It was 10 years ago tonight that Bonds hit a 99 mph Ubaldo Jimenez fastball on a line to left-center field, where three fans scrapped for his final home run ball while he slowly circled the bases.
With that swing, Bonds elevated a number that had been almost entirely inconsequential to baseball history: Nobody had ever stolen exactly 762 bases or won or saved 762 games. The record for plate appearances in a season was 773; the record for a pitcher's career win percentage was .710; the worst ERA in a season was 7.71; the most career doubles was 792. The best team in history, the 1906 Chicago Cubs, had a .763 win percentage. Rich Aurilia had a career OPS of .762, and Elston Howard drove in 762 runs, and that was about it.
How Bonds came to elevate -- or, many might say, tarnish -- exactly that number is a story that has many twists, all of them perhaps best told through the story of the guy who ended up with the ball.
Point 1: The Record Should Have Been 761, But ...
You might recall the controversy over Bonds' 73rd home run ball in 2001: After the ball landed, fans piled into a terrifying, two-minute scrum trying to get it. The man who first caught the ball went to court against the man who eventually came away with it. The case took years to settle, inspired a pretty good documentary and reportedly cost more to litigate than the ball's sale price.
After Bonds hit home run No. 756, the Washington Post estimated that the ball would sell for around $500,000. (It ended up going for $752,000 a few days after the events of this section.) But expectations were that the most valuable homer would be the last one Bonds hit. An auction house suggested a million bucks.
With that in mind, the fight for 762 was relatively mellow. The ball hit off the glove of a 24-year-old fan named Jameson Sutton, who happened to be holding a batting practice ball in his bare hand at the time. Both balls went to the ground; so did Sutton and two other fans. Sutton ended up with the actual ball, and another fan got the batting practice ball. (The third fan, who got nothing, later told Yahoo! Sports he had gotten high 10 minutes earlier, so he was at a disadvantage.)
But here's what's interesting: Sutton reached out over the wall to try to catch that potential million dollar ball. His glove was a good foot in front of the yellow line. Rockies left fielder Matt Holliday immediately pointed and asked for an interference call, but umpire Travis Reininger waved Bonds around, without the umpiring crew gathering.
Would the ball have gone out without Sutton? It's hard to tell, but the best view is in slow motion at about the 12-minute mark in the game video here. Would it have been overturned had it been hit a few years later, in the age of replay? Would an umpire have dared overturn a home run that set a new all-time record? Would he have dared to overturn a call and cost some 24-year-old kid a million-dollar baseball? These are things we don't know!
But there's a reasonable case that Bonds managed to hit home run No. 762 only because it was home run No. 762 -- because the very nature of home run No. 762 creates a huge incentive for fans such as Sutton to stretch out and turn doubles into fortunes.
Point 2: The Record Should Have Been, Like, 765, But ...
So, but, OK, Sutton has the ball. Then Sutton takes the ball home, and the ball is gone, and nobody knows where the ball is. In the confusion of the second ball -- the batting practice ball Sutton dropped and another fan picked up -- Major League Baseball didn't authenticate No. 762, and eventually Sutton took a lie detector test to prove he had the real thing. Which is odd because MLB, to combat fraud, had a practice of putting specially marked balls into play when a ball might end up being worth a million bucks so that there would be no confusion about which ball was the ball.
They didn't this time. A few months after the homer, Zack Hample wrote about the mystery of 762's owner:
So why wasn't Bonds' 762nd home run ball marked?
MLB declined to comment, but according to various reports, it stopped marking the balls shortly after the record-breaker and planned to resume during the final two weeks of the season. MLB had taken a similar gamble in 1998, and it paid off because McGwire kept adding to his record on a seemingly daily basis.
Basically: There was very little chance that Bonds was going to stop hitting home runs on Sept. 5. Home run No. 762 was going to be no more significant than No. 758 or 761.
At that point, Bonds had homered every 16 plate appearances for the season and had played in 84 percent of the Giants' games. With 22 games remaining on the schedule (plus the rest of the current game), he'd likely bat about 75 more times. The chances of Bonds going homerless in 75 consecutive plate appearances were a tick less than one in a hundred.
