It wasn't easy. In the Giants' three-game set against the Houston Astros last week, Bonds, who entered the series with 69 homers, was walked eight times in 14 plate appearances. The ultimate disgrace came in the third game when, with his team trailing 8-1, Astros manager Larry Dierker ordered that Bonds be intentionally walked. The move enraged San Francisco's players, many of whom, despite their dislike of Bonds, wanted to see him break the single-season home run mark. "In that situation," said Jeff Kent, the Giants' second baseman, "you throw your best stuff and try to get Barry out. You don't intentionally walk him."
At last, in the ninth inning of that game, with San Francisco leading 9-2 on the way to a 10-2 win, Houston rookie lefthander Wilfredo Rodriguez challenged Bonds, who swung and missed at the first offering, a 95-mph fastball. As he had done all season Bonds didn't waste many swings this night. After missing high with another fastball, Rodriguez threw Bonds a 93-mph meatball, and Bonds pounced. As the ball exploded off his bat, he tossed away his piece of black timber, lifted both arms and set off on a Barry Trot (read: slow and cocky) around the bases. He'd dedicated the 70th to Bradley, and it was clear how much coming through for his friend meant to him. Said Bonds, "To be able to say I wanted to do something in my heart and [actually do] it was really, really meaningful."
Oddly, the emotion of number 70 never returned, even as Bonds, supported by a sold-out Pac Bell crowd, surpassed McGwire the following night. When he approached the plate for his first at bat, in the bottom of the first, the Giants—in need of a win to stay alive in the National League playoff hunt—were already trailing the Dodgers 5-0. There was a buzz, but not a buzz-The crowd was loud, but not loud. Bonds's dinger, a 442-foot shot off Park that landed in the rightfield arcade (and in the paws of Jerry Rose, a season-ticket holder from Knights Landing, Calif.), cut the deficit to 5-1. When Bonds hit his second, a 407-foot launch to centerfield, the Giants were behind 8-4; he closed the gap to three runs. The game, which L.A. won 11-10, lasted a Gone with the Wind-like 4 hours, 27 minutes. Two records were set this night. One (most homers in a season) was celebrated. The other (longest nine-inning game in major league history) was painfully endured.
Following both homers Bonds rounded the bases with little outward glee. When he crossed home plate after number 71, he pointed upward (in Bradley's honor) and picked up his 11-year-old son, Nikolai, a San Francisco batboy. Bonds's teammates gathered around, patted him on the head and quickly dispersed. There was one semi-noisy, extended curtain call. Bonds hugged several family members seated behind home plate. Then—nothing. "Now batting, number 21, Jeff Kent...."
"When you lose a big game, it takes some of the immediate luster away," said Kent. "Barry will be able to appreciate this one day. We all will. It's historic, a great achievement. But being eliminated from the playoffs—that bruises the fun."
Three years ago, when McGwire and Sammy Sosa were locked in a race to eclipse Roger Maris's 37-year-old record of 61 homers, the nation found itself immersed in a hardball lovefest. Maris's widow and children embraced McGwire as if he were a long-lost cousin. More often than not fans were happy, eager even, to return the home run balls for nothing more than a handshake, a photo and a couple of tickets.
No more. On Friday in San Francisco there was no McGwire, no Sosa, no Maris family and no commissioner. Bud Selig was in San Diego to celebrate the Padres' Tony Gwynn (retiring after a brilliant career) and Rickey Henderson (who had just broken Ty Cobb's 73-year-old record of 2,245 career runs and was on the verge of getting his 3,000th hit). Even Barry's father, Bobby, was absent, playing in his charity golf tournament in Bridgeport, Conn. Of 100 right-field fans SI surveyed before the game, 94 insisted that should they be lucky enough to snag the grand prize, it would go to the highest bidder—be it Bonds, eBay or Todd McFarlane, the eccentric Spawn cartoonist who had purchased McGwire's 70th ball for $3 million. Give the ball away? "Ha!" said J.C. Corzo, a 26-year-old construction worker who held a mitt in his left hand and a $9 standing-room-only ticket stub in his right. "I'm going to buy me 50 acres of land in Kentucky and a couple of ATVs." Alas for J.C, he would head home empty-handed.
To his credit, Bonds insisted that winning—not the record—was his main concern. Thus there he was, after the loss, sitting on a dugout step, staring into nothingness, eyes moist, shoulders slumped. Maybe he was thinking of his lost friend. Maybe of his last game as a Giant—a distinct possibility for a man who would soon become a free agent, commanding $18 to $20 million per year. Maybe he was just sad. Yes, Bonds later admitted, the record was nice and meaningful and something he would treasure. Most of all, however, he wanted to find himself in his first World Series, to have a chance to prove wrong those who consider him a prime-time choker (Exhibit A: his .196 lifetime postseason average).
What the new home run king, who would add a valedictory 73 rd in Sunday's meaningless season finale, failed to realize was that he had already proved them wrong. In the heat of a million-watt spotlight, Barry Bonds had come through.