An oral history of Barry Bonds’ titanic Yankee Stadium homer
Date of publication: June 28, 2017
Source: Sports Illustrated
Description: Writing an oral history had always been a bucket list item of mine. I chose this home run — a completely nondescript one in the context of Bonds’ career — because I believed it had already been lost to history for most baseball fans. But from the man who hit the ball to the remarkable visual of the home run, there’s nothing forgettable about the moment, at least for those in attendance. The eight notable figures I interviewed for the story confirmed that line of thinking.
Behind a desk in the visiting manager’s office at Citi Field, Dusty Baker sat mesmerized at the video playing on the iPhone screen below him.
Barry Bonds stepped to the plate at Yankee Stadium. Just after public address announcer Bob Sheppard introduced Bonds, Baker mouthed, “Num-bah Twenty-Five,” to mirror the Yankees’ famed P.A. man.
A reporter asked Baker before a mid-June game between the Nationals and Mets if he could remember a specific one of Bonds’ 762 home runs, hit 15 years ago this month. It soared into the highest reaches of Yankee Stadium’s upper deck in right field, a spot few players, if any, ever reached in 85 years. The moment encapsulated everything baseball was in the 1990s and early 2000s: Home runs, the Yankees and mind-boggling performances.
Bonds’ blast that day stands as one of the longest and most majestic shots authored by the all-time home run leader, but the memories have faded deeper and deeper into the history books. That remained the case for Baker, formerly the Giants’ manager from 1993–2002 and currently with Washington, as he struggled to recall that Saturday afternoon in New York, June 8, 2002. He agreed to watch the highlight on YouTube to jog his memory. It did more than that.
Upon hearing the sharp crack of Bonds’ bat on a Ted Lilly fastball, Baker couldn’t help himself. “Hoo!” he shouted, before chuckling as Giants announcer Jon Miller exclaimed, “This one is headed for New Jersey!”
“I remember that now,” Baker said, smiling. “Hey man, go get Goody.”
Baker summoned outfielder Brian Goodwin to his office and asked to start the highlight over. The manager instructed Goodwin to watch Bonds’ mechanics at the end of his swing.
“One more time,” Baker said, demanding a third showing. “I want you to memorize this. Show it again.”
Despite hearing the home run call once more, Baker could not hold a straight face when Miller made his crack about New Jersey. The highlight did not stir Goodwin nearly as much as his manager, understandable for someone 11 years old at the time of the home run. But Baker had a front-row seat to history for 10 seasons, with 437 Bonds home runs sandwiched between.
There was no hiding his fascination with the home run, even 15 years after the fact. That sentiment held true for plenty of others in attendance that day. Through their eyes, here’s a look back at Bonds’ herculean homer at Yankee Stadium.
SETTING THE STAGE
Entering the fifth year of interleague play, this was the kind of matchup baseball fans hoped to see: Two historically great teams playing meaningful games against each other for the first time in 40 years. The reigning American League-champion Yankees sat 3 1/2 games behind the Red Sox in the AL East, while the Giants, on their way to a pennant-winning season for the first time since 1989, remained 1 1/2 games behind the first-place Diamondbacks.
Fresh off his 73-home run rampage a season ago, Bonds entered the series hitting .342 with 20 homers in 54 games. He smashed three home runs in the previous 10 games, including one the game before San Francisco flew cross-country for a matchup with the Yankees.
Bonds (Giants left fielder, 1993–2007): It was cool playing in Yankee Stadium because the Yankees have more championships than anyone. For any team to go on that kind of platform is awesome. It was great for my career because the Yankees did want to sign me when I was a free agent (in the previous offseason), and to actually step on that stage, to be able to play on that stage was nice.
Miller (Giants broadcaster, 1997-present): This was really sort of the best of interleague play. You had the great National League slugger in the historic American League ballpark. The kind of moment that would have only occurred in the World Series or an All-Star Game. That kind of a game was the whole point of interleague play.
John Sterling (Yankees broadcaster (1989-present): There was a lot of excitement about seeing Barry Bonds live because he had been hitting all of these home runs everywhere. He either hit a home run or he walked.
Jerry Crawford (Home plate umpire, 1977–2010): He knew where he wanted the ball. He had a greenlight. If that guy threw a ball on the inside part of home plate to him, you didn’t have a chance.
