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It was a simple act by a beleaguered man, one that brought together a country while dividing it, one that ended a vigil just as it began another. The 755th home run of Barry Bonds's career was not especially different from hundreds that came before. He kept his right shoulder in, waited on a fastball as it sliced high over the plate and, in one tight, powerful motion, redirected the baseball some 380 feet into the twilight sky, where it crashed off a concrete facing in the leftfield bleachers at Petco Park in San Diego and caromed into a forest of upraised arms below. The details have been recorded: the pitcher who gave it up (Clay Hensley), the date (Aug. 4, 2007, 21 years after Hank Aaron hit his 755th) and the reaction from the 42,000-plus fans (a standing ovation by most, boos by some). What it means, and how it makes us feel--that is more complicated.
That Bonds would tie Aaron's home run record was inevitable; predicting when it would happen was the trick. So for a thick slice of our summer, we lived on Western Barry Time, and whether we did so out of loyalty, disdain or boredom, the slow-motion chase nonetheless provided a connective tissue. Nothing was mundane. Each groundout and base on balls was thick with possibility. Then on July 27, after he hit number 754 at AT&T Park, the Barry Watch went live; one to tie, two for the show. And so it was that the final leg of the chase began as the Giants embarked on a six-game road trip through the enemy territory of Los Angeles and San Diego, played out to a sound track of "Ster-Oids" chants and machine-gunning camera shutters. It was a fevered, surreal swing through Southern California, one that began with one man atop the alltime home run list and ended with two.
The record-tying home run was launched in San Diego, but it was forged earlier in the week in Los Angeles, where Bonds's anxiety reached its peak as an entire city seemed to crush in on him. You could feel it on the 110 freeway, where a snaking line of steel stretched from downtown to the Dodger Stadium exit ramp on game nights, so many Escalades and Suburbans and Acuras and tricked-out Hondas revving and baking in the late-afternoon sun. The backup was such that the wife of Dodgers outfielder Luis Gonzalez left home at her usual hour on the first night of the series but didn't get to her seat until the fourth inning.
The atmosphere was electric, a heady brew of anticipation, opportunism, inebriation and animosity; one L.A. talk-radio host wondered if there would be violence. There wasn't, but there was plenty of vitriol. With Bonds's every appearance, the boos came loud and lusty, toppling down and echoing around Chavez Ravine. They were even louder when, as happened five times during the series, Bonds was walked. Los Angelenos did not pay up to four times face value for their tickets, did not dress up in their Entourage finest of mirrored sunglasses and designer jeans, to watch the Dodgers bow down to this old man and send him to first base. So, Booooo they roared at their own manager, Booooo they roared at their own team, even as it was fighting to win a division race. Rarely have so many cared so much about someone they professed to loathe. It's a stance that former Dodger Milton Bradley sums up as "impossibly hypocritical."
"I'm from L.A., these are my people, but it's f----- up," says Bradley, now an outfielder for the Padres. "You say you hate him, and then you pay all this money to go see him?"
They want to see him fail; they hope he succeeds. This was the strange logic in Los Angeles, where every Bonds at bat caused the rightfield bleachers to shape-shift as hundreds of young men carefully put down $8 beers and took up positions along a narrow concrete gangway, gloves at the ready. With each pitch, a stadium tensed and a constellation of flashbulbs twinkled. On the Giants' bench second baseman Kevin Frandsen and shortstop Omar Vizquel were transfixed by the light show. In 19 years in the majors Vizquel has been to two World Series and played in three All-Star Games, but even he felt the pull of the occasion. When 57 reporters crowded around Bonds before the game on Aug. 1, straining to hear his muttered comments, Vizquel snuck behind them and took pictures with his digital camera.
Others played out the scenarios and what-ifs. Larry Baer, the Giants' executive VP, stood in the dugout before the game, jacket doffed to fight the heat, and worried. "Given the twists and turns of the Dodger rivalry, I have this evil suspicion that it will happen here," Baer said. He was, of course, referring to 755; everyone knew that Bonds would break the record at home or not at all. (And once he tied it last Saturday, Bonds made it clear he wouldn't be playing on Sunday, not even as a pinch hitter, lest he accidently put one in the bleachers.)
There would be no home runs, however, until he fixed his swing. Each night in L.A., Bonds's frustration grew more visible. He took great looping cuts in an attempt to pull the ball up and out of the ballpark. Before the final game of the series, in which he would eventually go just 1 for 7, Bonds paced through the clubhouse, grimacing. "I feel like my head is going to explode," he said to no one in particular.
If los angeles tortured Bonds, San Diego soothed him. There was none of the edge of L.A.; the fans booed Barry playfully, then cheered him. Instead of drunks spewing invective from the stands, there were kids playing in Petco Park's 70-foot-long sandbox in right centerfield, oblivious to the context of the night--to them, after all, HGH is merely an incorrect recitation of the alphabet. This is a stadium where the fans do the wave and then applaud their own effort, a stadium where one can buy sashimi and wash it down with a Kirin, a stadium where fans not only asked for Bonds's autograph but also tossed balls to his 17-year-old son, Nikolai, to sign. "San Diego is like L.A.," observed Bradley, "only with a lot less drama."
Bonds used the weekend to rehab his swing. In his rush to rid himself of the hysteria surrounding the record, he'd gotten into bad habits. So he tapped his right shoulder before at bats to remind himself not to turn early, and he went into the cage before games with John Yandle. A sales manager by trade and a onetime Triple A pitcher, Yandle has thrown BP for the Giants since 1985 and, since Bonds's arrival in '93, has been something of a personal pitcher for the leftfielder. Unlike most who throw BP, Yandle does not groove pitches; sometimes he jams hitters, other times his pitches float off the outside edge. Some Giants find this frustrating, but Bonds sees it as a challenge and usually requests that Yandle mix his speed and location. During the last week of the chase, however, all Bonds wanted was fastballs. "You can tell he's anxious," said Yandle before Friday's game. "He's been altering his swing so that his shoulder opens, his hips fly open and the swing is all arms." Yandle paused, gesturing to Bonds across the clubhouse. "He's always been a guy that hits home runs, not a home run hitter, but now he's trying to do it."