Friday, July 27, 2007

Stuck at 754

First posted at Big Dave on sports

The aged batter took one more practice swing and tried to ignore the lightning bolt of pain cracking down his spine and the constant ache in his knees. He held the bat by the knob, and pressed the top into the dirt, using it like a cane, as he started to walk to the plate, his right leg, nothing but bone on bone, dragging behind him, the dust settled by a persistent rain that had begun the second he peeked his head out of the dugout.

“You suck Bonds!” a man shouted. There were boos. Always boos. He wondered if they knew how much effort it took just to make it to the plate if they would still boo.

They would.

Because they knew it was their last chance, and his. Word had been “leaked” from the Commissioners Office before the game that he had tested positive for illegal substances a third time. A lifetime ban was awaiting, and this at bat, this final at bat, in the Bronx, on a cold, rainy September evening, would be his last chance.

He made it to the box, and looked down at the uniform, Kansas City written across his chest. Kansas City. He had once been a God.

He tried to dig in as much as his tired old bones would allow. Kansas City. The only team desperate enough to sign him hoping fans would come out to see him hit one more dinger. Few had, and those that did hated him, for being old, for being hurt, for being him.

He didn’t know the Yankee pitcher, he didn’t know anyone anymore, but his pitch came in flat and steady, and he said a quick prayer that just one more time the swing would be back, and he began to turn his large body, and there was no pain, no stiffness, he was 39 again, and when the wood hit the ball he felt it, felt it into his shoulders, and he knew, as the ball rose into the dark sky, knew that somehow he had finally done it.

They say at certain moments in a man’s existence his entire life flashes before his eyes. But as Bonds slowly began to jog to first base, looking up into the starless sky as the ball disappeared into the darkness, not his entire life, but the last three years, flashed before his eyes.

He had once been the Greatest Show on Earth. His every at bat scrutinized, as he sat at 754, on the cusp of Aaron. The first two homerless weeks the stories were about a slump, but when it passed into a month, the word was no longer slump. It was Curse. The Curse of Hammerin’ Hank. Every game, every at bat, it grew worse.

He fought with his teammates, flattening Matt Morris. Bruce Bochy threatened to suspend him. He laughed. “I’m the only reason they’re coming out,” he boasted. But they were no longer coming out to cheer; now they were coming to boo. He could barely move in the outfield, and with the Giants fading in the West the only answer was a trade to the American League, to the Yankees. Barry Bonds would wipe Aaron’s name from the record books in the house Ruth built.

He killed the ball his first two weeks in the Bronx. But he couldn’t get the damn thing out of the park. Until that day in Fenway, with the Yankees chasing down the Sox, picking up five games in the last eight days, and Schilling, oh how he hated Schilling, threw a fat pitch, and Bonds, sent it to right field, high, towards that Pesky Pole, named after another Red Sox choker. He lifted his arms in the air, he had caught Aaron, had shut up Schilling, shut up the obnoxious Sox fans. The ball hooked around the pole, twenty rows back. He slapped his hands and headed towards first where an Umpire, turning towards those hick fans, yelled: “Foul!”

Foul! Gods do not hit foul balls! And the Idiot was grinning at him, as if to say he knew it was fair. Bonds stopped, hands spread out. “What the hell was that!” he screamed. “Get your ass back to the plate!” a high-pitched voice to his left whined. He turned. Schilling, jawing at him. Schilling. He began walking towards him, the fat lying bastard. The Umpire got in the way and Bonds’ hands came up, on to the Ump’s shoulders, on to his neck, and he felt his hands squeezing, all the rage, the frustration, put into his powerful hands, squeezing. He heard voices, felt hands on him, even Papi, grabbing him around the waist, pulling back like a bull. He let go, the lazy Ump slumped down. Torre grabbed him. “What are you doing?” he screamed. “That bastard took my homerun!” Bonds said. “I don’t give a damn about your homerun we need this game!” Torre said. Guys like him.

Two cops came to take him from the field. He peeled off his arm protector and chucked it into the stands. Hit some kid. Shouldn’t be sitting there. Can’t get away from a piece of plastic how is he going to get away from a screaming foul ball? Foul ball. That was no goddamn foul ball. Cashman was waiting for him. Told him to take his stuff with him. Yeah, whatever. He left before the game was over. Got outside. Some of the hicks were leaving the park early. Staring at him like he had three heads. “What you lookin’ at?” he asked. He stopped a cab. He, Barry Bonds. In a cab! He climbed in. He said the name of the hotel. “The Yankees are staying there,” the hick cabdriver said. “Did you hear what happened at the game?”

When he got home there was a message from his agent. The Commissioner had suspended him for 75 games, into the 2008 season. Yeah, I bet he’s been dying to do that.

But then he realized he was free to work out the way he wanted. He called his trainer, told him they were going to start a new regimen; all he needed was one team, one at bat. He could come back in June like Clemens. No spring training, no cold weather. He smiled to himself. This couldn’t have worked out better.

He trained daily, ducked the media, and posted on his web site that he was getting stronger and looking to come back. In February there was a message from his agent. He needed to get drug tested. “I’m not on any team. How they going to test me?” He was told the Yankees had never relinquished his rights.

