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HBO Hits a Homer with '61*'

With 61*, Home Box Office has taken one of the most publicized events in sports history — the passing of Babe Ruth's single-season home-run record by Roger Maris — and hit one out of the ballpark.

Executive producer and director Billy Crystal's love of baseball has allowed him to bring considerable emotional luster to this diamond drama.

And the two main actors — Barry Pepper (Saving Private Ryan) as Roger Maris and Thomas Jane (Thin Red Line) as Mickey Mantle — are both ideal in their roles and virtual Maris and Mantle look-alikes, to boot.

There's one asterisk we might add, though, and that's for the rest of the cast: Few of the other performers in this two-hour drama stand out. Even those who portray New York Yankees teammates Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford and Phil Rizzuto — all characters in their own right — emerge as little more than cardboard cutouts.

In a nice touch, the 1961 Maris/Mantle story is bracketed at the movie's start and finish by TV coverage from 1998, when the St. Louis Cardinals' Mark McGwire topped Maris' record.

By the time Maris' home-run output had reached its halfway point, baseball commissioner Ford Frick (Donald Moffat) had already decided to preserve the "integrity" of Ruth's record, with an asterisk and a footnote pointing out that the '61 season was eight games longer than the Babe's 1927 campaign. (Injuries halted Mantle's Ruthian run at 54 round-trippers.)

Sportswriters — and, to a degree, Yankees fans who preferred the affable Mantle to the reticent Maris — come off as the villains in this story, along with Frick.

Those of us who remember seeing the "M&M Boys" home-run competition that year either at Yankee Stadium or on television — and who recall the sometimes nasty sports-press coverage — may be surprised to find that Mantle and Maris were friends.

The film also spends time tracking the Mick's struggle with alcoholism and his move from a hotel suite and the Manhattan nightlife to sharing a Queens apartment with Maris and another teammate.

Since Yankee veterans like Ford and Maris/Mantle roommate Bob Cerv — as well as the sluggers' families — are listed as consultants on this project, we're assuming it's closer to the truth than the bitter-rivalry hype touted by the media coverage of the day.

HBO's 61*
bows on April 28 at 9 p.m., with five repeats in May.