SAN FRANCISCO - When Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs to shatter Roger Maris' 37-year-old single-season record in 1998, it was the stuff of baseball legend.
When Barry Bonds came to the plate in the first inning of last night's game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Pacific Bell Park, it became history.
Bonds launched his 71st home run of the season off Dodgers right-hander Chan Ho Park to make short work of the 3-year-old mark and confirm his status as one of the greatest players ever to apply a piece of hardwood to horsehide. Then he hit No. 72 in the third inning to add to the new standard, but his evening turned bittersweet when the San Francisco Giants lost a wild one, 11-10, to drop out of contention for a playoff berth.
The Giants' superstar, who had gone four games without a home run before tying McGwire's record with a majestic, 454-foot blast off Houston Astros rookie Wilfredo Rodriguez on Thursday night, needed just two more pitches to claim one of baseball's most hallowed records.
He now is connected to an ancestral line of home run hitters that traces its roots to the mythical Babe Ruth, whose 60-homer performance in 1927 stood until Maris surpassed it in a magical 1961 home run race with New York Yankees teammate Mickey Mantle.
The Maris record went unapproached until McGwire hooked up in another exciting home run derby with Chicago Cubs star Sammy Sosa, both of them exceeding the Maris record in 1998. But when McGwire hit five homers against the Montreal Expos during the final weekend of the season to raise the bar to 70, the new record was expected to stand for a long time.
Bonds did not have a true partner in his assault on the record. He was challenged briefly by Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Luis Gonzalez and later by Sosa, but his record run was largely a singular pursuit.
He worked hard to keep it in the context of his team's pursuit of a playoff berth, but that appeared to be turning into a pipe dream when the Dodgers scored five runs in the first inning.
Park wasn't even tempted to pitch around Bonds the way the Astros had done for all but a handful of at-bats during the three-game series at Enron Field. The five-run lead gave him the luxury of challenging the 37-year-old slugger and earning a dubious place in baseball history.
Once again, there was no doubt. The ball was gone the moment it left his bat. He sprinted around the bases and was greeted at home plate by his 11-year-old son, Nikolai, and a crowd of teammates.
He hoisted his son into the air and pointed skyward before accepting the congratulations of his team and a long ovation from the sellout crowd at PacBell. Bonds then took a curtain call and accepted a cellphone call from his father, former Giants outfielder Bobby Bonds, in Connecticut hosting a charity golf tournament.
The game was interrupted for several minutes while Bonds stepped off the field to hug his wife and accept congratulations from friends and other family members. He was also honored by the Giants in an on-field ceremony after the game.
"Tonight, Barry Bonds made history by establishing a new Major League Baseball record for home runs in a single season," said baseball commissioner Bud Selig in a prepared statement. "As one of only two players in Major League Baseball history to reach the 70-home run plateau, Barry has demonstrated on a national stage why he is one of the greatest players of our generation."
Selig was in San Diego to honor retiring Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn and record-setter Rickey Henderson, though he had to be kicking himself for his decision to break off from the Bonds chase after spending three days in Houston. The commissioner was forced into the tough choice because he wanted to honor Gwynn in person and be present in Baltimore for Cal Ripken's final game today.
Bonds' big homer was caught in the right-center-field bleachers by 49-year-old Jerry Rose of Knight's Landing, Calif. It likely will fetch a pretty price on the sports memorabilia auction market unless the Giants or the Baseball Hall of Fame can convince him to donate it to posterity.
That's unlikely, of course, since the ball that McGwire hit for his 70th home run of the '98 season sold at auction for more than $3 million. It probably isn't worth quite so much now.
The season has been an emotional roller coaster , and this week was no exception. Bonds, in the aftermath of Thursday's celebration in Houston, was noticeably subdued during yesterday's pregame news conference.
"I had to put to rest a friend of mine today," Bonds said. "Like I said, every time I have a chance to enjoy something, something else comes up."
Bonds attended the funeral of friend and sometime bodyguard Franklin Bradley, who died last week while undergoing abdominal surgery.
Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun