The first No. 715 exited the ballpark in Atlanta on a damp April night in 1974, arcing over the fence in left-center field and dropping nimbly into a hallowed place in American sports lore. Hank Aaron carved his spot in baseball history while unburdening himself of a horrific ordeal.
The second 715 was sired more than 32 years later, on Sunday afternoon. It flew off the bat of Giants slugger Barry Bonds, through a cloudless sky in San Francisco, landing beyond the center-field wall of AT&T Park.
The second 715 carries a story and a burden all its own.
At one time, for a period of almost 40 years, there was no more recognizable number in sports history than 714. Among endless reams of gray and cold statistics, 714 was golden. It was royalty. It belonged to the Sultan of Swat, the King of Swing, the Bambino, the iconic Yankees slugger Babe Ruth. Seven hundred and fourteen career home runs, it was thought, could never be equaled. It was Babe's record, the greatest record in sports.
Then came the Braves' Aaron, neither the most celebrated nor the most beloved ballplayer of his era. If Aaron was anything throughout his long, wonderful career, though, he was consistent, fiercely determined and supremely talented. Quiet and workmanlike, Aaron was beginning his 21st season in the majors when he stepped to the plate that night in Atlanta, tied with the Babe at 714. "The Hammer," as he was known throughout the game, was just days shy of his 40th birthday.
When he connected with 715, at 9:07 p.m. ET, it was more than historic. It was a release, an end to months and months of unceasing tension during which Aaron received literally hundreds of thousands of virulent, racist letters that often threatened his life and the lives of his family. That night, after he let loose with the record breaker, there was untamed joy among the more than 53,000 fans in Atlanta.
For the slugger, there was relief. "I just thank God it's all over," Aaron said at the time.
For the often inscrutable Bonds, one of the game's most decorated (and despised) players, relief is a still a long way off, if it's ever to come. The pressures on him that have mounted over the past several years only will increase now that he's become the second player in history to reach 715.
The ignorant threats from racists, three decades after Aaron absorbed them during his pursuit of Ruth, still pour in, though Aaron almost undoubtedly paid a bigger price. But Bonds has other problems, too, problems that Aaron never dealt with, that he never could have dreamed. They are problems, mostly, of Bonds' own doing.
The steroids scandal that has engulfed baseball in the past decade is, more than anyone else's, Bonds' special burden. Though he never has tested positive for using a performance-enhancing drug during the time Major League Baseball has had its limited testing program, the evidence that Bonds used steroids continues to grow. It's to the point now that any unbiased observer examining the facts or reading the exposé Game of Shadows, which painstakingly chronicles Bonds' alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs, can come to no other conclusion. Bonds has become, simply, the bloated, cheating face of the Steroid Era.
And that puts this 715 in an entirely different light.
"It's unfortunate, because when my kids ask me who's the best player I ever played against, I'm probably going to say Barry Bonds," Chipper Jones, a five-time All-Star for the Atlanta Braves, said recently. "And they're going to wonder why his numbers are frowned upon. Unfortunately, I'm going to have to explain that to them."
On baseball's list of career home runs, Bonds' homer on Sunday does not qualify as a record breaker. Granted, in passing Ruth, Bonds now has clobbered more home runs than any left-handed batter ever. But on the big list, Sunday's round-tripper does little more than move Bonds past Ruth into second place. Aaron still holds the major league record with 755 career home runs.
Yet 715 is more than just another home run to Bonds. Back in 2003, he angered many baseball traditionalists when he revealed his desire to pass Willie Mays' career mark of 660 home runs just so he could pass Ruth's 714.
"If it does happen, the only number I care about is Babe Ruth's," Bonds said. "Because as a left-handed hitter, I wiped him out. That's it. And in the baseball world, Babe Ruth's everything, right?"
To others, this 715 does more than drop Ruth down another peg and put Bonds another swing closer to Aaron. To them, Bonds' home run Sunday is the latest screaming slap in the face from the Steroid Era. It is yet another stain on a tainted record book that holds baseball's most valuable possession -- its history.
Over the past few years, as Bonds has pounded home runs at a record pace, as others suspected of steroid use have set significant records or reached lofty milestones -- Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro, to name just two -- many baseball fans have begun to speak out. Some have called for the records from the Steroid Era to be painted with an asterisk.
Even the dignified Aaron has criticized those who use performance-enhancing drugs. "To me, using that stuff is like putting cork in the bats," he said in July 2002. "I just don't like it, and I don't endorse it."
Still, after Sunday, Aaron and Bonds now stand together, mellifluously merged in history, and also alphabetical, for the time being, on the home run list. Aaron, with the first 715 and forever stuck at 755, and Bonds, with a 715 of his own, closing in on Aaron's record despite the furor that seems always to envelop him.
So what is next for Bonds now that he has overtaken Ruth? With all that he must bear -- baseball's new probe into steroid use, a grand jury investigating possible perjury charges, failing health, the weight of history, the scorn of many fans -- can Bonds reach Aaron? Can he make it to 756? Does he even want to?
And what would breaking Aaron's record do to baseball history and its beleaguered books?
"Me, personally, given the cloud that this has cast, I would like to see the record stay intact, just so there is no asterisk next to baseball's most prestigious record," the Braves' Jones said. "I think baseball can live with Barry being No. 2. But I think some people might have some problem with him being No. 1."
In an otherwise nondescript parking lot outside of the Braves' current stadium, Turner Field, a marker and a portion of the outfield fence from the old ballpark commemorate the spot where Aaron's 715th landed on April 8, 1974. It remains the most famous home run in baseball history.
Bonds' most recent home run, his 715th, holds no such mystique. In fact, Bonds' homer may well be remembered, if it is to be remembered at all, as one of the game's most infamous.