Saturday, August 2, 2008

Barry Bonds and Almost Witnessing History

This summer I have been in an English class called Writing About Baseball. As the title shows, we have read a few baseball novels and I have had to write about different baseball related experiences. One of the papers had to be about my baseball conversion. As I am not really a baseball fan, just a sports fan, I thought it would be difficult, but then I remembered this experience from last summer. This paper was probably my favorite one that I have ever written, I hope you enjoy it!

Lying underneath the bright California sun, my mind is not lost in thought, as is usually the case while on the beach; instead, it is focused on what I am going to experience later in the day. While the country is split over what to think of Barry Bonds and his chase for 755, my imagination runs away with the thought that I could see him hit the record tying home run. My family___ and a few friends were headed to Petco Park in Downtown San Diego on the evening of August 3, 2007 for a game between the San Diego Padres and my San Francisco Giants. This had become a family tradition in recent years, signaling the beginning of our Beach Week. Little did we know 4 months earlier when tickets were purchased that we had a chance to witness history.

Technically, this story begins on Labor Day weekend of 1998. Sammy Sosa and Mark McGuire were battling for the single season home run record, then 60, held by Roger Maris. Four years earlier, Major League Baseball lost many fans because of the labor stopping strike. This home run chase was exactly what the league needed to regain pre-strike popularity. As a 10 year-old boy, I followed this story very closely. Each night I would watch Sportscenter, hoping to hear that McGuire still had the lead. To this day, almost 10 years later, I remember being on the trampoline in our backyard when my dad came out and told me McGuire was at-bat with the record on the line. I cheered and ran around the house when the ball sailed over the wall; my baseball conversion had begun.

On July 27, 2007, Barry Bonds hit home run number 754. I was a bit nervous; he had a whole week of games to play before the game we were going to. Then, as if the gods were intervening on our behalf, it was announced he would not play in the Giants’ series against the Dodgers in L.A. Those two teams are fierce rivals and Barry did not want to break the record while being booed constantly. I arrived in San Diego on July 31, the last day of the Giants’ series in L.A. After a day off, they started a three-game series with the Padres. Thursday, we spent the day on the beach, enjoying the sun and sand. Usually, we stay out on the beach until the sun starts setting, but we had to change our routine around when Barry Bonds would be at bat. We would head inside right as the game started, anxiously anticipating that moment he would stand at the plate, elbow and shin pads on tight, waiting to jump on the first good pitch. My family comes from the Bay Area. Barry Bonds was the first athlete I ever idolized. We don’t understand the fuss about him and steroids, we just accept that he did use them and keep cheering. This understanding allowed all of us to really enjoy the moment each time he was at bat, while the rest of the sports world constantly debated whether records should be valid or not. To our excitement, no record tying or breaking home runs were hit that Thursday night, setting up perfectly for our family trek to the ballpark.

Friday morning, my cousin Jake, our friend AJ and I headed out to the beach. We knew it was only a few hours until we would take the train from Oceanside to the Gaslamp District to meet up with my parents for the game. The word excited would not even begin to describe how we were feeling. The night before, we watched the newscasters talk about all press frenzy happening at the park, knowing we would be a part of it. At about 3 p.m., we got all cleaned up and headed for the train station. As a Giants fan, my black and orange hat stood out among all the Padres shirts and hats that slowly packed the train. Padres fans have always been very courteous, but they seemed to be just as excited as me to possibly witness history. In my mind, it was a near perfect situation for Bonds. Other than not playing in his home stadium, he was close to his childhood home, Southern California, in a beautiful ballpark, amongst fans who really understood what could happen that night. We arrived safely in front of Petco Park and proceeded to find my parents and head into the park. The atmosphere and electricity of the game was evident immediately upon entrance. Food and drink vendors seemed to be yelling just a bit louder and every usher ready to help create a perfect ballpark experience for each fan; they did not want to take away from the historic moment each fan was praying to experience.

