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No doubt about it

Like him or not, polarizing Bonds makes homer history

Posted: Sunday August 5, 2007 3:27AM; Updated: Sunday August 5, 2007 10:21AM
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SAN DIEGO -- Like a lot of the home runs Barry Bonds has hit in his career, there was no doubt about No. 755. Oh, there were certainly some doubts in the days leading up to it, with everyone from Cooperstown to Cupertino wondering why the heck he was taking so long to hit it. There were plenty of doubts about how the crowd would react to it, too, especially if it happened to come away from the Giants' home park. And Bonds, maybe the greatest slugger that baseball has ever seen -- or, some say, its biggest crook -- has been dogged by doubters on his quest of 755 for years.

Once Bonds stepped to the plate at Petco Park on this beautiful Saturday evening, though, once he took that high-and-away fastball from Padres' right-hander Clay Hensley and decided, finally and firmly, not to pull it down the right-field line ... well, from the resounding crack of his maple bat on his first swing of the night, any doubts about this particular home run were left in the dust. This one was outta here. Long gone. See ya.

And so Bonds, the larger-than-life protagonist in baseball's long-running performance-enhancing drug drama, finally took the penultimate step toward becoming the game's new Home Run King. The homer, his 21st this year, tied him with Hank Aaron for the most anyone's ever had and thoroughly tamed what was supposed to be a hostile road crowd.

The fans at Petco, an easy majority of whom booed Bonds throatily as he came to the plate in the top of the second inning, could not contain their wonder or glee as No. 755 screamed into the left field stands, ricocheting off the fašade of the upper deck. All the fears of a nasty crowd reaction from fans on the road -- fears that had many believing Bonds would save his record homers until he was back in San Francisco -- disappeared instantly into the night. As the record-tying homer lined its way into the seats, unbridled cheers from the crowd of more than 42,000 quickly overwhelmed the boos. Everyone in the park stood.

Bonds took his accustomed slow trot around the bases, lifting and wrapping his 17-year-old son Nikolai in a strong embrace after crossing the plate. His teammates emptied slowly out of the third-base dugout to greet him. Ryan Klesko hugged him, as did the Giants' manager, Bruce Bochy. There were slaps on the back. And the crowd cheered still.

"It's Hank Aaron," Bonds said in a post-game press conference. "I can't explain the feeling of it. It's just ... Hank Aaron."

All that remains now is No. 756, the record breaker, and the ensuing and probably never-ending duel between baseball fans who believe in Bonds and what he has done and those who regard him as a drugged-up cheater. That, though, is for another night, starting Monday in the Bay Area, back in Bonds' even more-forgiving home field, AT&T Park. The Giants and Padres are scheduled to play an afternoon game Sunday, but the 43-year-old Bonds, who has started nine straight games, said he won't play.

Saturday was reserved for No. 755. For seven long games and 28 plate appearances, Bonds had whaled to no avail. On the list of Bonds' record-tying and milestone homers, only his bid to tie Babe Ruth's one-time career record of 714 took longer to accomplish. (Between Nos. 713 and 714 in 2006, Bonds played in nine games and had a whopping 40 plate appearances without going deep.) Since hitting No. 754 on July 27 against the Marlins' Rick VandenHurk, Bonds had two measly singles. He looked awful. He looked tired. He looked, in fact, about 43 years old.

Bonds stayed mostly silent during his pursuit of Aaron, yet the frustration of his recent dry spell showed in his face and in his sometimes over-anxious swings. Saturday, he came to Petco Park for some early batting practice on the field, something that longtime Bay Area baseball scribes don't remember happening. Ever. He stayed for somewhere around 45 minutes, taking more than 100 swings, a monstrous workout for a hitter of any age.

"He just wanted to tweak some things a little bit," Bochy, who threw much of the BP to Bonds, said before the game. "He felt like he found something there. We'll see."

A lot of experts believed Bonds was getting too pull-conscious during the chase, trying to jack everything to right field. During the mid-afternoon batting practice, he concentrated on sending screamers to all areas of the park, including into the left-field stands, where No. 755 was to land almost four hours later.

In the second inning, Hensley, a slight 27-year-old making his 37th career start -- and a man who, coincidentally perhaps, tested positive for steroids use in 2005 -- punched in a first-pitch strike to Bonds that he watched go by. He threw two balls that Bonds didn't budge on, and then left a fastball up and over the plate, tailing slightly away. The lefty Bonds swung, the ball took off, the crowd screamed.

"I don't even think that pitch was a strike," Bonds said. "I don't even have any idea of where that ball went."

In a luxury box above the field, baseball commissioner Bud Selig -- who has made it clear, without saying so, that he has doubts about the veracity of what Bonds has done -- was standing with the rest of the crowd. He was caught by TV cameras, a strangely indecipherable expression on his face, his hands, at least initially, remaining in his pockets.

"No matter what anybody thinks of the controversy surrounding this event," Selig said in a statement, "Mr. Bonds' achievement is noteworthy and remarkable."

In his next three plate appearances, with the potential record-breaker in the balance, Bonds walked each time, adding to his Major League record and eliciting boos from the crowd each time, boos seemingly intended for the hometown Padres for walking him. When Bochy took him out of the game after his free pass in the eighth inning, Bonds left to a crowd that so clearly was on his side that he felt compelled to tip his helmet. Twice.

"I want to especially thank the fans," Bonds said. "I don't know what to say. I just really, really appreciate the way San Diego handled it."

The crowd reaction in San Diego won't do anything for the city's reputation as a baseball town, at least not among the game's old guard and those who view Bonds as a cheater. But the limited love we saw in Petco Park will whither in comparison to what awaits Bonds if he hits the record breaker in front of his San Francisco fans in the next week. Bonds and the Giants play seven games at AT&T Park starting on Monday, four against the Nationals and then three with the Pirates.

"This is the hardest thing I've ever gone through in my entire life," Bonds said. "It's a different feeling than all the other ones.

"[But] the hardest part is over now," he said later to reporters who have shadowed this chase. "Hopefully, I can get out there and not keep you guys around."

Saturday's No. 755 tied Aaron's record, but it won't do anything to quell the furor that surrounds Bonds. For every person who backs the slugger without question and without absolute proof of wrongdoing -- Bonds, remember, has millions of fans, as we learned with his overwhelming selection to the All-Star Game last month -- others will point to the damning evidence of drug use laid out in the book Game of Shadows and bring up his surly reputation, his run-ins with federal prosecutors and his less-than-wholesome personal life.

Bonds remains the game's most hated and controversial figure, 755 home runs or not. And he will remain a polarizing figure for years to come. No one will ever be able to doubt that.