755 feels so good

Published 1:23 am Sunday, August 5, 2007

SAN DIEGO (AP) — Barry Bonds swung, took a half-dozen steps and clapped his hands. With no trace of a smile but a strong shot for all the doubters, he caught Hank Aaron and tied the career home run record Saturday night.

No. 755 was an opposite-field drive to left-center field, moving Bonds within one swing of having baseball’s pinnacle of power all to himself.

Commissioner Bud Selig stood up and put his hands in his pockets while Bonds’ family hugged and high-fived. When Bonds crossed the plate, he lifted his batboy son, Nikolai, and carried him several steps in an embrace.

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The Petco Park crowd stood and cheered, with some boos mixed in, when the San Francisco slugger homered off Clay Hensley in the second inning. Several fans held up asterisk signs.

Bonds was booed as he headed to left field at the end of the inning. The 43-year-old star has been shadowed by suspicions of steroid use for several years, which some fans feel has tainted his chase for the home run record.

It had been eight days since Bonds hit his 754th home run, and he came out for early batting practice Saturday, hoping to break his slump. He did it quickly, homering to lead off the second.

Bonds walked his next time up, in the fourth inning.

Bonds hit the tying homer, in fact, off a former Giants draft pick who was suspended in 2005 for violating baseball’s minor league steroids policy.

Earlier in the day, Alex Rodriguez hit his 500th home run. Like Bonds, he took advantage of his first opportunity of the game, connecting at Yankee Stadium.

Bonds’ milestone shot came at 7:29 p.m. PDT and traveled an estimated 382 feet. The ball clunked off an advertising sign on the facade and fell into the navy blue bleachers below — right below the main scoreboard featuring a giant photo of the smiling slugger.

A fan sitting in that area threw back a ball onto the field, but that was not the historic ball. The man who ended up with the prized souvenir was whisked to a secure area so the specially marked ball could be authenticated.

After Bonds crossed the plate, teammate Ryan Klesko hugged him. Bonds slowly walked through a greeting line of other Giants. Moments later, he walked over to the field-level seats and kissed 8-year-old daughter Aisha and wife, Liz, through the screen.

Bonds then lifted his cap before going to the far end of the dugout and hugging Sue Burns, the wife of late Giants ownership partner Harmon Burns.

The godson of Willie Mays and the son of an All-Star outfielder, Bonds seemed destined for greatness from the start. Funny thing, his speed drew a lot more attention than his strength when he broke into the majors as a lanky leadoff hitter.

Even when Bonds became a threat to Aaron’s record, many fans thought age would slow him down. Instead, his power numbers surged — as did speculation about steroid use.

Bonds steadfastly denied that he knowingly used performance-enhancing drugs and let the allegations bounce off him, the same way fastballs deflected off his bulky body armor.

Choking up an inch or so on his favorite maple bats, No. 25 became the No. 1 target for boobirds outside the Bay Area. Bonds was constantly shadowed by doubts rather than showered in affection the way Mark McGwire was nearly a decade ago.

The whole baseball world — the whole country, really — joined the celebration when McGwire broke Roger Maris’ season home run record in 1998. After Big Mac launched No. 62, he pointed to heaven, hoisted his son and hugged Sammy Sosa.

Yet that story did not have a happy ending. Disgraced by a poor performance in front of a congressional panel looking into steroids, McGwire basically became a recluse and never came close in his first bid to make the Hall of Fame.

Bonds broke McGwire’s mark of 70, hitting 73 homers in 2001. Ever since, he’s been on a path toward Aaron, a journey that hasn’t been full of joy. Bonds has been hobbled by bad knees and bickered with Giants management, and his chase was hardly backed by Selig.

A lot of fans, in fact, are already rooting for the day when Bonds’ record falls. While Sosa, Ken Griffey Jr. and Frank Thomas are next up among active players, Rodriguez is considered the most likely successor. The Yankees star just turned 32 and is well ahead of Bonds’ pace at the same age.

That said, Bonds’ quest was the main reason Giants owner Peter Magowan brought Bonds back for a 15th season in San Francisco, signing the slugger to a $15.8 million, one-year contract right before spring training.

Even with Bonds at 755, there is bound to be a split among many fans over who is the real home run champ.

There will be some who always consider Babe Ruth as the best — those old films of him wearing a crown will last forever. Others will give that honor to Aaron, as much for his slugging as his quiet dignity in breaking Ruth’s record in 1974.

While steroids tinged Bonds’ chase, race was the predominant issue when Aaron took aim at Ruth’s mark of 714.

Aaron dealt with hate mail and death threats from racist fans who thought a black man was not worthy of breaking the record set by a white hero, the beloved Babe. Bonds, too, has said he deals with racial issues and that threats have been made on his life at times.