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Kolpack: Fargo will forever have ownership of the Roger Maris 61 in '61 legacy

Aaron Judge may break the 1961 record, and that's OK, Maris family says

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Goose Gossage hams it up with Kevin Maris during the 2019 Roger Maris Celebrity Golf Tournament at Rose Creek.
David Samson/The Forum
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FARGO — Perhaps it’s serendipity that Aaron Judge is making a run at Roger Maris’ American League and New York Yankees team records of 61 home runs in a single season. It was, after all, 61 years ago when Roger accomplished the feat.

Judge hit his 60th home run on Tuesday night and it’s not a matter if he surpasses Maris, but when. And when that happens, take note fellow Fargoans: Roger’s legacy is not going away. Ever.

The Sanford Roger Maris Cancer Center will continue to help and heal people. The Roger Maris All-Star Week is not going away. The sign isn’t coming down on Roger Maris Drive. The enormous fundraising in the Maris name will not dry up.

“We’re still going to be coming to Fargo supporting the charities and I think legacies are always lasting,” said Kevin Maris, Roger’s son. “I don’t think they ever really go away.”

Kevin and his brother, Roger Jr., are in New York at the invitation of the Yankees. Brother Richard and sister Sandra will be there today.

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“They want us to be part of the whole experience and that’s really nice,” Kevin said. “Dad would appreciate it. The Steinbrenner family has been really good to dad and to the family over the years.”

This pursuit by Judge feels similar to the one Mark McGwire made at the Major League Baseball record. It wasn’t a matter of if McGwire was going to do it but when. When he approached 61, Maris family members became regular attendees to St. Louis Cardinals games, with the record eventually falling at Busch Stadium on Sept. 8, 1998, on a line drive to left field that went out of the yard frighteningly fast.

Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa also surpassed the Maris record and it’s well documented that performance-enhancing drugs were part of that mix. There was that nugget to hold on to; that Maris was still the legitimate home run king because he didn’t artificially pump up his power.

McGwire admitted his mistake, called Pat Maris, Roger’s widow, and apologized. This week, a Fargo native was at Wrigley Field for a Chicago Cubs game when he saw a fan wearing a “The Record is Still 61” T-shirt.

It may not be much longer.

And that’s OK.

Babe Ruth no longer holds any home run records and he’ll always be “The Babe.” Lou Gehrig had his consecutive games played record broken by Cal Ripken, but he’s still Lou Gehrig. Yogi Berra holds the MLB record for World Series games played (how many people knew that?), but he will forever be known as Yogi.

Some names, nicknames and records live in infamy.

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The 61 in ‘61 is one of those.

“You think about it, dad had 61 home runs since baseball started back in the day, it’s been 100-plus years of people never coming close to hitting 61,” Kevin said. “You think of it like that and it’s pretty amazing. Here you have a unique individual who is just a giant and 7 inches bigger than dad was. That type of feat is going to take somebody like that as well as a guy who has a great mental game.”

Maris’ diamond-shaped tombstone with an engraved “61 in ‘61” logo at Holy Cross Cemetery just east of Hector International Airport will always be a nostalgic destination for baseball fans in general and Yankees fans in particular. There will always be a certain historical appreciation factor. People are constantly leaving baseball, flowers or other baseball mementos at the grave site.

Judge has 14 games to hit two home runs to break it, seemingly easily attainable for the 6-foot-7, 282-pound brick house of a man. Roger was 6-0, 197 pounds.

“They don’t come any bigger than that, that I know of, who can hit a baseball,” Kevin said. “He’s got a chance with his strength to mishit home runs as much as crush home runs and being that size is such a unique advantage for him as well. He’s in such a groove right now.”

Roger’s stature in this region is much bigger than physical size. Always will be. For instance, the Maris’ and Sanford have big plans to expand the Cancer Center to regional and perhaps national stature.

“What a great combination to have baseball and the health field to be part of your lasting legacy with the Cancer Center helping people change their lives, improve their lives and save lives,” Kevin said. “It's meaningful for us as a family that dad can carry on his legacy in a whole new fashion and help a lot of new people in life.”

Jeff would like to dispel the notion he was around when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, but he is on his third decade of reporting with Forum Communications. The son of a reporter and an English teacher, and the brother of a reporter, Jeff has worked at the Jamestown Sun, Bismarck Tribune and since 1990 The Forum, where he's covered North Dakota State athletics since 1995.
Jeff has covered all nine of NDSU's Division I FCS national football titles and has written three books: "Horns Up," "North Dakota Tough" and "Covid Kids." He is the radio host of "The Golf Show with Jeff Kolpack" April through August.
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