Forgive those in Fargo for not jumping on the bandwagon in Mark McGwire's and Sammy Sosa's chase for Roger Maris' major-league home-run record.
Forgive them for their doubts about whether the two are worthy.Forgive them for suggesting that an asterisk be affixed to the new home run king.
Fargo is Maris' hometown. He is buried here. His museum is here. It's hard not to run into someone over 60 who wasn't a friend or acquaintance of the left-handed slugger who gained his fame in a Yankee uniform. Here, some people can't help but give McGwire and Sosa a small taste of the resentment Maris was subjected to in 1961 when he surpassed the beloved Babe.
McGwire and Sosa are both within striking distance of Maris' record of 61 homers, set in 1961. Through Thursday, McGwire had 59 homers and Sosa 56. With 23 games left, both are on pace to break the record.
Much of the baseball world is cheering them on. Fans in opposing ballparks demand curtain calls when they hit home runs and boo when pitchers walk them.
The race has revived interest in the national pastime that had been severely damaged four years ago by a players strike that forced cancellation of the World Series.
In Fargo, many people seemed resigned that the record will fall.
"I suppose it had to happen sooner or later. But I'm hoping it's later," said Ann Westra of Moorhead, Minn., which is across the Red River from Fargo.
At the Knights of Columbus club, overlooking the city's downtown from its second-floor perch, two television sets are on each side of the bar where Maris used to drink Budweiser when he was in town. One is tuned into the Chicago Cubs-Cincinnati Reds Wednesday afternoon game; the other has stock market listings streaking across the screen. But patrons are more occupied with pinochle and banter.
The bartender bellows with news that Sosa has hit a home run. Play and conversation stops momentarily as everyone looks toward the bar.
"I'm sure he's going to break the record, but they ain't going to forget him (Maris), right?" said Earl Schmidt, a part-time bus driver for senior citizens.
Sitting across from Schmidt, Dick Wehage, a retired city worker, looks through his shaded glasses toward the bar: "Is the stock market down today now?"
If the record is broken, residents here want the new home run king to be as good a role model as Maris, described as a strong family man who helped raise money for local charitable causes.
Others take issue with McGwire's use of a muscle-enhancing drug that is banned in other sports but legal in baseball.
"I don't think that's fair," said Westra, a Fargo native but who never met Maris.
Some argue McGwire should have an asterisk placed next to his name in the record books because of the steroid use. Maris' home run record was cheapened in 1961 when then baseball commissioner Ford Frick ruled that for Babe Ruth's record to be broken, it had to be done in 154 games, the length of Ruth's season. Maris did it in 162 games.
Maris was born in Hibbing, Minn., but was reared mostly in North Dakota - a state suited to his unpretentious, simple and hardworking personality. He lived in Fargo from 1947 to 1954.
Fargo is the largest city in North Dakota with 75,000 residents. It is Midwestern Americana. Its baseball stadium seats 3,200. Whistles can be heard throughout the day from trains running through downtown along Main Street. The city's $7.5 million general fund this year is less than the yearly average of McGwire's three-year, $28 million contract.
But it has Maris.
His grave is in the back of the Roman Catholic cemetery, the last of three cemeteries along a gravel road. The grave monument, in the shape of a baseball diamond, stands under a green ash tree on plot 210. The memorial is inscribed with a batter and "61 '61" on either side of the extended bat. At the memorial's base "Against All Odds" is chiseled.
"There's a lot of people who come in and take a picture," said volunteer cemetery caretaker Gaylas Pritchard.
His museum is also here in a mall - chosen because it met Maris' three criteria: secure, accessible and free.
It's actually just a 72-by-10 foot glass case along a wall between a pet store and a gift shop. It houses many of the 216 items the Maris family collected over the years, including 17 bats, 29 balls, two golf balls, dozens of pictures, newspaper cartoons, uniforms.
Maris' 1961 home run balls No. 29, 32, 47, 48, 54, 55, 56, 58 and 60 are displayed in a line. At the end of the line, an empty, clear ballholder has a small card inside with "61" written on it. That ball is in the baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, N.Y.
Locals hope that the publicity on the home run race will lead to Maris' induction into the Hall of Fame.
"His baseball made (the hall), he didn't make it," noted Arden Breimeier, who stopped to view the display. "That's a sad comm-en-tary."
Even if the record falls this year, residents say Maris' achievement should not be forgotten.
Besides, there is another, little known Maris record in the books. Maris holds the national high school record for most kickoff returns for a touchdown in one game - four - that he set in 1951 with Fargo Shanley High School.
"One was called back besides," Ken Schwinden of Fargo noted proudly. "He would have had five."