Home run No. 713 crashes into the night

PHILADELPHIA -- Barry Bonds' left elbow is cranky and his right knee has rendered him borderline immobile as a baserunner and left fielder. His prime lineup protector, Moises Alou, is out with an ankle injury. And his team is muddling along at 14-17, due largely to a pitching staff that ranks last in the National League in ERA.

In lots of ways, the season has been one big downhill ride since Bonds donned a wig and a cocktail dress and imitated Paula Abdul for that "Giants Idol" skit in the Cactus League.

But even when Bonds is in his own little cocoon and granting fewer interviews than Robert DeNiro, he has a great flair for the dramatic. When his swing is in decent working order, it can happen in a flash.

All the elements coalesced for wonderful theater Sunday night. Bonds was two homers away from tying the Bambino, Babe Ruth. A national audience was watching on ESPN. And Phillies pitcher Jon Lieber, a guy who's invariably around the plate, challenged him in the sixth inning with a sinker around the knees.

The end result: A super-sized, 450-foot home run that conked off a McDonalds' sign on the facing of the upper deck at Citizens Bank Park. Hello, career homer No. 713.

"He about tore that Golden Arches sign down," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "I'm glad he's leaving town. He's about ready to get hot."

About an hour later, the Giants paraded Bonds into an interview room for a post-mortem before the team's charter flight back to San Francisco. Bonds spoke in a calm, soft, near monotone for about a half-hour. Maybe he was just projecting a faux sense of cool amid a barrage of questions about Ruth, Hank Aaron and George Mitchell's steroid investigation. Or perhaps he's just fried from all the stress.

"I think this is the greatest thing," Bonds said. "It's awesome. I may not show it a lot, but that's just me trying to keep my head screwed on straight. It's overwhelming right now."

So here we are: Bonds needs one more long ball to tie Ruth as he heads home to San Francisco, the site of career homer Nos. 500, 600 and 700. It's also the place where he tied and passed his godfather, Willie Mays, on the all-time list, and the site of homer Nos. 71, 72 and 73 in 2001.

Bonds clearly has more than a comfort level and a supportive crowd on his side in the Bay Area. He's got lots and lots of tradition.

Still, unless Giants manager Felipe Alou changes his mind, Bonds' only chance to tie the Babe on Monday will come as a pinch-hitter. He is almost certain to sit out against Houston's Roy Oswalt, even though the head-to-head numbers are scary. Bonds is 4-for-4 against Oswalt with two doubles, a triple and a home run -- for a combined on-base plus slugging percentage of 3.750.

It's no secret that Bonds' pursuit of second place on baseball's career homer list is proceeding without the sense of joy or anticipation typically accorded an event of such magnitude. So many people feel conflicted about Bonds' alleged steroid use, and just as many are turned off by his abrasive personality. Cheating and misanthropy are a pretty toxic combination when you're trying to whip the sporting public into a frenzy.

Rather than elevate the mood of the San Francisco clubhouse, Bonds' pursuit of the Babe has produced a sort of claustrophobia. Felipe Alou is starting to feel besieged answering so many questions on behalf of his superstar left fielder. And the San Francisco players feel overrun by reporters who linger in the clubhouse as reluctant hostages to a story they feel halfhearted about covering.

Everywhere outside the Bay Area, Bonds' appearances generate a sense of apathy or mocking rebuke or outright hostility. After Bonds hit homer No. 712 last Tuesday against San Diego's Scott Linebrink, the Giants went to Milwaukee and drew crowds of 17,358 and 21,038.

There was so much talk of a hostile reception in Philly, the San Francisco players were braced for worse than Bonds got. Reliever Steve Kline said the reception was worse when he was with the Cardinals and J.D. Drew and Scott Rolen made their first visits to town as designated villains. Drew, who refused to sign with the Phillies out of the draft, got batteries thrown at him. Bonds, in contrast, got disparaging signs and lots of epithets.

Some fans in left field rolled out several bed sheets with the message: "Ruth did it on hot dogs and beer. Aaron did it with class. How did you do it?"

Kline thought that one was pretty witty.

"I think this is the greatest thing. It's awesome. I may not show it a lot, but that's just me trying to keep my head screwed on straight. It's overwhelming right now."
-- Barry Bonds, on his chase of Babe Ruth

"Barry hears the same stuff every day -- BALCO and steroids and stuff like that," Kline said. "Philly is kind of original. They try to come up with stuff. But after Cinco de Mayo, I think a lot of the fans here were too drunk to come back to the games."

Added outfielder Randy Winn: "There are boos and chants, but Barry gets that in spring training. People say, 'There's so much hostility.' I tell them, 'Watch the Dodgers and Giants series. That's hostility.' "

Bonds prepared for Sunday's game in his own way, sitting in the clubhouse and watching a DVD of comedian Dave Chappelle. He laughed as Chappelle performed a routine that skewered Kobe Bryant and Michael Jackson. Then he took a nap and bantered with teammate Jason Schmidt before going out to batting practice and raining homers into the right-field stands.

Bonds ultimately will remember Philadelphia as the city of motherly love. Bonds' mom, Pat, came to town for the final two games of the Phillies series and gave him a long pep talk to help him regain his focus.

"She helped me get my perspective back," Bonds said. "I'm just happy I didn't waste her trip."

Mentally, Bonds appears to be in a pretty good place at the moment. He said glowing things about Ruth and talked wistfully of how he wishes his late father, Bobby, were still around to see him chase the Babe. He even took the high road in response to Phillies pitcher Cory Lidle, who recently characterized his accomplishment as tainted because of his alleged steroid use.

"I don't like to talk bad about anybody else," Bonds said. "That's just not my style. Never has been. Never will be. If you have something bad, say it to my face."

Before the flight home, Bonds even met his public. On his way out of the press room he encountered Carlos Oliveras, the proud owner of home run ball No. 713. Oliveras, a 25-year-old Puerto Rico native, is serving at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey. He nabbed the Bonds ball after it ricocheted off the McDonalds sign, and held it between his legs until the frenzy abated.

Oliveras asked Bonds to autograph the baseball. Bonds declined, but consented to a photograph. Then representatives for the ESPN series "Bonds on Bonds" asked Oliveras to sign a waiver consenting to allow the clip of their encounter to air on the show. It was a classic case of modern commerce and image-making run amuck.

On the positive side, maybe Oliveras can make a few bucks off the ball if he so chooses. Bonds has similar plans for the soon-to-be-owners of homers No. 714 and 715.

"I look forward to giving somebody the opportunity to better their lifestyle," Bonds said, smiling.

Giants fans already are mobilizing in McCovey Cove. It's only a matter of time.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.