Finally, the game started. We were seated directly between 1st base and the right field wall, about 10 rows up. Since the Giants were the away team, there was a chance Bonds would be up right in the top of the 1st inning. Once Dave Roberts bunted for a single, we knew the first opportunity for Bonds would be coming soon. After two quick outs, it was time. Everyone in the stadium stood in unison, like there was a choir conductor leading us on the big screen. Flashbulbs started exploding throughout the crowd, adding to the already electric atmosphere. Much to my satisfaction, the majority of the Padres crowd were cheering Bonds, with only a smattering of boos heard. Each pitch brought the crowd to a quick silence, only to exhale with a missed swing. Bonds ended up striking out on a called third strike, leaving the crowd to wait a few more innings for his next at-bat.

When the top of the order came up again in the top of the 3rd, we knew Bonds was just two hits away. Dave Roberts and Randy Winn provided those hits and after a Ray Durham groundout, it was history time again. The crowd reacted the same way as the previous at-bat. Everyone on their feet, knowing that a home run would provide them with a story their grandkids would ask to hear over and over again. Just like before, Bonds did not come through. He grounded out on the second pitch to end the inning. It would not be until the 6th inning that Bonds would get another at-bat, this time fooling the crowd with a long, deep fly ball that was caught easily by Mike Cameron. Three at-bats, three outs. Never did I think we would be let down. In my mind, he was just waiting until his final at-bat to provide the fireworks. It was a close game and what a better way to win than on a history making home run?

That time came in the top of the 8th inning. Bonds was due up second and the Giants were winning 3-0 after a 2 run 7th. This was it! Again, crowd on its feet, cameras flashing in all directions; frankly, it was hard for me to focus on Bonds through all the flashes. All of the hoopla was for nothing, as Bonds grounded out to the first baseman. In the bottom of the 8th, he was replaced by Fred Lewis, manager Bruce Bochy assuming the Giants would take care of business and win the game. The Padres went on to score 3 runs in the bottom of the 8th, which would lead to extra innings. Of course, the Giants had gone through enough batters in the 9th that would have made it possible for Bonds to hit again in the 10th, had he stayed in the game. This switch would prove to be important our minds, considering how the next day’s game played out.

Again, we all left the beach earlier than normal that night to catch Bonds’ first at-bat. My dad did not think he would hit one that night and stayed out on the beach. I went up to Jake and AJ’s room to watch the game with them and my Uncle Keith. The Giants batters went 1-2-3 in the top of the 1st and the Padres scored one run in the opposite half of the inning. After what seemed like the longest commercial break in history, Barry Bonds was at the plate. There is no doubt in my mind that the stadium reacted the same way we had reacted the day before for each of his at-bats. With the count at 2-1, Clay Hensley of the Padres threw the pitch. Bonds connected and sent it to the opposite field and out to tie Hank Aaron’s record of 755. We ran out onto the balcony of our condo that overlooked the ocean. My dad and his sister were still sitting out there, having missed what just happened. We started screaming to them what had happened like we were 10 years old and our favorite team had just won a championship. The other 100 or so people between us and them must have thought we had lost our minds, but they didn’t understand how we felt about that moment. About five minutes later I realized we should have seen that home run. If the Giants manager had left Bonds in for extra innings, he would have had that at-bat to break the record, instead of waiting until his first at-bat the next day. I was disappointed, but satisfied that he had finally tied the record. Three days later, with the whole family around the TV this time, we watched as Mike Bascik gave up home run number 756, knowing we had come so close to being eyewitnesses to history.

While Barry Bonds walked from the on-deck circle to the batter’s box, as the crowd rose to its feet and the first of many flashes went off, I knew my journey from a 10 year-old jumping on the trampoline waiting for my dad to tell me to come witness history, to putting myself in position to witness it first hand, had completed the transformation from sports fan to baseball fan. It took a long time, but the wait was well worth it. I was born with Giants blood, so it was going to take a Giant to bring those feelings out into the open. I hope this is not the climax of my experience as a fan, but just the experience that will start me on a journey to something bigger and better. If it is the climax, I will always be able to tell my children about the time their dad almost witnessed history. One at-bat later…


Alec & Tiffany Runyon said...

Great paper. Lets get that published in ESPN the Magazine. Got any connections with them?


steve said...

Good paper. Try not to use the past tense, "had." I enjoyed it. Still have to say I couldn't care less about Bonds and the so-called record. But, your story kept me interested, which is what I like in an article!