Billy Crystal may be America’s performer. He is the gold standard in this country for entertainment. He was so good for so long hosting the often-dreadful Academy Awards that they should have named it “The Billy Crystal Show,” co-starring the rest of Hollywood.
Crystal is back performing, this time his Tony Award-winning stage show, “700 Sundays,” about the time spent with his family growing up in Long Beach, N.Y. The show is coming to the District’s National Theatre from Sept. 8 to Sept. 17.
But he is also, like so many of us, a baseball fan, and to those who say fans don’t care about the steroids controversy and the impact of performance-enhancing substances on the game, you should hear what Crystal said as a guest Wednesday on “The Sports Fix” on ESPN 980, co-hosted by Kevin Sheehan and me.
Crystal directed the HBO film “61” in 2001, the story of Roger Maris’ record-breaking 61-home run season in 1961 and the turmoil surrounding his breaking of the mark, then held by American icon Babe Ruth.
Ruth held the record of 60 home runs in a single season for 34 years until Maris broke it. Then, 37 years later, Mark McGwire broke Maris’ record by hitting 70 home runs. Three years later, Barry Bonds set the single-season mark with 73. And while Sammy Sosa never set a record, he did hit more than Maris’ 61 home runs three times from 1998 to 2001. McGwire, Sosa and Bonds were either proven or suspected steroid users.
And despite all the attention that McGwire brought to the Maris family during his record-setting season, Maris’ accomplishments were diminished with each passing year in the steroid era.
That’s the crime, Crystal said. That’s what is so wrong. The accomplishments of the men who played the game without the help of performance-enhancing substances wind up being devalued. And in the case of Maris, who passed away in 1985 at age 51, there is no one to speak out for his accomplishments except family members and fans like Crystal.
“I was just in Fargo, North Dakota, Roger’s hometown,” Crystal said. “It was an amazing time. We showed the movie in the Fargo Theatre, where Roger and his wife, Pat, used to go on dates. All the Maris kids and grandkids were there. It was powerful.
“This was right after Manny [Ramirez] came out and said he tried to get pregnant,” Crystal said about Ramirez, who tested positive earlier this year for human chorionic gonadotropin, a female fertility drug also used in conjunction with anabolic steroids. “I guess he felt the thing missing in his life was a child.
“Bob Costas and I did a town hall meeting in Fargo,” Crystal said. “I said to the audience, ‘These guys have ruined it. It’s a shame.’…”
Yes, it is a shame, but the ones who should be ashamed don’t seem to know the meaning of the word. Sosa should feel shame for passing Frank Robinson on the all-time home run list. Alex Rodriguez, an admitted steroid user, should feel shame for having recently passed Harmon Killebrew on the all-time home run list.
How will A-Rod, if he winds up in the Hall of Fame, look Killebrew and others in the eye on the stage in Cooperstown someday? And if those great players are gone by then, will there be others like Crystal who will give their accomplishments the perspective they deserve?
Four years ago, the North Dakota Senate urged Major League Baseball to re-establish Maris’ 61 home runs as the single-season record. That’s not likely to happen, but Crystal believes there should be something in the record books to acknowledge the difference between the inflated numbers and Maris’ record.
“The asterisk for Roger [in 1961, commissioner Ford Frick declared that an asterisk be placed next to Maris’ record because he played in a 162-game season compared with Ruth’s 154-game season, though it was later removed] should be now for most home runs for someone not using performance-enhancing drugs,” Crystal said. “It’s hard to take it away from Bonds or any of these guys. You can’t really do that, but I think there needs to be more recognition. You see now there is only one guy who has 40 home runs. - Everyone else is where they used to be.
“I think that is a testimony to what Roger did, especially with everything he went through,” Crystal said. “There should be a bigger spotlight on what Roger did, especially in light of what has been going on.”
Billy Crystal did his part with the making of “61.” There will be no films made celebrating the accomplishments of Barry Bonds - just the scandals, perhaps.
• Thom Loverro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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