It was a simpleact by a beleaguered man, one that brought together a country while dividingit, one that ended a vigil just as it began another. The 755th home run ofBarry Bonds's career was not especially different from hundreds that camebefore. He kept his right shoulder in, waited on a fastball as it sliced highover the plate and, in one tight, powerful motion, redirected the baseball some380¬†feet into the twilight sky, where it crashed off a concrete facing inthe leftfield bleachers at Petco Park in San Diego and caromed into a forest ofupraised arms below. The details have been recorded: the pitcher who gave it up(Clay Hensley), the date (Aug. 4, 2007, 21 years after Hank Aaron hit his755th) and the reaction from the 42,000-plus fans (a standing ovation by most,boos by some). What it means, and how it makes us feel--that is morecomplicated.
That Bonds wouldtie Aaron's home run record was inevitable; predicting when it would happen wasthe trick. So for a thick slice of our summer, we lived on Western Barry Time,and whether we did so out of loyalty, disdain or boredom, the slow-motion chasenonetheless provided a connective tissue. Nothing was mundane. Each groundoutand base on balls was thick with possibility. Then on July 27, after he hitnumber¬†754 at AT&T Park, the Barry Watch went live; one to tie, twofor the show. And so it was that the final leg of the chase began as the Giantsembarked on a six-game road trip through the enemy territory ofLos¬†Angeles and San Diego, played out to a sound track of"Ster-Oids" chants and machine-gunning camera shutters. It was afevered, surreal swing through Southern California, one that began with one manatop the alltime home run list and ended with two.
The record-tyinghome run was launched in San Diego, but it was forged earlier in the week inLos Angeles, where Bonds's anxiety reached its peak as an entire city seemed tocrush in on him. You could feel it on the 110 freeway, where a snaking line ofsteel stretched from downtown to the Dodger Stadium exit ramp on game nights,so many Escalades and Suburbans and Acuras and tricked-out Hondas revving andbaking in the late-afternoon sun. The backup was such that the wife of Dodgersoutfielder Luis Gonzalez left home at her usual hour on the first night of theseries but didn't get to her seat until the fourth inning.
The atmospherewas electric, a heady brew of anticipation, opportunism, inebriation andanimosity; one L.A. talk-radio host wondered if there would be violence. Therewasn't, but there was plenty of vitriol. With Bonds's every appearance, theboos came loud and lusty, toppling down and echoing around Chavez Ravine. Theywere even louder when, as happened five times during the series, Bonds waswalked. Los Angelenos did not pay up to four times face value for theirtickets, did not dress up in their Entourage finest of mirrored sunglasses anddesigner jeans, to watch the Dodgers bow down to this old man and send him tofirst base. So, Booooo they roared at their own manager, Booooo they roared attheir own team, even as it was fighting to win a division race. Rarely have somany cared so much about someone they professed to loathe. It's a stance thatformer Dodger Milton Bradley sums up as "impossibly hypocritical."
"I'm fromL.A., these are my people, but it's f----- up," says Bradley, now anoutfielder for the Padres. "You say you hate him, and then you pay all thismoney to go see him?"
They want to seehim fail; they hope he succeeds. This was the strange logic in Los Angeles,where every Bonds at bat caused the rightfield bleachers to shape-shift ashundreds of young men carefully put down $8 beers and took up positions along anarrow concrete gangway, gloves at the ready. With each pitch, a stadium tensedand a constellation of flashbulbs twinkled. On the Giants' bench second basemanKevin Frandsen and shortstop Omar Vizquel were transfixed by the light show. In19 years in the majors Vizquel has been to two World Series and played in threeAll-Star Games, but even he felt the pull of the occasion. When 57 reporterscrowded around Bonds before the game on Aug.¬†1, straining to hear hismuttered comments, Vizquel snuck behind them and took pictures with his digitalcamera.
Others played outthe scenarios and what-ifs. Larry Baer, the Giants' executive VP, stood in thedugout before the game, jacket doffed to fight the heat, and worried."Given the twists and turns of the Dodger rivalry, I have this evilsuspicion that it will happen here," Baer said. He was, of course,referring to 755; everyone knew that Bonds would break the record at home ornot at all. (And once he tied it last Saturday, Bonds made it clear he wouldn'tbe playing on Sunday, not even as a pinch hitter, lest he accidently put one inthe bleachers.)
There would be nohome runs, however, until he fixed his swing. Each night in L.A., Bonds'sfrustration grew more visible. He took great looping cuts in an attempt to pullthe ball up and out of the ballpark. Before the final game of the series, inwhich he would eventually go just 1 for 7, Bonds paced through the clubhouse,grimacing. "I feel like my head is going to explode," he said to no onein particular.
