Veteran Los Angeles Dodgers reliever Mike Trombley, who knows a
thing or two about big hits, was sitting in the visiting
clubhouse at Pacific Bell Park in San Francisco last Friday
afternoon, sipping a cup of coffee while watching a Jerry
Springer highlight video. Six years ago, while pitching for the
Minnesota Twins, Trombley allowed Eddie Murray's 3,000th hit.
Three years ago, he gave up the 36th of Mark McGwire's
record-setting 70 home runs that season. How embarrassing would
it be, he was asked, to surrender Barry Bonds's record-breaking
71st homer? Trombley stopped drinking and turned away from the
video high jinks. "Embarrassing?" he said. "You must be kidding
me. You're pitching against a team in a major league pennant
race in a packed stadium against one of the greatest hitters
who's ever played the game. There's nothing embarrassing about
it. It's special."
Although Chan Ho Park, the sullen Los Angeles righthander who a
couple of hours later would give up not only Bonds's
record-breaking 71st home run but his 72nd as well, might have
disagreed with Trombley, it was hard to argue the point. Bonds,
capping perhaps the greatest offensive season in baseball
history, had done something special--and breaking the home run
record was only a part of it.
In the final weeks of the season he'd been asked to (in no
--help provide entertainment for a nation in dire need of
--lead the San Francisco Giants in a come-from-behind drive for a
--smile and expound for a vast press corps that he had usually
--watch ball four after ball four after ball four after...;
--play while mourning the death of friend and former bodyguard
Franklin Bradley, who died on Sept. 27 from complications during
--worry about his impending free agency;
--catch and pass McGwire.
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
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 rightfield 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
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 73rd 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.
the home run mark was only one part of it.