With a mighty swing of his black maple bat, in front of a raucous and all-forgiving home crowd at AT&T Park, San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds became baseball's home run king Tuesday night, crushing career homer No. 756 deep into the stands in right field to wrest the most hallowed record in sports from Hank Aaron.
Bonds, reviled by many around baseball for his role in the sport's ever-deepening steroids scandal, stood motionless for a few moments before slowly circling the bases as the crowd of more than 43,000 at AT&T Park cheered and fireworks exploded over McCovey Cove, the small inlet beyond the right-field wall named for Giants great Willie McCovey. When Bonds reached home, he was greeted by his 17-year-old son, Nikolai, and swarmed by his Giants teammates.
"Thank you very much. I got to thank all of you, all the fans here in San Francisco. It's been fantastic," he said in a brief on-field ceremony.
Thus ended a long and contentious journey for the 43-year-old Bonds, in his 23rd season in the major leagues. A once-lithe and multi-talented outfielder who played the first seven seasons of his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Bonds has spent much of the past decade dodging charges that he used performance-enhancing drugs to transform himself into a bulky power hitter. Bonds, whose seven Most Valuable Player awards are the most of any individual in the top three major American sports, set the single-season record for home runs in 2001, launching 73 of them -- 24 more than he'd ever hit in a season.
Since 2000, when he turned 35 and at a time when sluggers traditionally see a sudden dropoff in their power numbers, Bonds has hit 311 home runs. That's better than 41 percent of his career total and 66 more than Aaron hit in a similar timeframe in his career. Aaron retired after the 1976 season.
A federal grand jury is investigating whether Bonds lied when he reportedly testified, in the famed BALCO steroids case, that he never knowingly took performance-enhancing drugs. Bonds' alleged drug use has been detailed, in a thorough and often painstaking manner, in the book Game of Shadows, written by two investigative reporters from the San Francisco Chronicle and excerpted in the March 13, 2006 issue of Sports Illustrated that carried this headline: The Truth.
Tuesday night, the only truth that the fans at AT&T Park recognized was that Bonds is now the new home run king. The fans in San Francisco, unlike those in other cities who have alternately booed and been wooed by the slugger's prowess, have been unflinchingly supportive throughout the slugger's travails. Bonds is practically royalty with the Giants. His late father, Bobby, played for them from 1968-74. His godfather, Hall of Famer Willie Mays, signed with the New York Giants in 1951 (they moved to Northern California before the 1958 season) and played for them for the better part of two decades.
The 76-year-old Mays, fourth on the all-time home run list behind his godson, Aaron and Babe Ruth, watched Tuesday as Bonds crunched the record-setting homer off Washington Nationals' left-hander Mike Bacsik in the fifth inning of an eventual 8-6 Nationals win. Not there to witness the moment: Baseball commissioner Bud Selig, a longtime friend of Aaron's who has been mostly silent about Bonds and his quest for the record. Selig, who has been at several recent Giants games and was present for the record-tying home run last Saturday in San Diego, was back in Milwaukee attending business. Representing Major League Baseball in his place was vice president Jimmie Lee Solomon.
But the commissioner did congratulate Bonds via a telephone call, then issued a statement. "While the issues which have swirled around this record will continue to work themselves toward resolution," Selig said, "today is a day for congratulations on a truly remarkable achievement."
Aaron, 73, wasn't at AT&T Park, either. He flatly declined to follow Bonds on this quest, citing his age, the uncertainty of when the record-breaker might come and the rigors of travel. Many around baseball suspect, though, that Aaron is disturbed by the charges of performance-enhancing drug use -- considered cheating by many in and around baseball -- that surround Bonds.
His involvement Tuesday night was limited to a recorded statement on AT&T Park's huge video board.
"It is a great accomplishment which required skill, longevity and determination," Aaron said. "Throughout the past century, the home run has held a special place in baseball and I have been privileged to hold this record for 33 of those years. I move over now and offer my best wishes to Barry and his family on this historic achievement. My hope today, as it was on that April evening in 1974, is that the achievement of this record will inspire others to chase their own dreams."
After he broke Ruth's longstanding home run record in 1974, hitting No. 715 at now-demolished Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, Aaron smacked 40 more to finish at 755, a number that stood in the record book, without question, until Tuesday. Bonds -- whose record is destined to be questioned for as long as it stands -- has nearly two more months to add to the total, and he's said that he'd like to play next year as well. His employability beyond this season, though, is in question. As good a hitter as Bonds remains -- he still is so feared that no one in the game is walked more -- he is 43 years old, he does not play the outfield well anymore and he makes more than $15 million a season.
None of that was of any particular importance Tuesday to anyone in the beautiful ballpark by the bay. With his singular left-handed stroke, Bonds became the greatest home run hitter in the grand old game's long and often scandalous history. And the city that embraces him, amid a baseball-loving nation that is torn about him, cheered its new home run king.