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That's Done, So... ...On to the Pennant Races

Aug. 20, 2007
Aug. 20, 2007

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Aug. 20, 2007

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SI Players: LIFE ON AND OFF THE FIELD
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That's Done, So... ...On to the Pennant Races

With the Bonds watch over, baseball shifted its spotlight to a group of first-year stars--one a teenager--helping to shape tight playoff battles

The end came at8:51 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time on Aug. 7 in that shimmering jewel of aballpark by the Bay that has been for Barry Bonds what the Vegas strip is toWayne Newton. Career home run 756, the one that broke the alltime record ofHank Aaron, carried the glamorous familiarity of 500, 565 (thesingle-season-record 71st in 2001), 600, 661 (surpassing Willie Mays's careermark), 700 and 715, all of which occurred at AT&T Park: the ferociouslyefficient whip of the maple bat, the soaring five-ounce sphere of history andcommerce and the bloody scramble to claim it, and the noisy adoration ofSan Franciscans pleased that baseball's greatest home run hitter, likecable cars and the blanket of cottony fog over the Golden Gate Bridge, istheirs, helping to define their sense of place and selves. Rarely, if ever, hassuch a marvelous player been such a parochial one.

This is an article from the Aug. 20, 2007 issue

The beginning cameat 8:01 p.m. PDT on Aug. 7, just 50 minutes before the end of Bonds as themost relevant player in baseball. Justin Upton, a 19-year-old rightfielder forthe Arizona Diamondbacks playing the first home game of his major leaguecareer, walloped an 0-and-1 pitch from Pittsburgh Pirates lefthander TomGorzelanny into the leftfield seats at Chase Field. It was the first home runfor Upton, the No. 1 pick in the 2005 draft and, by dint of hisextraordinary skills, manners and maturity, the welcome face of what's next forbaseball. Largely unnoticed, like so much else lost this summer to the gaudycarnival that was Bonds, it was not even the most important home run of thehour, let alone the night. Only the most symbolic. The game was ready to moveon.

Baseball woke up onAug. 8 and discovered a sunny life after Bonds: exciting pennant races--15teams hung within three games of a playoff spot at week's end, including sevencoming off losing seasons--and fresh faces who will help decide them. Theimpact rookies include Upton; third baseman Ryan Braun, 23, and pitcher YovaniGallardo, 21, of the Milwaukee Brewers; outfielder Adam Jones, 22, of theSeattle Mariners; shortstop Yunel Escobar, 24, of the Atlanta Braves; andpitchers Phil Hughes, 21, and Joba Chamberlain, 21, of the New YorkYankees.

"I think thisyear a lot of clubs looked at what was available on the trade market," saysBrewers general manager Doug Melvin, "and decided the same thing: They werebetter off with players in their own system and giving them a shot."

The supernova thatis Bonds--the man, the record, the controversy--for months had blotted out muchof what was happening in the rest of baseball. Would commissioner Bud Selig bethere for the record? (He wasn't; he was in New York City to keep anappointment that had been booked three weeks earlier with, of all people,steroid investigator George Mitchell.) What would Aaron do? (He was homeasleep, but he did, on the advice of Selig, tape a congratulatory message toBonds that played on the AT&T Park video board.) Would people outsideSan Francisco embrace it? (The game, a late-hour one for much of thecountry, drew an 0.9 rating on ESPN, below the network's season average.)

Like a Rorschachblot or The Sopranos finale, 756 settled nothing. It invited interpretationmore than it provided certainty, making for an awkward kind of history. Bondsstill faces the possibility of a federal perjury indictment as well asrepercussions from the Mitchell report, which one baseball source says could bedelivered after the World Series and include "new information" on Bondsand many others.

"This record isnot 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 chaseover, Bonds suddenly was taking now-meaningless at bats for a last-placeteam that over the past three seasons has lost more games than every otherNational League franchise except Pittsburgh. Make way for Upton, the anti-Bondsby way of his youth and respectful manner, and the emerging, first-placeDiamondbacks. Arizona, coming off three straight losing seasons and featuringsix 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 onAug. 3.

"Write it down:Put him on the same level with Griffey and A-Rod at 19," says Diamondbackssecond baseman Orlando Hudson. "He belongs right there with them. He's thatspecial."

It took Upton just10 games to blast seven extra-base hits, to become the only teenager in thepast 50 years to have three extra-base hits in the same game, to become thefirst teenager in 33 years with three triples in a season and to join KenGriffey Jr. and Robin Yount as the only teenagers since 1970 to draw twointentional walks in a season.

Two years aftergraduating from Great Bridge High in Chesapeake, Va., Upton is hitting fifthfor a first-place team. Since 1945 only three other teenagers have regularlybatted that high in the lineup in a pennant race: Mickey Mantle (1951 Yankees),Claudell Washington (1974 Oakland A's) and Andruw Jones (1996 Braves).

"He's as goodas advertised," says Arizona G.M. Josh Byrnes. "He's probably as goodan athlete as you'll see in this game."