Mike Krukow (Giants broadcaster, 1994-present): It was great during batting practice, he was flipping balls out to right field that were blowing the minds of the grounds crew, the Yankee players and the people who had been around Yankee Stadium forever. They were shaking their head at what he was doing in batting practice.
Baker (Giants manager, 1993–2002): Barry could recognize who was afraid of him and who was foolish enough to throw to him.
Bonds: Bobby Bonilla came into the locker room (before the game) and I didn’t know if he was kidding or not at the time, but he said, “Hey, (Ted) Lilly said he’s going to challenge you.”
I said, “you’re kidding.”
He said, “no, he’s going right after you. He’s tired of people walking you and he’s going dead after you.”
I said, “If he does that, Bobby, I promise you I’m going to hit that ball out of the stadium.”
THE HOME RUN
With the game only a few pitches old, a chorus of boos greeted Bonds as he stepped to the plate with two runners on. Third baseman David Bell began the first inning with a walk, followed by a base hit from shortstop Rich Aurilia. Even in Bonds’ heyday, it would’ve been too daring to walk him and face former MVP Jeff Kent with the bases loaded and no outs. So Yankees lefty Ted Lilly came right at Bonds, firing a swing-and-miss fastball before delivering a pitch out of the zone.
Bonds: I didn’t believe (Bonilla) until the first two pitches went by and I said, “This guy’s really going to come at me.” I mean, it was like, he’s not trying to throw a changeup here. He’s just trying to say, “See it, hit it.” It’s hard to explain, but the sequence and the way it happened was just the way Bobby explained it.
Lilly’s 1–1 offering was an inside fastball that caught far too much of the plate.
Bonds: He did it and I hit it. It didn’t go out of the stadium, though.
Miller: I knew it was a home run right as soon as it left his bat. I said something, which I felt like an idiot afterward, the first thing that came to my mind was New Jersey. I thought well, it’s really more like Long Island. Headed into the Hamptons would’ve been more apropos.
Aurilia (Giants shortstop, 1995–2003; 2007–09): I just remember taking my secondary lead off of first and just hearing the crack of the bat. He hit a lot home runs, but there’s not many that you just stand there as a base runner and just watch.
Sterling: With that wonderful swing, that short swing, he hit … maybe the longest home run I’ve seen in the upper deck. It was a thing of beauty, this phenomenal parabola of the ball climbing high.
Tyler Kepner (Yankees beat writer for the New York Times, 2002–2009): You could hit balls at certain ballpark and they might go just as far, but if the ballparks aren’t configured in certain ways you don’t really notice. But Yankee Stadium was so steep in that third deck and the third deck was so close to the foul pole that it certainly wasn’t unheard of to hit a ball up there. That happened fairly often. It was just how high it went. It just kept climbing. I’m pretty sure I never saw a ball go that high into the third deck. It almost made you think that somebody could hit it out.
Krukow: My reaction was, “Oh my God (screaming), I’ll see ya later.” I told the guys in the booth that I was out. That was it, I headed right up there. It was amazing.
Miller: It was kind of astonishing that he kept it fair. It just was such a long blast to right field. … I had been to Yankee Stadium many, many of times, and that ball was just the most stunning home run because it went so high into the upper deck but it got there so quickly.
Crawford: You just could not pitch the guy inside, and if you did, I don’t care where it was, you just suffered the consequences.
Baker: That was a monster. There’s only a few people that could go up there. Him and Reggie Jackson. Man, that’s a long way.
Krukow: There were a lot of diehard fans up there and we started talking about how the last thing on their minds was that they thought they were going to get a foul ball or home run where they were sitting. … Nobody up there had ever recalled anyone else hitting one up there in batting practice or a game.
Aurilia: Usually everybody booed Barry everywhere we went. It was amazing to me the amount of applause and excitement that was there after he hit that home run.
Miller: The fans saw the greatest home run hitter in the game, one of the all-time greats, and look what he just did in the House that Ruth Built. … They were astonished by it and I don’t think they could help themselves.
Kepner: Fans were just in awe with what they were seeing. The way that those guys were hitting home runs and how far they were going. It wasn’t all just steroids. These were some of the best home run hitters ever. What they were able to do with their knowledge of hitting and how they had reshaped their bodies was just astounding. I think you just marveled at something you had never seen before so you just cheered for it.
Bonds: I didn’t notice anything … I was just looking in the seats trying to find Bobby going, “I can’t believe you were right.” That was all.
