On May 22, 1998, the San Francisco Giants arrived in St. Louis for a three-game series with the Cardinals. That weekend, Giants All-Star leftfielder Barry Bonds got a firsthand look at the frenzied excitement surrounding Mark McGwire, baseball's emerging Home Run King.
Bonds had recently remarried, but on this trip he was accompanied by his girlfriend, Kimberly Bell, a slender, attractive woman with long brown hair and brown eyes whom he had met four years earlier in the players' parking lot at Candlestick Park. Bell had been looking forward to the trip, and it was pleasant in many ways -- a big hotel room with a view of St. Louis's famous arch; a wonderful seat eight rows behind home plate; and even tornado warnings, which were exotic to a California girl. But Bonds was sulky and brooding. A three-time National League MVP, he was one of the most prideful stars in baseball. All that weekend, though, he was overshadowed by McGwire.
Even by the standards of the modern game, the Cardinals' first baseman was a player of exceptional size and power. That summer the 6'5" McGwire weighed 250 muscular pounds and was hitting balls that traveled in long, soaring arcs. The season was less than two months old, but he already had hit 20 home runs and was ahead of both Babe Ruth's and Roger Maris's record-breaking paces. Players, fans and the media were already eagerly anticipating that McGwire would break baseball's most storied record, but Bonds's mood remained irretrievably foul.
On that trip Bonds began making racial remarks about McGwire to Kimberly Bell. According to Bell he would repeat them throughout the summer, as McGwire and Sammy Sosa, the buff, fan-friendly Chicago Cubs slugger who also was hitting home runs at an amazing rate, became the talk of the nation.
"They're just letting him do it because he's a white boy," Bonds said of McGwire and his chase of Maris's record. The pursuit by Sosa, a Latin player from the Dominican Republic, was entertaining but doomed, Bonds declared. As a matter of policy, "they'll never let him win," he said.
As he sometimes did when he was in a particularly bleak mood, Bonds was channeling racial attitudes picked up from his father, the former Giants star Bobby Bonds, and his godfather, the great Willie Mays, both African-American ballplayers who had experienced virulent racism while starting their professional careers in the Jim Crow South. Barry Bonds himself had never seen anything remotely like that: He had grown up in an affluent white suburb of San Francisco, and his best boyhood friend, his first wife and his present girlfriend all were white. When Bonds railed about McGwire, he didn't articulate who "they" were, or how the supposed conspiracy to rig the home run record was being carried out. But his brooding anger was real enough, and it continued throughout a year in which he batted .303, hit 37 home runs, made the All-Star team for the eighth time and was otherwise almost completely ignored. The home run chase, meanwhile, transfixed even casual fans, in the way that a great pennant race used to do in the old days.
McGwire hit number 62 on Sept. 8 in St. Louis, amidst a wild celebration and before a national TV audience, and then continued hitting bombs: five of them in his final 11 at bats, including two on the last day of the season, to finish with 70, four ahead of Sosa.
On the West Coast, Barry Bonds was astounded and aggrieved by the outpouring of hero worship for McGwire, a hitter whom he regarded as obviously inferior to himself. Bonds was 34 years old, had played in the big leagues for 12 years and was known for an unusual combination of speed and power. Before the 1993 season he had signed what was then the richest contract in the game: $43.75 million for six years, and he knew he was on his way to the Hall of Fame. For as long as he had played baseball, Bonds had regarded himself as better than every other player he encountered, and almost always he was right.