But then, after 24 homerless plate appearances, came this weird play:
Adrian Gonzalez accounted for the hit, sending a deep drive to the wall in left field that Bonds attempted to catch. A fan appeared to reach over with his glove and interfere with Bonds, who came down hard on his right leg and tumbled into a barrel roll.
Bonds went for X-rays, which were negative, and wasn't available to speak with reporters. He told [Giants pitcher Matt] Cain that the ball was in his glove. "He felt someone knocked it out of there," Cain said.
Initially, the toe injury he suffered on the play was going to keep him out only two or three games, but Bonds ended up sitting out the next 10 days. He played only one more game: the final home game of the season. After two groundouts, he faced Jake Peavy in the sixth inning, trailing by seven runs. Peavy, whose average fastball was 92.5 mph that year, threw one that flashed 90 on the scoreboard, dead center and at the belt. Bonds hit a towering fly ball to the warning track in right-center field -- Giants broadcaster Duane Kuiper briefly broke into his home run call -- but it was just short.
Peavy joined the Giants seven years later. "I did the same thing with Todd Helton last year," he said when asked about the grooved pitch. Helton, against Peavy, homered in his final home game. Bonds came just short.
Point 3: The Record Should Have Been No Fewer Than 783, But ...
So then Sutton took the ball home and tossed it into his closet. Unbelievably, he kept rooting for Bonds to hit another home run. Wrote Hample, "He knew that another home run would greatly reduce the value of his ball but says he never rooted against Bonds. 'I thought it would be cool if he could keep adding to his record, but he never did, and that's when I was like, "Damn."'" That's when Sutton put the ball in a safe deposit box.
But the value of the ball still seemed likely to crater. A few days after Bonds' final home run, the Giants announced -- in mid-September -- that they would not bring Bonds back for 2008. ("The irony is that he can still play," Giants GM Brian Sabean said at the news conference announcing that he didn't want Bonds back, which is extremely ironic indeed.) Bonds' final game was treated as a farewell of sorts. He gave an emotional speech to his teammates before the game and left to a long ovation from Giants fans. His locker was already empty. He didn't dress for the final series in Los Angeles.
Whether he would play for another team in 2008 was a matter of debate. He said he wanted to. And that offseason began with the usual assortment of rumors -- where he'd fit, who might be interested. "There will be a market for him," Padres GM Kevin Towers said.
But a lot of people didn't believe it, and the rumors were quickly replaced with one club after another denying interest in him -- often in the most explicit language possible. Astros manager Cecil Cooper said he'd quit if Houston signed him. He wasn't a fit for the Nationals, manager Manny Acta said, "choking back laughter." The Rays didn't respond to Bonds' agent's text message. The Mets "laughed off" the idea. "Not interested," said the Pirates' president, Frank Coonelly. The Mariners "emphatically stated [they] will not sign Bonds under any circumstances at any time." "Barry can't play for my team," White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said.
There were executives, managers, players and certainly writers who wanted their teams to sign Bonds. It just seemed that there was always somebody else in the organization -- or many somebodies -- who were willing to say "over my dead body." The resistance was stronger than the attraction.
And so the winter passed without Bonds getting a job, though he stayed in shape and his agent kept pressing clubs. Sutton took the ball out of that safe deposit box and put it up for auction: a baseball that might be worth a million dollars or might be worth practically nothing, depending on whether Bonds ever played another game. Sutton's stepdad was battling cancer, and the money would help pay the bills.
His stepfather died four days before the ball went up for auction. No. 762 sold for $377,000 to an anonymous bidder. The president of the auction house that sold the ball blamed the low bids on the uncertainty about whether Bonds would come back to hit another home run. "If Barry Bonds never plays again," he said, "whoever bought this ball has a valuable piece that's worth seven figures."
PECOTA, the projection system at Baseball Prospectus, forecast Bonds to hit .248/.419/.478 that season, with 21 home runs.
In December 2009, after two years of chasing after teams, Bonds' agent finally acknowledged that there was almost no chance Bonds would play again. "If they would have let Barry play baseball until his on-base percentage dropped below .400, he probably would've been playing until he was 56," Jeff Borris said.
Finally, the number 762 could rest. Every year it survives, it will get more famous. Every year, 755 will get less.