For Billy Crystal - actor, lifelong Yankee fan and the director of the movie “61*” - watching Roger Maris’ children attend games where their father’s home run record could be broken is déjà vu all over again.
The Maris family made their way to Busch Stadium in St. Louis when Mark McGwire broke the record with his 62nd home run in 1998, and they’ve been in attendance at Yankee Stadium to watch Aaron Judge attempt to do the same this week.
“Seeing the Maris kids now older and going through it again at the stadium, it just brings back all kinds of memories that were so great about making of the film, but also about that summer, which was one of my great summers of all time at the age of 13, to witness this chase,” Crystal said Friday on "The Michael Kay Show" on 98.7 ESPN New York with Michael Kay, Don La Greca and Peter Rosenberg.
And Crystal wants Maris’ children to know that, until Judge hits his 62nd home run, the single-season home run record remains in their name despite Barry Bonds having hit 73 in 2001.
“Their dad to me is home run champion,” he said of Maris. “That's the clean record.”
The record will continue to remain in the Yankee family, just as it did when Maris hit his 61st home run in 1961 to pass Babe Ruth. But it will be Judge’s name at the top of the list for single-season home runs in the American League as he puts the finishing touches on a record-breaking, and potential Triple Crown, season.
Judge hit his 60th home run on Monday to tie Ruth. He’ll look to pull even with Maris on Friday when the Yankees host the Boston Red Sox.
“This is a finished product of so much hard work and to make it look so easy and graceful, it's an extraordinary athlete that we're seeing,” Crystal said of Judge.
McGwire and Sammy Sosa also made it look easy in 1998 when the two engaged in an epic home-run chase, as McGwire finished the season with 70 and Sosa had 66. But both were later suspected of having used performance enhancing drugs. McGwire, in 2010, admitted to having used steroids and called Pat Maris, the widow of Roger, to tell her before making a public announcement.
“We saw two extraordinary guys, but something was not right,” Crystal said. “You don't break your bat and hit the ball 500 feet. So, you knew something wasn't right. It was extraordinary. They were going back and forth with it, and it was so entertaining. And it came out at a perfect time for baseball. But it was, as we would find out, it was a tainted record.”
That nearly led Crystal to changing the ending of the movie “61*” -- which came out in 2001. The movie begins with the Maris family traveling to St. Louis and ends with McGwire breaking the record.
“We almost changed the end of the movie where Mark is holding Roger's bat and he gets very teary,” Crystal said. “And we thought well, no, that was the time. We should just leave it…Roger is a champion, but those were the times that we were dealing with. So now we're just seeing a pure athlete just having an amazing year.”
Even when Judge does break the record, Crystal believes the number 61 and Maris will forever hold their rightful place in baseball history.
“He was such an underrated, great ballplayer, a two-time MVP, two years in a row, three-time world champion, seven World Series, and an extraordinary fielder,” Crystal said. “Everyone's consumed about the numbers. But this record has lasted for 61 years.”
That longevity is what makes it difficult for Maris’ children to see their father’s record fall.
“For Roger Jr. and Randy and Susan and Kevin, it's a mixed bag for them,” Crystal said. “They've been holding on to this for so long. It's sort of, you know, the last that they have of him now that Pat Maris is gone too, their mom, who was a wonderful person. So, yeah, it's definitely mixed feelings.”