So relaxed was Bonds that he spent the afternoon of Sept. 26, before the last game of a series in Los Angeles, napping at the house of Dodgers leftfielder Gary Sheffield following a home-cooked lunch of shish kebab and collard greens. He did not add to his 67 home runs that night but did contribute to a 6-4 San Francisco victory. He drew three walks from three Los Angeles pitchers, the last one, in the ninth inning, setting him up to score the game-winning run.
Bonds's mood darkened the next day, last Thursday, an off day for the Giants. His friend and bodyguard for 12 years, Franklin Bradley, died unexpectedly because of complications during abdominal surgery intended to help him lose weight. Bradley, 37, was a mammoth man who was to be married in the coming weeks. Bonds had paid for the surgery. In a rare moment of self-revelation Bonds broke down at a routine news conference the next evening at Pac Bell Park. The news conference had trudged along with Bonds's usual feints and dismissals of questions until a reporter asked him about keeping his focus.
"One of my friends...I lost yesterday," he stammered, before losing his composure as his eyes welled with tears. A bit later he added, "Every time I have the opportunity to exhale or breathe, whatever you want to call it, something has come up that has been difficult for me. I had a very disappointing article that came out, what happened with the [Sept. 11] tragedy and some other issues, and I lose one of my best friends yesterday. Every time I want to enjoy it for a minute, something else happens. When I really want to give you guys the story I want, it seems like I just can't. I haven't had time."
This was Bonds out of armor, having laid down the arrogance and condescension he has smithed into his sword and shield. It was probably his most heartfelt public moment as a baseball player. If that wasn't it, then surely the second inning of that night's game provided it.
Bonds looked at each of the first eight pitches he saw from Middlebrook, drawing a five-pitch walk in the first inning and going to that 3-and-0 count in the second. With every pitch you sensed Bonds was baiting poor Middlebrook, drawing him closer and closer into his crosshairs. Look, look, look, look, look, look, look, look...pow! When Bonds finally unloosed his swing, there was a flash of his bat, and the baseball was gone, 16 rows up in the centerfield bleachers, 438 feet away. Number 68. This one was for Franklin. As Bonds crossed home plate, he glanced heavenward and thrust his fists high over his head. He sat in the dugout and began to weep. The tears came for a minute, maybe two. He dabbed at his eyes with the sweatband on his right wrist, and then with the back of his batting glove on his right hand. "It felt good to be able to do something for him," Bonds said.
The armor was back in place on Saturday. San Francisco second baseman Jeff Kent, who has tweaked Bonds for his self-centeredness, walloped a game-tying home run in the fourth inning, canceling out his failure to turn a double play in the first inning that had allowed San Diego to score a run. The Giants, with the exception of one, rose to greet Kent as he returned to the dugout. Bonds didn't get up from his padded seat. "It's no surprise," one teammate said. "Everybody else was excited because it was a big hit and we felt good for Jeff. Barry's a beauty. He's in his own world. It's not new."
Two innings later, a walk and a fly-out behind him, Bonds stepped into the batter's box against Chuck McElroy, a lefthander who had held Bonds to two hits in 32 at bats. Bonds was wielding a new maple bat, as he had after each dinger since the 500th of his career on April 17. He'd signed and numbered each of these home run bats for possible future sale, according to his agent, Scott Boras, who says endorsement deals for a cereal and a theme park already are in place, pending a 71st home run.
Beyond the rightfield wall a tiny flotilla of nonmotorized water-craft, including rafts, kayaks and surfboards, bobbed expectantly in the chilly waters of McCovey Cove. Kevin Hallinan, Major League Baseball's senior vice president of security and facility management, surveyed this scene. Three years ago the frenzy over McGwire and Sosa home run balls prompted Hallinan to devise a tagging system to authenticate these winning lottery tickets falling out of the sky. The baseballs used for their at bats were sequentially numbered in black ink above the Rawlings logo. They also were marked with a unique design that could only be viewed under ultraviolet light. To make sure the design didn't wash off, Hallinan conducted tests in which he dunked baseballs in beer and in water. "Who could know that three years later we'd have baseballs splashing into McCovey Cove?" he said.
McElroy threw three pitches with specially marked ball number 22, and Bonds looked at them all—a ball, a strike and a ball. The fourth, an inside fastball, was the call to action. Bonds connected with a remarkably loud thwack! The ball climbed over the rightfield wall and toward the cove. As it did, four people tossed red-herring baseballs into the water. A kayaker dove into the drink and grabbed the real one. Home run number 69.
By Sunday, in anticipation of 70, the flotilla had swelled into a multicolored armada so tightly packed that a baseball would have had almost no room to hit water. Bonds came up dry anyway. The sellout crowd of 41,669 on land, including shirtsleeved commissioner Bud Selig, saw Bonds take only one cut all day, resulting in a groundout. The other 10 pitches thrown his way were balls, including one that dinked off the protective plastic wrap on his right elbow.