Indeed, theDiamondbacks gave Upton, the younger brother of Tampa Bay Devil Rays outfielderB.J. Upton, a $6.1 million signing bonus payable over five years,reflecting a premium that ball clubs offer players who have the ability to be aprofessional in two sports--even though Upton had not played football sincebreaking a collarbone as a quarterback during his sophomore year of highschool.

"I asked[Upton's agent] Larry Reynolds to send documentation about his footballability," Byrnes says, "and right away he sent back about 40 letters toJustin from the biggest football programs in the country saying how much theywanted him, even though he basically just played as a freshman."

Arizona believesthat Upton, who tore through A and Double A ball this year (.319, 18 homers, 70RBIs in 103 games), can be a high-average, 40-home-run hitter and among thefastest base runners in the game. What further excites the Diamondbacks is thatUpton, who is a solid 6' 1 1/2", 205 pounds, has the maturity and makeup tobe a franchise player in the manner of Derek Jeter, one of the players he grewup admiring.

"Derek Jeter isall about leadership and winning," Upton says, "and that's the kind ofplayer I'd like to be."

The NL West,with four teams separated by six games at week's end, could be the wildest ofseveral dramatic races. Among the most pressing questions in baseball, all ofwhich now have nothing to do with Bonds, are these.

> Can theYankees pull off a historic comeback? By week's end New York had cut a 141/2-game deficit to Boston on May 29 to four. Only two teams in historyhave ever finished in first place after trailing by so many games: the 1914Boston Braves (15 games behind the New York Giants) and the 1978 Yankees(14 1/2 games behind the Red Sox).

New York pulledinto a virtual tie with Seattle for the wild card with a 23-8 run in which itscored more runs over 31 games than any Yankees team since 1939. Meanwhilerighthanders Hughes, a starter, and Chamberlain, a setup reliever, helpedstabilize the pitching staff largely with high-octane fastballs.

> Are theMariners for real? They've endured three losing streaks of at least six gamesand the sudden resignation on July 1 of manager Mike Hargrove, but arelooking at their first meaningful September in four years. Jones, whom scoutsconsider a five-tool player, has been playing part time in leftfield, butmanager John McLaren says, "One day he will be an every-day player, and Ithink he will be a star. He's got it all."

> CanMilwaukee, which hasn't sniffed the playoffs since 1982 or a winning seasonsince 1992, hang on to win the NL Central? Even with the emergence ofGallardo in the Brewers' rotation and Braun (.348 average, 22 home runs and 59RBIs in 70 games through Sunday) as a Rookie of the Year front-runner,Milwaukee was 38-46 after a 24-10 start, giving life to the Chicago Cubs andthe St. Louis Cardinals.

> Who is thisyear's Cinderella? The Braves, Brewers, Cubs, Diamondbacks, Indians, Marinersand Rockies are all contending the year after a losing season. Arizona, though,may be the unlikeliest of the bunch because of its youth--its lineup lastSaturday included eight players in their 20s and 31-year-old outfielder EricByrnes--and underwhelming offense. The Diamondbacks ranked next-to-last in theleague in hitting at week's end and had been outscored for the season. Scoffsone veteran executive, "Colorado and Los Angeles scare you more thanArizona. There's no one dominant team, but if you asked me to pick one team inthe NL, I'd pick the Braves. I think they'll catch the Mets."

Still, Arizona isplaying with an insouciance that cannot be discounted. Ace Brandon Webb, forinstance, prepped for his start on Saturday against Washington by strumming aguitar at his locker--then stretched a club-record scoreless-innings streak to33 with a five-hit, 1-0 shutout. Upton drove in the only run with a stand-uptriple.

"It's adifferent guy every day," Upton said afterward, explaining theDiamondbacks' improbable success. "That's how we've been living lately.Today it was my turn."

Written across thesmile of this teenager at his locker was the obvious message: Baseball hadmoved on from 756. Here stood a new man of the hour.

EXTRA

Playoff Push

Tom Verducci and Jon Heyman analyze thekeys to the division races.

ONLY AT SI.COM

Hughes and Chamberlain have stabilized the Yankees'staff with HIGH-OCTANE fastballs.
PHOTOPhotograph by Brad Mangin FOR THE RECORD On Aug. 7 at 11:51 p.m. EDT, Bonds became thehome run king--finally--when he swatted his 756th off the Nationals'Mike Bacsik at AT&T Park.PHOTOJONATHAN WILLEY/ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKSNEXT UP Already batting fifth for the first-place Diamondbacks, the 19-year-old Upton is the face of baseball's future.PHOTOJIM MCISAAC/GETTY IMAGES (HUGHES)PHIL HUGHES YankeesPHOTOBEN VANHOUTEN (JONES)ADAM JONES MarinersPHOTOMORRY GASH/AP (GOLLARDO)YOVANI GOLLARDO BrewersPHOTOGARY A. VASQUEZ/US PRESSWIRE (ESCOBAR)YUNEL ESCOBAR Braves