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The meaning of Roger Maris

Baseball has a new beacon of truth, and it's the same guy who was history's arch-nemesis 52 years ago.


Roger Maris is in the headlines again. That's one of the ways a bear might know a baseball pundit has been sleeping in its bed. When you see Eddie Mathews' name in a headline, you think, "Say, this is an article about baseball." When you see Maris's name, you know that Class 4 punditting is about to follow.

Not that I'm somehow above that. I enjoy a good punditting as much as the next guy. Cleans you out. And when people started suggesting that Chris Davis was chasing the true home-run record, I argued in favor of context, not wholesale revision. Figured we were close to the end of Roger Maris talk.

But Davis hit a bunch of homers after that. He has four over the All-Star break. That means that Maris's name isn't going away soon. Jeff Passan asked players which record was legitimate:

Of 15 All-Stars surveyed by Yahoo! Sports and asked a simple question – what is the home run record,Roger Maris’ 61 or Barry Bonds’ 73? – their response was almost unanimous: 73.

Joey Votto was surprisingly blunt in an era of 110-percents and one-day-at-a-times:

"If Chris feels like 61 is the home run record, maybe he’s just selfishly pegging that number as the home run record so if he passes it he can wear a crown or something like that," Reds first baseman Joey Votto said. "There would be a lot of money in that."

Frank Deford believes in Roger Maris. And fairies … I think:

If Davis keeps hitting home runs, I think we should all cheer whenever he comes to the plate, not necessarily to salute him, but because we are of the belief that he is going after Maris' one true, legitimate record.

And then it hit me: Roger Maris has become a symbol of purity for the people looking for just that sort of thing.

This is amazing for a couple of reasons. The first is that the Asterisk of Extenuating Circumstances in baseball was invented because of Roger Maris. They made a pretty good movie about it. Anthony Michael Hall did a good job as Whitey Ford, which is something that will always be fun to type. It's funny that Maris is now the obvious and true holder of the record when so many people spent so much time back in '61 arguing that he most certainly was not.

The second reason it's amazing is because here's what I think of when I think of Roger Maris:

Age HR
22 14
23 28
24 16
25 39
26 61
27 33
28 23
29 26
30 8
31 13
32 9
33 5

Imagine if you will, if no one had ever broke Babe Ruth's single-season record. The steroid era came and went, and Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds came close, but Ruth still held the record. Now imagine that Roger Maris played today and had the exact same career. Pretend he broke the record this season with 61 home runs.

Do you know how many single-sentence-paragraph columns that career would have eventually spawned? This year, sure, but also the further away from the record we got. The more we realized that Maris would never repeat his record-setting season -- never get close to it, really -- the more the column would have written itself.

What do we really know?

What do we have to guess?

I'd like to think Roger Maris was clean.

I really would.

But then how would you explain the Year that Was, and the Year that Would Never Be Again?

You can't.

Rick Reilly would stand outside Maris's window, Lloyd Dobler-style, holding a receptacle for urine instead of a boom box. It would be so easy to be suspicious. The default, even. Look at that one big season. What an outlier. It's a shame that we have to think this, but here's a column dancing around why we should think this. If Davis hits 62 this year, 30 the next, and never tops 25 again, watch for it. Hopefully, we won't have to.

But that's an alternate reality. None of that happened, so we get to read and hear about Maris being a symbol of truth and purity. What I like to think of when I think of Maris, though, is something entirely different. It makes me think of players who explode for no tangible reason. It makes me think of players who are mostly done before they're 30. It makes me think of fluke seasons and careers that were cruelly short.

In other words, Maris makes me think of how baseball is a liar. It's a liar in the moment, and it's a liar with the benefit of hindsight. The players you know as good now will be bums in a year, and the bums of today will be at Target Field next July. Maris is an example of how truth in baseball is more a Rorschach test than anything objective.

For the next few months, though, Maris will be the truth and light and everything in between. I wish we could have traveled back in time and explained this to someone with an axe to grind in 1961. It's almost a little endearing. Almost.