SAN FRANCISCO — The ball went sailing into the night, made a beeline for the bleachers in right-center field and landed amid a sea of humanity.
Standing at the plate some 435 feet away, Barry Bonds dropped his bat, raised both arms skyward and admired his handiwork in much the same fashion he had done so many times before.
This, of course, was unlike any other home run in Bonds‘ career. This one immortalized his place in baseball history. Beloved hero or despised villain, steroid-user or innocent victim, on this point no one can disagree:
Barry Bonds is the all-time home run champion.
With a colossal blast off Mike Bacsik in the fifth inning of last night’s game against the Washington Nationals, Bonds surpassed Hank Aaron with the 756th homer of a career that has been as controversial as it has been illustrious.
This record is not tainted at all, the San Francisco Giants slugger said. At all. Period.
A crowd of 43,154 at AT&T; Park roared with delight as the San Francisco Giants left fielder rounded the bases, the Nationals standing in awe after playing their part in this history-making event.
Bonds was greeted at the plate by his son, Nikolai, a Giants batboy. He again pointed both arms to the sky, received hugs from his teammates and Hall of Famer Willie Mays and then turned emotional as he addressed the crowd.
“I’ve got to thank all of you,” the 43-year-old slugger said. “All the fans here in San Francisco. I have to thank my teammates for their support through all this. You guys have been strong and given me all the support in the world.”
Bonds, who also thanked the Nationals “for understanding this day, it means a lot to me,” had tears in his eyes as he mentioned his late father, Bobby.
This is my family, Bonds said of the Giants fans who have overwhelmingly embraced him throughout a home run chase that was met with varying levels of disgust and apathy throughout the rest of the country. No one will ever take that away. No one can ever take that away.
The biggest surprise came moments earlier, when a taped message from Aaron aired on the stadium video board. The former home run champ, a staunch Bonds critic who refused to be in attendance at the ballpark, stunned everyone by offering praise for his successor.
“Throughout the past century, the home run has held a special place in baseball, and I’ve been privileged to hold this record for 33 of those years,” Aaron said. “I move over now and offer my best wishes to Barry and his family on this historical 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.”
Bonds, who had no advance knowledge the message would be played, was genuinely moved by Aarons words. It meant everything, it meant absolutely everything, he said. Weve all admired Hank Aaron, weve all respected him, everyone in the game. … It was absolutely the best.
Notable in his absence, however, was commissioner Bud Selig, who had attended most of Bonds games over the last three weeks but left the chase Monday to tend to business in New York.
MLB executive vice president Jimmie Lee Solomon and Selig special assistant Frank Robinson (the former Nationals manager) were left to represent the commissioner in congratulating Bonds inside the Giants clubhouse once the slugger had departed the game.
Selig, who has gone out of his way to couch his words about Bonds throughout the pursuit, issued a statement that reiterated his position on the matter.
I congratulate Barry Bonds for establishing a new career home run record, Selig said. Barrys achievement is noteworthy and remarkable. … While the issues which have swirled around this record will continue to work themselves toward resolution, today is a day for congratulations on a truly remarkable achievement.
With one out and no one on, Bonds worked the count full. He nearly appeared to ground out on a bouncer to first baseman Dmitri Young, but that ball was ruled just foul.
Bacsik’s next pitch — an 86 mph fastball right down the heart of the strike zone at 11:51 p.m. Eastern time — didn’t fool Bonds one bit. He belted it like few other pitches he has seen over the last two months, sending it into history.
A mad scramble ensued in the right-center field bleachers, as dozens of fans piled onto each other trying to snag a ball that could be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. In the end, a 22-year-old native of Queens, N.Y., named Matt Murphy wound up with the famed memento. Murphy, who was merely passing through San Francisco on his way to Australia with a friend, was immediately whisked away by police officers.
Meanwhile, Bacsik stood on the mound, hands on his hips, realizing he had just etched his own place in baseball lore. The 29-year-old left-hander, who has spent his career bouncing from organization to organization, wouldn’t be recognized even by most diehard fans if he happened by them on the street.
Bacsik, though, might have been an appropriate participant in last night’s history-making event. He is an astute student of baseball, knowing the history of the game well, and he has pitching in his genes.
Bacsik’s father, also named Mike, spent parts of five seasons in the big leagues in the late 1970s and even pitched against Aaron on Aug. 23, 1976, while the latter was playing out the final games of his career. Thus, the Bacsiks are the only father and son in major league history to have pitched to someone with 755 career homers.
Its pretty special to be part of history like that, said the younger Bacsik, who congratulated Bonds in person in the San Francisco clubhouse and received an autographed bat from him. You have to be a really special player to be remembered in this game, or be part of a special moment. Im part of a special moment now that will obviously never be forgotten.
Heading into last night’s game, the younger Bacsik didn’t appear to be fazed at all by the prospect of stepping into the caldron with an entire nation watching. In fact, he almost appeared to be hoping to give up the historic homer, cracking jokes about how he could “make millions” signing autographs with Al Downing, the pitcher who served up Aaron’s 715th.
Its OK, he said. Al Downing gave up the home run to Hank Aaron. He won 20 games and was an All-Star. So now, my next goal is to win 20 games and be an All-Star like Al Downing.
Bacsik certainly wasn’t afraid to go after Bonds. If anything, he found too much of the plate in his first two encounters of the game. In the second, Bonds drilled a full-count pitch to right-center for an easy double. In the third, he lined a sharp single to center, confirming the slugger had Bacsik’s number.
I just thought he was way too pumped up for this game, Nationals manager Manny Acta said of his starter. To me, he wasnt pitching the way he usually pitches. It was max effort, trying to throw way too many fastballs, every one of them the same velocity, 86 miles an hour.
The only question was whether he had the ability to get under one of those pitches, drive it out of the park and seal his place in the record books.
Before long, that question was answered as definitively as a Barry Bonds home run into the night sky.