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N. Dakota seeks justice for Maris

As museums go, it's not much. Tucked away in a shopping mall next to a pet store full of barking dogs, the Roger Maris Museum is little more than a large display case.

Press up against the glass and you can see some home run baseballs from 1961, uniforms Maris used to wear, and a replica of his Yankee Stadium locker. A recent remodeling added a few seats to watch film clips of Maris hitting No. 61.

It's not Cooperstown, but that's another Maris story by itself. People in Fargo, N.D., are proud of it, though, just like they are of their most famous native son.

"He was just loved by so many people," Fargoan Jackie Shaw said.

The Maris museum is free to anyone strolling by the West Acres Mall. If you need another reason to visit, you can always get a manicure across the hall at Nails Pro.

The tribute to Maris is straightforward and honest. There are old clippings, old bats, black and white pictures. It brings back memories of a time when things were simpler.

Those times were long gone by the time Mark McGwire broke Maris's record in 1998. By then, players had grown oversized muscles the likes of which were never seen on Maris when he passed Babe Ruth at Yankee Stadium Oct. 1, 1961.

Now, with a new baseball season beginning tonight, everyone -- and everything -- suddenly is suspect in a game that was never supposed to change.

It begins with McGwire disgraced after an embarrassing performance before Congress in which he did everything but admit he used steroids.

It begins with questions swirling about Barry Bonds, his chase of Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron on the career homer list, and his eventual place in baseball's pumped-up Hall of Shame.

It begins with baseball's home run records now nothing but a sham, in need of a bigger asterisk beside them than the mythical one once given Maris.

And it begins with the people of North Dakota wanting some justice for their hero.

"I think everybody knows Roger wasn't using anything," said Jim Deutsch, who with Shaw helps run the annual Roger Maris charity golf tournament. "I think everybody here in their hearts thinks he still has the record."

Earlier this week, the North Dakota Senate passed a resolution asking baseball commissioner Bud Selig to reinstate Maris's 61 home runs as the official major league record.

That's likely to happen about the same time that Bonds hosts an appreciation party for the media, or the shrinking violet McGwire decides that, yes, he would like to talk about the past after all.

But the mere fact that North Dakotans are upset ought to jolt some sense into the otherwise senseless Selig.

These are people who know something about humility and fair play. Living through miserable and seemingly endless winters also teaches them something about the human spirit.

"We're not demonstrating in the streets or anything, but you've got to appreciate the North Dakota mentality," Deutsch said. "It takes a lot to get people agitated in this area."

The same people reluctantly embraced McGwire when he broke the record. They liked the grace McGwire showed to the Maris family, hugging his sons in their box seats after he hit home run No. 62. If the record had to be broken, they thought this was the right guy to do it.

Things have changed, though, since those warm, fuzzy days that helped rekindle the nation's love affair with its national pastime. They've been replaced by different images, those of Jason Giambi repeatedly apologizing for something, McGwire being more evasive before Congress than a Mob boss, and Bonds blaming everyone but himself for his situation.

The Maris family has every right to feel used, and even cheated, by baseball. Maris had to deal with the dreaded "asterisk" until he died, and then his four sons allowed baseball to put them on display in a touchy-feely moment to affirm McGwire's new record.

If they do feel that way, they're not saying. Calls to the sons weren't returned and Maris's sister hung up when reached by the Associated Press.

They don't bash McGwire in Fargo because that's not their way, though they would like the record back. They also note McGwire donates $6,200 to the Maris golf tournament every year, $100 for each tainted home run until the record was broken.

Most of all, they want people to know their guy played a pure form of the game, the kind that farm kids around the country played in his day.

"You look back and say, `Gosh, this man didn't do anything special. He was just a skinny looking guy from Fargo,' " Shaw said. "He didn't bulk up on anything, or do anything like that. He would smoke and have a few beers with the guys after the game, but that was about it."

Shaw is wrong. Maris did do something special. And, unlike today's sluggers, his only help was the short right-field porch at Yankee Stadium.

The new season begins tonight in New York, where Maris set the record 44 years ago.

It's a good time to remember a past when you could trust what you saw on the field.

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