Sterling: It was just a phenomenal home run, but it was made more phenomenal because our imaginations were so stirred by the heroics of Bonds throughout the past couple years. Here he really did it to the Yankees.
Krukow: I was looking at the ball, shaking it up by my ear going, “Oh yeah, this thing’s loaded.” We were all having fun with it.
Aurilia: I remember guys saying stuff like, “Where did that ball finally end up?” When you get the perspective of the dugout, it’s kind of far from the landing point. I think the most of the questions were, “Where did that finally land?”
Krukow: Going down into the Giants’ clubhouse, that’s all they were talking about. That’s what we talked about at dinner. I’m sure that conversation was not just going around the city of New York or San Francisco, but all around the baseball world. Just because of where it was. The pure physicality of the accomplishment. You just did not hit balls up there.
Despite the landing spot of Bonds’ blast, the Yankees estimated the home run to be 385 feet, as in, the same distance from home plate to the right-center field wall. Most of the interview subjects weren’t aware of the Yankees’ conservative estimate.
Baker: Really? No way. Jersey’s further than 385.
Crawford: You’re kidding? Maybe because the ball was hit so high. I mean it was hit so friggin’ high it just looked like it was such a massive blast.
Kepner: That makes no sense. I don’t understand that at all.
Sterling: Huh. I don’t know if I believe that. Three-quarters of the way into the upper deck, I don’t know if I believe that. If you asked me, I would’ve said 450 or something.
Miller: It sounds ridiculous to talk about a ball being that high above the ground being anything but a soaring fly ball, but it (landed) so quickly and I know some people wrote in the papers the next day that it almost looked like it was still going up when it landed up there.
Krukow: I do believe when they put down the estimated distance of that home run in Yankee Stadium they were 100 feet short at least. We saw a lot of that because there was an absolute genuine dislike of Bonds around baseball. I think it made its way up into some of the official scorer’s estimations.
Greg Rybarczyk (Creator of ESPN HR Tracker): I’ve looked at this Bonds homer before, and my best estimate for distance is about 430 feet. … The main reason is that the upper deck was not very far from home plate; the front edge of the upper deck in the old Yankee Stadium was virtually straight above the home run fence, which is only about 320 feet from home where Bonds’ homer crossed. Also, the upper deck is very steep, so the landing point is again closer to home than expected (about 370 feet laterally from home and 75 feet above the field).
Bonds: You don’t get any points for distance. You only get points if it goes over the fence.
For those that saw the home run live, there’s a clear attachment to it 15 years after Bonds launched it into orbit. But what about fans who were too young or not yet born, or even the fan who only saw the highlight once on SportsCenter that night? In the landscape of Bonds’ 762 home runs, the milestone blasts that ended in two zeros or moved him up the all-time leaderboard rise above the rest. №588 doesn’t do the same.
With that in mind, each interview subject was asked to ponder: Will this home run inevitably be lost to history, or can in truly stick in fans’ heads as a symbolic moment of that era and one of Bonds’ greatest swings?
Krukow: Here’s the problem: It was Old Yankee Stadium. … No longer can you point to the stands and say, ‘That’s where Mickey Mantle hit one.’
So I think had the Original Yankee Stadium still stood, people would look up and say, “Yeah, that’s where Bonds hit it.” I think the memory of that home run would’ve lasted a lot longer. Since the stadium’s been knocked down, I think it’s just sort of going to go away.
Miller: If those same balls were at Yankee Stadium during a World Series, I think they’d be remembered forever. … For anybody that was there that day, they will never forget it.
Sterling: It was everything you’d want. Your imagination was there for Bonds, he’s in Yankee Stadium and he hits a home run where Babe and Lou hit them. Except his went further. That was a majestic home run in a majestic ballpark.
I will remember the Bonds home run because I was there and called it. It was the culmination of seeing Bonds do his thing. You wanted to see him do his thing, well he did his thing. … No, I don’t think it’s remembered to this day. I thought it was special because of all the aspects that led up to it.
Kepner: When I think of really long home runs, it’s kind of the benchmark.
Aurilia: I think if you’re a Giants fan or Yankees fan who was watching that game you’ll remember that forever.
Crawford: I would say (it will be lost to history). But in Bonds’ history he might remember it and it certainly might mean something to him.
Bonds: My opinion doesn’t matter. I’m not writing the story, I’m not putting it on the TV and I’m not promoting it. My opinion doesn’t really matter. It’s based on what you guys want to do and how you feel about it.