BONDS TESTS POSITIVE FOR STEROIDS: The headline as big as if he shot the President. The Yankees released him. No team would touch him. All his money was going out, to lawyers, child support, ex-wives.

He kept working out, until he was picked up by the St. Paul Saints, where he was the perfect teammate, helping the young players, hitting a homerun every nine times up. They started talking about The Comeback. And soon he had offers, for real money. That Epstein kid from the Sox had come to see him, said the right things. He would hit the homerun that swept away Aaron in the city where Ruth had first gone yard. And he would stick it to those Yankees.

He played left field his first game. He pulled a muscle going after a ball. But he didn’t say anything. It left him with no power, he was soon 0-16, and the media and fans were all over him. He grounded out to first to end a game and never left the box. The fans let him have it over that one. He smirked, shook his head. Yeah, like running would have made a difference. In the locker room Schilling was doing what he always did: talking, when he said they would be a better team if certain guys could check their ego and run out grounders. Barry was up, walking towards him, asking him what did he say. “Did I mumble?” Schilling asked. No, but he would be. Bonds hit him with a right in the jaw and down went Schilling. Cameras filmed it, him standing over Schilling. That was sweet. Of course he was suspended, and then released.

In January the Pirates contacted him. They had hired Jim Leyland to manage. Dusty Baker and Felipe Alou were coaches. They wanted to bring him back home. Yeah, to hit his last where he hit his first in a city that loved him. In spring training he was polite, funny, telling everyone he just wanted to contribute. They had sold out the park for opening day. They would retire his number while he wore it. He would finally get the respect he deserved. And when they asked him to fill a cup he was more than happy. They would find no steroids in him.

“Human Growth Hormone?” he asked his agent. “When did that become illegal?”

“The last bargaining agreement,” his agent said. “I told you what they would be testing for.”

The Pirates cut him. No team wanted him. Everyone said this was the end of Barry Bonds.

What he needed was a team more desperate than he was, and he found it, in Kansas City. The Royals weren’t likely to win 40 games, barely drawing half a million fans. On September 3 he was signed by the Royals but asked for one week back home before he played.

And then he took everything he could find, steroids, HGH, medicine to dope his blood. He was going to get his homerun. For the first nine days his hardest hit ball was to the warning track in front of those funky fountains. When they tested him he knew his time was limited: two games, one game, one at bat, one swing.

But all it took was one swing, and he had shown it, slowly running towards first base, watching the magical sight of the white ball against the dark sky sailing so high, and then to accent his accomplishment a lightning bolt, cracking out of the sky, then seemingly exploding into a fire ball falling quickly back to the field.

A fireball. A fireball! A ball on fire! His baseball: on fire, falling back to the field. Three years ago he would have stopped, to curse the fates, to kick the dirt, but this man, who once thought himself a God, now sought the last refuge of all scoundrels, to run!

His one leg trailed as he lifted the other and then threw himself forward. He looked toward the outfield where two guys he didn’t recognize stood over the ball. One reached down to pick it up then dropped it, waving his hand. The ball was on fire. Hot! Too hot to handle. Bonds continued to drag his tired body around the bases, across second base, when he saw Number 2, Derek Jeter, running towards the ball. At first Bonds thought he just wanted to see it, but then he realized, Jeter didn’t want to see it, Jeter wanted to get it and tag him out.

The spotlight hog! This was his moment! Barry Bonds! How many moments did Jeter need!

Jeter reached the ball as Bonds was approaching third gasping for air. Jeter kicked the ball into his glove. He would have to cover four times the area Bonds needed to cover if he was going to beat him home.

Bonds didn’t look at the third base coach. He was gasping for breath. He tried to dig in with his left leg and felt a pop, then burning pain. He began to stumble forward, and then ten feet from the plate he fell.

Jeter saw him go down. He was now at the edge of the outfield grass. Bonds was pulling himself forward with his massive forearms. Jeter saw the catcher at the plate but wasn’t surrendering the horsehide and he dove as Bonds, like a wounded bear, gasping, and growling, reached for the plate. His hand slapped down on it a split second before Jeter’s glove, the ball half out, melted into the leather, touched Bonds’ cheek, burning the signature on the ball into his skin. As he heard his skin sizzling, and just before the pain from his legs, and from his face, caused him to black out, he looked up into the Umpire’s face, who was jerking his thumb in the air, and yelling “Out” for all to hear, preserving the Aaron’s mark of 755.

He was in the hospital for a week. His legs were destroyed, his only hope artificial knees, plus his EKG was that of an 80-year-old man, and there were those spots on his lungs. But none of that bothered him as much as his face. There were two signatures on the ball. One Bonds’ own, which had been on the side burned into Jeter’s glove, the other, now, branded on to his face in perfect script, writ backwards, Hank Aaron, writ forwards, when Bonds looked in the mirror.

Bonds squeezed the pump for more morphine. On the TV they reported that Albert Pujols had hit his 74th homerun forever erasing Barry Bonds from the record books. So they took that away too. They took everything away except one, he thought as he drifted off.

He was still the guy who broke Schilling’s face.

1 comment:

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