SAN DIEGO – Barry Bonds reached Hank Aaron in the second inning Saturday night with a hard, opposite-field blast at Petco Park, his 755th career home run bringing a sellout crowd to its feet to cheer and to boo, the conflicting reaction matching a national ambivalence to the feat.
He is one home run from owning the record outright, a mark many consider the most sacred in sports, one that Aaron held alone since 1974, when he surpassed Babe Ruth.
"This is the hardest thing I've ever been through in my entire career," Bonds said. "It's a different feeling than any of the other ones. … I'm still in a daze myself with this whole thing.
"I can't explain the feeling of it. It's just Hank Aaron. It's Hank Aaron. I had rashes on my head. I felt like I was getting sick at times."
Bonds approached the record amid controversy, and matched it in the same environment, where his presence alone inspired polite applause along with symbols that accused him of serial steroid use late in his career.
Left in the on-deck circle in the first inning, several hours after taking early batting practice for the first time in recent memory, Bonds strolled to left field. As he did, fans along the third-base line stood, cupped their hands to their mouths and booed.
In the left-field bleachers, hundreds of them held white pieces of paper with black asterisks on them.
A handful hung over a stair railing in the left-field corner, shouting and balling their fists.
But, Bonds led off the second inning, and Padres right-hander Clay Hensley threw a 2-and-1 fastball that he drove 382 feet off a façade in the left-field bleachers, ending a 2-for-18 skid since he hit 754 eight days ago.
When Bonds arrived at home plate, his son, Nikolai, leapt into his arms, and father and son remained embraced for several steps. He then accepted handshakes and hugs from his teammates and coaches, who lined up from the dugout to home plate.
"I was thinking I finally did something right," Bonds said. "I didn't even have any idea where that ball went. I knew I hit it good."
Commissioner Bud Selig, who'd wrestled with the decision for months, watched from a suite behind home plate. Aaron, Selig's good friend who apparently had not been so conflicted, did not attend.
Selig issued a statement: "Congratulations to Barry Bonds as he ties Major League Baseball's home run record. No matter what anybody thinks of the controversy surrounding this event, Mr. Bonds' achievement is noteworthy and remarkable.
"As I said previously, out of respect for the tradition of the game, the magnitude of the record and the fact that all citizens in this country are innocent until proven guilty, either I or a representative of my office will attend the next few games and make every attempt to observe the breaking of the all-time home run record."
Bonds walked in his next three plate appearances, when pitches out of the strike zone were met with boos. When Bonds was replaced in the eighth inning with a pinch-runner, many in the Padres crowd stood and applauded him, and Bonds held his helmet aloft, accepting their appreciation.
He later thanked the fans who cheered him.
"I thought it was outstanding," he said.
In an ironic convergence, the pitcher who allowed the home run – Hensley – was suspended for 15 games two years ago when he tested positive for a banned performance-enhancing substance. The man who hit the historic home run has not tested positive for steroids, though reportedly he did test positive for amphetamines last year.
"I don't think we're here to discuss those matters," Bonds said. "I think we have a great policy in this game of baseball and we should just leave it at that."
Bonds said he had spoken to neither Selig nor Aaron recently, but praised Aaron for helping to cut a path for black players.
"We as baseball players, especially us African-American ballplayers, have so much respect for Hank Aaron," he said.
Bonds arrived at Aaron's side 21 years and two months after his first home run, struck in Atlanta on June 4, 1986, against Craig McMurtry. It does not appear Bonds will break the record Sunday. He said he would not be in the lineup against the Padres, so he appears destined to hit his next in San Francisco, where the Giants open a seven-game homestand Monday against the Washington Nationals.
"Feels pretty good right now," he said. "It's like saying to my own family, 'I'm coming home. I'm coming home.'"
Home and on the road, from April to October through 22 seasons, Bonds has gathered and carried the expectations that came with his diamond lineage and five superb baseball tools.
He wasn't always a wonderful guy, but he was a great player, in almost all ways.
When his body was narrow and lithe, he stole most of his 514 bases and hit for power and average. In 1996, he had 40 steals and 42 home runs, a 40-40 club that counts only Jose Canseco, Alex Rodriguez, Alfonso Soriano and Bonds as members. When he thickened, he began to cover the final 300 or so home runs that would take him past his godfather, Willie Mays, then Babe Ruth and Aaron.
He was the National League MVP seven times, a Gold Glove winner in the outfield eight times, a batting champion twice, and a home-run champion twice, once, in 2001, when he hit 73, breaking Mark McGwire's single-season record from three years before.
Those are the numbers, the feats that represent the savage arc and consequences of his swing, along with a discerning eye, the combination of which also made him the all-time walks leader.
On statistical abundance alone – he's also nearing 3,000 hits – Bonds' career is unique, and arguably the finest in baseball history.
Bruce Bochy, the Giants' first-year manager, said that watching Bonds in the batters' box, even in his early 40's, has left him with a single conclusion.
"You realize how much better he is than the rest of us," he said. "You're seeing what could be the greatest player to ever play the game."
And yet the final decade of Bonds' career will have been sullied by evidence he spiked his body with performance-enhancing drugs, and his numbers with them, leaving his home-run records open to interpretation, along with, perhaps, his Hall of Fame merit.
As Commissioner Bud Selig said upon arriving in San Francisco to witness Bonds' final push to Aaron, "Everybody has to make their own judgments."
Bonds apparently has not tested positive for steroids, though baseball only initiated its current program of testing and discipline in 2004. According to "Game of Shadows," the book written by two San Francisco Chronicle investigative reporters, Bonds was driven to illegal performance-enhancing drugs late in 1998, following the season Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa surpassed Roger Maris' record 61 home runs. McGwire hit 70, Sosa hit 66, and Bonds hit 37.
Convinced McGwire and Sosa were on steroids and incited by envy, according to the book, Bonds reconnected with childhood friend and bodybuilder Greg Anderson, beginning a chain of events that would lead to a relationship with BALCO owner Victor Conte, a federal investigation, a grand-jury indictment and testimony that he'd done steroids unknowingly, if at all. A second grand jury currently is investigating Bonds for perjuring himself in that testimony and for tax evasion, and Anderson is in prison for refusing to cooperate with it.
After injuries cost him much of the 1999 season, Bonds hit a career-high 49 home runs in 2000, then 73 in 2001, a season in which he turned 37.
In December, it will be four years since Bonds' testimony. More than 200 major- and minor-league players have tested for steroids. Current and former major leaguers Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield, Benito Santiago and others also were implicated in the BALCO investigation. McGwire and Sosa, the power hitters Bonds once chased, have fallen under suspicion. But it is Bonds who bears the weight of an era that splashed up on the entire sport.
"My impression?" teammate Dave Roberts said. "From the outside, I had a certain opinion. Now that I'm closer to it, I think he's getting a raw deal, plain and simple. … He's taken shots from everybody. After a while, you clam up. People take him as a bad guy because of it.
"He's never tested positive. The people that know him best – teammates or guys who play against him – those are the people I listen to. And I love having him as a teammate. I don't know how he's dealt with it his whole career. Some of it might be warranted, but it goes both ways."