The loudest boos of the season in RFK Stadium rained down on Barry Bonds in his first at-bat last night. In response, Bonds popped up on the first pitch from Livan Hernandez. As an amazing evening evolved, it turned out that Bonds, the crowd and one of the most exciting, yet heartbreakingly emblematic games played at RFK Stadium this season were just warming up.
By Bonds's next at-bat, the full crowd of 32,403 had arrived and the cascade of boos, barely punctuated by applause, was far louder. All over RFK signs appeared, like "Barry Balco" and "It's 'Clear' Barry Can't 'Cream' The Nats."
However, the most interesting placard to Bonds was apparently the huge 10-seat wide by three-row high homemade item perched perhaps 500 feet away in the yellow bleacher seats in right field -- the same remote 500 level where Frank Howard's three famous white-painted home-run seats are found. There, in Section 548, fans unfurled a sign that said, "Roid Rage Blast Zone."
If Bonds could simply hit that sign, he would roughly equal the longest home run ever hit in RFK Stadium by the 6-foot-7, 270-pound Howard. Hernandez offered Bonds four strikes in the span of five pitches -- a rare opportunity. Bonds took mammoth cuts at the third and fourth, fouling them off. But he was zoning in like a heat-seeking missile system.
On the fifth pitch, a sound that resembled a cannon report, not a mere rifle shot, was heard throughout RFK. At first, it seemed that Bonds's high line drive was aimed directly at the "Roid Rage" sign and might even hit it. Perhaps to prove that he's human, or maybe show he just needs to adjust his flax seed dosage, Bonds missed the sign by perhaps a dozen yards.
Nonetheless, Bonds's home run -- of around 460 feet -- landed in the seventh row of the faded burgundy seats in Section 468, just two rows below the aisle that separates the longest home runs of mortals from the mythology of Hondo. Perhaps two homers this year, both off the facing of the mezzanine in center field, rivaled Bonds's blow.
As Bonds rounded the bases, boos continued, while some undecided voters in this first hostile-park referendum on Bonds decided that such a tape-measure effort deserved cheers. As Bonds crossed the plate, he put his index finger to his lips, mocking the crowd with the universal "Shhhh" gesture now common, at least among showboats, in various sports.
Still, the mighty Giant had lived up to his public challenge on Monday, when he said of Washington fans: "I'm coming to get them. . . . Bring it on, baby." Of course, Bonds has always fed on hostility, even if it included the enmity or envy of his teammates.
On this night when Bonds was booed but Cristian Guzman was cheered (for a hit that raised his average to .210), it was only fitting that the ninth inning become a Bonds mystery and a Nats novel. As always seems the case, as if baseball itself attends to such matters, Bonds was due to bat fourth in the inning. Could Hernandez avoid him with a one-two-three inning? Would Bonds end the night in the on-deck circle? If he batted, would the Nats walk him? Or pitch to him -- inciting glee or gall if he fanned or homered? Or would the mere distraction of Bonds's presence allow other Giants to mount a winning rally?
Sure as sin and salvation, Bonds came to bat with a man on first base and two outs. A discussion was required, including Manager Frank Robinson, the battery and the entire infield. The only question: Was it a mound conference or a prayer meeting?
On four pitches, Bonds was walked -- semi-intentionally -- not giving him the pride of being intentionally passed or the opportunity to swing at a hittable pitch. Thus, the mantle of ultimate responsibility fell to Moises Alou, the son of Giants Manager Felipe Alou, but with the tying run on second base and the winning run (a pinch runner for Bonds) on first.
Perhaps, after so much concentration on Bonds, the Nats and Hernandez could not refocus on Alou. Maybe, just three weeks ago, before Chad Cordero gave up back-to-back game-losing ninth-inning homers to the Phillies and Braves, then gave up a save-blowing, soul-crushing, two-out-in-the-ninth grand slam to the Padres last Saturday night, Robinson's wave to the bullpen would have been automatic, despite all his confidence in Hernandez.
However, the psyches and futures of 23-year-old relievers, who have 46 saves before they finally begin to tire in September, need to enter the equation. In a must-win situation, Robinson stayed with Hernandez, the 30-year-old former World Series MVP.
If Alou had popped up Hernandez's first pitch, every Nats fan would have gone home happy, convinced that Robinson was wise, even for a 70-year-old. Instead, Alou decided to open an account at PNC Bank. Or, perhaps, he wanted to save 15 percent with GEICO. It was hard to tell because his 400-foot three-run home run over the left field fence passed over the first sign and smashed near the other for a 4-2 Giants lead.
Naturally, the bottom of the ninth inning was boring -- like so many Nats games this year. Hardly worth watching. No thrills. No never-say-die dramatics. Not from this team that has played 59 one-run games (30-29) and 26 more two-run games (15-11).
Okay, this game's finale was a classic, worthy of what was probably the Nationals' last stand in this year's playoff race. With one out, the Nats loaded the bases with a Vinny Castilla double and two walks. Rookie Ryan Zimmerman, the No. 1 draft pick who's in the majors four months since being at U-Va., worked the count to 3-1. On the next pitch, he hit one of those foul balls straight back that Ted Williams pontificated about, saying you could smell the wood burning on your bat because you had missed a home run by such a small margin. Maybe in another year -- even next year -- that swing will be a home run. In fact, even on his next swing Zimmerman's sacrifice fly to left wasn't far from a game-changer.
Finally, down to their last out, the Nats' Brad Wilkerson slapped a slicing line drive into the left field corner -- the position previously played by Bonds, who had butchered a much easier Wilkerson fly ball into a hit in the first inning. Had No. 25 still been on duty for the Giants, the ball would have rattled in the corner as two runs scored and the Nationals won, 5-4.
Instead, defensive replacement Todd Linden raced full speed, dove full length and crashed to the ground -- with the ball in the end of his glove.
This was, perhaps, the last game played at RFK this season with true postseason significance as the Nats fell five games behind the Astros for the wild card.
Yet, for Bonds theater, for memories of Livan, Wilky, Vinny and so many other new Nats, and for one evening that epitomized a team with amazing spirit and resiliency, but not quite enough payroll or September experience, this was perhaps the best game of the entire season as well.