 61. And I think public opinion says that Dad really has the record. How can you celebrate people that have been known to cheat the game? It’s not done in any other sport. So I’d have to go with the court of public opinion.
How do you look back on 1998 now? Your family was there when McGwire broke your dad’s record. Do you regret that?
No. I mean, we had to go with the times. We thought everything was aboveboard, and Mark’s a really genuine guy. He just made a bad choice at the end of the day. He was very appreciative of the family and the struggles that Dad went through to do what he did, and to acknowledge the family the way he did was pretty unique because not many guys probably would’ve done something like that, you know?
Me being a baseball guy, I had my suspicions, but we only knew what we knew, just like everybody else. When he hit 61, ESPN the Magazine had a picture of the family, and behind the family, there’s 40,000-whatever thousand people standing and cheering. And I’m the only one sitting because I kinda sensed something different. The rest of my family was standing, doing their thing, but me being a baseball guy being around the sport for the last 30, 40 years and being in the game with my family for 62 years, I had a different sense of what was really going on.
And then when things came out — yeah, it was pretty disappointing. He called Mom and apologized to her, and he realized that it wasn’t right. So that tells you a story itself.
If Judge hits 62, how do you feel about him doing it? What do you think of him as a ballplayer?
I think he’s an exciting ballplayer. He’s an impressive guy, and he plays the game with a passion and intensity. I think he’s represented himself as a Yankee in a very good way on and off the field.
When your dad broke Ruth’s record, there was talk about how to handle it because the season was longer than when Ruth played. And there was talk of whether there should be an asterisk or something, even if one was never actually placed in the record book. Now there’s at least some question of how to handle records from the steroid era.
They need to come up with some other mark if they want to still keep those records in the record books like they’re worthy of something. Give it a syringe — that way people know it’s tainted. Do something different than an asterisk. Dad made that thing famous, and it wasn’t even put there.
The problem with 70 and 73 is that those really aren’t attainable numbers. Judge is having a phenomenal season, and look where he’s at. Do you really think 70 is realistic? Sixty is attainable. There’s a legit chance for a ballplayer to get to it, but it’s going to take a healthy season and a mental game that’s above and beyond the call of duty. Things just have to go right. That was the unique thing about the number 60, but who really even entertained 70, right?
Baseball is a game of numbers. Everybody’s chasing the numbers. Well, you’ve got a little three-year, four-year stretch that tainted the numbers, that skewed them. In other sports, they kick cheaters out at the end of the day. Baseball has their view, but I just don’t think somebody that’s cheated the game should be rewarded, period.
Would you have any interest in being there if Judge gets to 61 or 62?
I think that’d be fun to do. We’d love to be a part of that.
Has anyone from the Yankees or Major League Baseball reached out about anything like that?
It’s still a little bit early, but now we’re getting closer, and I’m sure in due time, things will take place.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.