If los angelestortured Bonds, San¬†Diego soothed him. There was none of the edge of L.A.;the fans booed Barry playfully, then cheered him. Instead of drunks spewinginvective from the stands, there were kids playing in Petco Park's 70-foot-longsandbox in right centerfield, oblivious to the context of the night--to them,after all, HGH is merely an incorrect recitation of the alphabet. This is astadium where the fans do the wave and then applaud their own effort, a stadiumwhere one can buy sashimi and wash it down with a Kirin, a stadium where fansnot only asked for Bonds's autograph but also tossed balls to his 17-year-oldson, Nikolai, to sign. "San¬†Diego is like L.A.," observed Bradley,"only with a lot less drama."
Bonds used theweekend to rehab his swing. In his rush to rid himself of the hysteriasurrounding the record, he'd gotten into bad habits. So he tapped his rightshoulder before at bats to remind himself not to turn early, and he went intothe cage before games with John Yandle. A sales manager by trade and a onetimeTriple A pitcher, Yandle has thrown BP for the Giants since 1985 and, sinceBonds's arrival in '93, has been something of a personal pitcher for theleftfielder. Unlike most who throw BP, Yandle does not groove pitches;sometimes he jams hitters, other times his pitches float off the outside edge.Some Giants find this frustrating, but Bonds sees it as a challenge and usuallyrequests that Yandle mix his speed and location. During the last week of thechase, however, all Bonds wanted was fastballs. "You can tell he'sanxious," said Yandle before Friday's game. "He's been altering hisswing so that his shoulder opens, his hips fly open and the swing is allarms." Yandle paused, gesturing to Bonds across the clubhouse. "He'salways been a guy that hits home runs, not a home run hitter, but now he'strying to do it."
On Saturday, theday he hit 755, Bonds arrived at the park early to take extra BP at thesuggestion of Giants hitting coach Joe Lefebvre. So on a warm, quiet afternoon,the world's most scrutinized athlete took 17¬†rounds of batting practice inrelative peace inside an empty stadium, sending some 19¬†balls over thefence. Not content, Bonds took another, unusual step. At 6:45, only 25 minutesbefore game time, he summoned Yandle for a session in the cage under thestands. "You could see he had his swing back," Yandle said later."He was hitting them to the opposite field. I had a feeling."
Number 755 cameat 7:29¬†p.m. PDT, in Bonds's first at bat of the night and--in anirresistibly rich detail--against a pitcher who was suspended for 15 games in2005 for steroid use. A half inning later the fans in the leftfield seats werestill giddy with excitement, drunk on history. Cellphone towers in the areamust have overloaded, so many phones were held aloft in use. In section 130,where the ball was snagged by 33-year-old Adam Hughes, women giggled to eachother, a man in a Dave Winfield jersey reenacted his missed opportunity tocatch the ball and a young security guard crowed to a nearby couple, "I'mgoing to be able to tell my son one day, 'Your daddy was there the day Barrytied the record!' " And who wanted to mention that, really, it's 756 we'llremember and that this was the ultimate consolation prize. All that thesepeople detested about Bonds--his inflated body, his defiant attitude, the erahe represents--was forgotten in the flash of the moment. To the 40,000 insidePetco, Saturday night was about being part of something larger, something thatmade them, by extension, important.
For one Giantsfan, Tim Healy, who was sitting a dozen rows from where the ball was caught,the moment was especially sweet. The 47-year-old communications consultantskipped work last Friday and drove from the Bay¬†Area with his 10-year-oldson, Tyler, burning down I-5 in eight hours to make that night's game. Tim grewup idolizing Barry's father, Bobby, and went to the same high school as Barry."This is what we came here for," said Tim, putting his arm aroundTyler. "Sharing a piece of history with your 10-year-old son. What's betterthan that?"
As Healy saidthis, a man in a Tony Gwynn jersey stood up in the next section. A half inninghad passed, after all, and the statute of limitations on good vibes hadexpired, even in San Diego. "Hey, Barry," he yelled at the leftfielder,"how come your hat is so big?" And with that, the moment was over.
After the game,at a press conference, Bonds gave the equivalent of an Oscar speech, thankingeveryone from his family to "all athletes everywhere." He lookedrelieved and, in an emotion we are not accustomed to from this surly man,almost ecstatic. With family in tow, he then left the conference near midnightand took an elevator down to the parking garage in the basement of Petco Park,where he hugged friends and family and received congratulations from a fewPadres players. You could see how, already, Bonds had changed. It was there, inthe way he accepted their accolades, with shoulders back and a presidentialsmile, one arm extended to grab a shoulder: The new home run king had alreadyaccepted his crown. Whether others would recognize his claim to the throne,whether we would validate it--that remained to be seen.