By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 8, 2007
SAN FRANCISCO, Aug. 7 -- Seven fifty-five, the most cherished number in baseball if not all of American sports, lived a good, long, noble life. Spawned from the powerful bat of an aging slugger named Hank Aaron on July 20, 1976, it grew in stature over the years, surviving the occasional challenge and ruling over the record book even as other, lesser records fell. But on a cool Tuesday night near the shores of San Francisco Bay, 755 finally perished at the hands of a relentless, controversial invader from the west named Barry Lamar Bonds. Seven fifty-five is gone. Behold, 756.
The time was 8:51 p.m. PDT, under a wind-swept sky, when Bonds, the San Francisco Giants' left fielder, crushed an 86-mph fastball from Washington Nationals left-hander Mike Bacsik over the wall in right-center field, the deepest corner of AT&T Park. It was a 3-2 pitch in the bottom of the fifth inning, and when the ball cleared the fence some 435 feet away, Bonds was alone atop the sport's all-time home run list. It was homer No. 756, one more than the great Aaron hit.
The dawning of 756 was witnessed by a sellout crowd of 43,154, many of them documenting each tension-filled pitch with cameras, their flashbulbs popping from all corners of the stadium. When the ball was struck, Bonds, 43, immediately dropped his bat and thrust his arms in the air as he watched its flight, the crowd exploding in an ecstatic roar that was heartfelt and unambiguous.
The game was stopped for roughly 10 minutes as Bonds circled the bases to the accompaniment of fireworks over the bay, touched home plate with both hands pointed toward the sky, then hugged his teammates and family members who had been whisked onto the field.
"I've got to thank all of you, all the fans here in San Francisco," Bonds told the crowd from the grass near the Giants' dugout before also thanking his teammates, his family and the Nationals. "It's been fantastic." When it came time to thank his father, the late Giants star Bobby Bonds, the hulking slugger broke down. "Thank you," he said, "for everything."
And then, in a stunning twist that brought gasps from the crowd, a taped message of congratulations was played on the giant video board in center field from, of all people, Aaron himself. Much had been made of the fact that Aaron had chosen not to show up in person for 756 -- a fact many attributed to the widespread belief that Bonds's record was tainted by alleged steroids use -- but the video tribute left no doubt that Aaron had given Bonds's record his unqualified endorsement.
"I move over now," Aaron said on the screen as everyone, including Bonds, stopped to watch, "and offer my best wishes to Barry and his family on this historic achievement."
Only three players in the last 86 years have held the sport's signature mark. Babe Ruth first captured it in 1921, then surrendered it posthumously to Aaron in 1974. And now, for better or worse, it belongs to Bonds.
"It meant everything," Bonds said afterwards of the Aaron tribute. "It meant absolutely everything."
Across the land, baseball fans, including many who play and run the game, are unsure what to make of 756 because of the player who struck it. Bonds is alleged to have used steroids beginning in the late 1990s, fueling a late-career explosion in offensive production that is unparalleled in baseball history. Even as Bonds took aim at Aaron's record this summer, a grand jury continued to investigate him for possible perjury and tax evasion charges stemming from his involvement with an alleged steroids ring.
"This record is not tainted," Bonds said in his postgame news conference. "It's not tainted at all. At all. Period. You guys [in the media] can say whatever you want."
In baseball, numbers matter, and 756 will have a short-lived reign, with Bonds almost certain to hit more homers this season and perhaps beyond. Plus, 32-year-old Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees last week became the youngest player in history to reach 500 home runs, meaning he could threaten Bonds's record -- whatever number it ultimately becomes -- by the time he is 40.
When Aaron broke Ruth's record in 1974 -- a watershed moment for the game, with its overtones of race, Aaron being a black man and Ruth a white man - the first words out of his mouth were, "I just thank God it's over."
This time, such a sentiment could sum up the prevailing attitude toward Bonds. Because of the controversy surrounding him, this summer's march to history -- in every corner of the nation except here -- was treated not as a glorious coronation or a celebration of the sport's history, but as a bitter inevitability.
Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig, who counts Aaron as a dear friend, made little attempt to hide his contempt for Bonds and his belief that Bonds's record is illegitimate -- wavering publicly over whether he would attend Bonds's games, staying out of sight when he finally did show up and never speaking the man's name in interviews. Selig was not present Tuesday night, instead sending two lieutenants, including former Nationals manager Frank Robinson.
Selig, though, phoned Bonds once the latter was removed from the game and issued a statement saying: "Barry's achievement is noteworthy and remarkable. . . . While the issues which have swirled around this record will continue to work themselves towards resolution, today is a day for congratulations."
According to Bonds, Selig told him, "Congratulations. You endured a lot. I have a lot of respect for you." Bonds then added: "I have a lot of respect for him, too."
Bonds had struck base hits in each of his first two at-bats against Bacsik, a 29-year-old journeyman and the son of a former major league pitcher of the same name who had faced Aaron when the latter was in the winter of his career. The younger Bacsik, who spent parts of 11 seasons in the minor leagues before cracking the Nationals' starting rotation, pitched to Bonds seemingly without fear of being known for eternity as the man who served up the historic homer.
"I dreamed of this as a kid," Bacsik said. "Unfortunately, when I dreamed about it, I thought I'd be the one hitting the home run, not giving it up."
Facing Bacsik again in the fifth inning, Bonds worked the count full, then fouled a pitch down the first base line. A new ball was put in play, and on the next pitch, Bonds unleashed his classic swing, its simple grace belying its awesome power, his orange-on-black batting gloves tracing a sunbeam across his body.
After both players were pulled from the game, Bacsik took the unusual step of visiting Bonds in the Giants' clubhouse to congratulate him, and Bonds, unsolicited, offered him an autographed bat. "To Mike," it read. "God bless. [Signed] Barry Bonds."
"He just said, 'You're going to be a good pitcher, and I'm going to enjoy watching you on TV in future years,'" Bacsik recalled. "He's the greatest of all-time. Giving it up to Barry Bonds is nothing to be ashamed of."
Within seconds of the ball's leaving the field of play, some Nationals players, led by veteran first baseman Dmitri Young, began moving toward their own dugout, while others congregated near the infield to get a better look. Many of the Nationals applauded as Bonds soaked in the ovation from his fans.
The teeming scrum of humanity in the stands where the ball landed finally parted to reveal the ball -- itself an object of obsession, not to mention potential riches -- in the hands of a man identified as Matt Murphy, 22, of Queens, N.Y. According to Giants officials, Murphy merely was stopping over in San Francisco on his way to a vacation in Australia, and had purchased his ticket (face value: $13) outside the gates on the day of the game.
When Bonds hit No. 755 in San Diego on Saturday night, there had been a mixed reaction, passionate boos and equally passionate cheers clanging against each other to form a dual-frequency wall of noise that spoke to Bonds's polarizing nature. But here, where Bonds is a native son and a beloved figure, there was scarcely a dissenting voice heard.
Let them mourn 755 elsewhere. Let the authorities claim foul play was involved in its demise. Here, they will celebrate the new king. They will all hail 756.