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The end came at 8:51 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time on Aug. 7 in that shimmering jewel of a ballpark by the Bay that has been for Barry Bonds what the Vegas strip is to Wayne Newton. Career home run 756, the one that broke the alltime record of Hank Aaron, carried the glamorous familiarity of 500, 565 (the single-season-record 71st in 2001), 600, 661 (surpassing Willie Mays's career mark), 700 and 715, all of which occurred at AT&T Park: the ferociously efficient whip of the maple bat, the soaring five-ounce sphere of history and commerce and the bloody scramble to claim it, and the noisy adoration of San Franciscans pleased that baseball's greatest home run hitter, like cable cars and the blanket of cottony fog over the Golden Gate Bridge, is theirs, helping to define their sense of place and selves. Rarely, if ever, has such a marvelous player been such a parochial one.
The beginning came at 8:01 p.m. PDT on Aug. 7, just 50 minutes before the end of Bonds as the most relevant player in baseball. Justin Upton, a 19-year-old rightfielder for the Arizona Diamondbacks playing the first home game of his major league career, walloped an 0-and-1 pitch from Pittsburgh Pirates lefthander Tom Gorzelanny into the leftfield seats at Chase Field. It was the first home run for Upton, the No. 1 pick in the 2005 draft and, by dint of his extraordinary skills, manners and maturity, the welcome face of what's next for baseball. Largely unnoticed, like so much else lost this summer to the gaudy carnival that was Bonds, it was not even the most important home run of the hour, let alone the night. Only the most symbolic. The game was ready to move on.
Baseball woke up on Aug. 8 and discovered a sunny life after Bonds: exciting pennant races--15 teams hung within three games of a playoff spot at week's end, including seven coming off losing seasons--and fresh faces who will help decide them. The impact rookies include Upton; third baseman Ryan Braun, 23, and pitcher Yovani Gallardo, 21, of the Milwaukee Brewers; outfielder Adam Jones, 22, of the Seattle Mariners; shortstop Yunel Escobar, 24, of the Atlanta Braves; and pitchers Phil Hughes, 21, and Joba Chamberlain, 21, of the New York Yankees.
"I think this year a lot of clubs looked at what was available on the trade market," says Brewers general manager Doug Melvin, "and decided the same thing: They were better off with players in their own system and giving them a shot."
The supernova that is Bonds--the man, the record, the controversy--for months had blotted out much of what was happening in the rest of baseball. Would commissioner Bud Selig be there for the record? (He wasn't; he was in New York City to keep an appointment that had been booked three weeks earlier with, of all people, steroid investigator George Mitchell.) What would Aaron do? (He was home asleep, but he did, on the advice of Selig, tape a congratulatory message to Bonds that played on the AT&T Park video board.) Would people outside San Francisco embrace it? (The game, a late-hour one for much of the country, drew an 0.9 rating on ESPN, below the network's season average.)
Like a Rorschach blot or The Sopranos finale, 756 settled nothing. It invited interpretation more than it provided certainty, making for an awkward kind of history. Bonds still faces the possibility of a federal perjury indictment as well as repercussions from the Mitchell report, which one baseball source says could be delivered after the World Series and include "new information" on Bonds and many others.
"This record is not tainted," Bonds protested to reporters in his post-756 news conference. "At all. At all. Period. You guys can say whatever you want."
With the chase over, Bonds suddenly was taking now-meaningless at bats for a last-place team that over the past three seasons has lost more games than every other National League franchise except Pittsburgh. Make way for Upton, the anti-Bonds by way of his youth and respectful manner, and the emerging, first-place Diamondbacks. Arizona, coming off three straight losing seasons and featuring six rookies, had roared to the NL West lead with a 17-3 run at week's end, including a 6-1 record since Upton entered the starting lineup on Aug. 3.
"Write it down: Put him on the same level with Griffey and A-Rod at 19," says Diamondbacks second baseman Orlando Hudson. "He belongs right there with them. He's that special."
It took Upton just 10 games to blast seven extra-base hits, to become the only teenager in the past 50 years to have three extra-base hits in the same game, to become the first teenager in 33 years with three triples in a season and to join Ken Griffey Jr. and Robin Yount as the only teenagers since 1970 to draw two intentional walks in a season.