Bonds passes the Babe

That loud noise you heard was the collective groan coming from the commissioner’s office was in direct response to the Bay Area’s most beloved slugger — and baseball’s biggest headache — Barry Bonds smacking his 715th career home run to move past the iconic Babe Ruth into second place on the all-time homer list.

Hounded in recent seasons by steroid allegations and his connection to the BALCO federal investigation, the Giants’ superstar nonetheless was able to pummel a 445-foot shot off perennial gopher-ball server Byung-Hyun Kim on May 28 in a 6-3 loss to the Colorado Rockies at AT&T Park.

The reaction by baseball and the nation (outside of San Francisco) to the historic homer was subdued at best and cold at worst, helped in no small part by commissioner Bud Selig’s obvious unease at celebrating a player many believe to be guilty of numerous missteps. Luckily for Bonds, his homer occurred within the friendly confines of AT&T Park and, like so many of his of his other milestone blasts, this one came in front of an adoring crowd.

“For the fans of San Francisco, it can’t get any better than this — even though I made them wait longer than I have in the past,” said the 42-year-old, who finished the season with 734 career home runs and could pass Hank Aaron’s record of 755 in 2007.

Playing all year with gimpy knees that made it nearly impossible for him to play effectively for long stretches, Bonds still hit 26 homers and drove in 77 runs, while also posting his usually gaudy on-base percentage (.454).

Bonds faced an uncertain offseason,becoming a free agent for the second time in his career. Instead of fetching big offers from contending teams around the country, the legal issues that surround Bonds kept suitors at a minimum and he wound up getting a one-year, $16 million contract from the Giants.

Rising up, Part 1


Just three years removed from a humiliating 119-loss season, the Detroit Tigers rode their army of young, fireballing pitchers and heeded the advice of their curmudgeonly 71-year-old manager, Jim Leyland, to capture 95 regular-season wins and a surprise berth into the American League playoffs. Once in the postseason, the Tigers knocked off the perennial powerhouse (and now traditional underachievers) New York Yankees and upset the favored A’s to secure the city’s first World Series trip since 1984. Legitimate or not (ahem, “dirt” on the palm) Kenny Rogers was untouchable during the Tigers’ playoff run, pitching 23 innings of scoreless ball and picking up a win in each of Detroit’s series.

Cardinals crowned


In a World Series that didn’t exactly live up to the hype of baseball’s top two teams, the St. Louis Cardinals, winners of a grand total of 83 regular-season games, defeated the Detroit Tigers in five games, delivering the city its first title since 1982. The diminutive David Eckstein was the Cardinals’ main offensive threat, garnering World Series Most Valuable Player honors after hitting .409 and driving in four runs for the Cardinals. Manager Tony La Russa picked up his second title as a manager and his first for St. Louis after a recent spate of postseason failures.

Rising up, Part 2


Coming off their annual offseason payroll slashing, the Florida Marlins entered 2006 featuring a roster with an average age of 24.7 and with seven rookies expected to contribute mightily. The “Baby Marlins” got breakout years from rookiesHanley Ramirez, Dan Uggla, Josh Willingham and Anibal Sanchez to squeeze out 78 wins, while remaining in the playoff race until the season’s last weeks. Ramirez was awarded the National League Rookie of the Year, Sanchez tossed the majors’ first no-hitter in two years and Joe Girardi was named National League Manager of the Year. In typical Marlins style, Girardi, despite all his efforts, was fired after the season in a clash with the owner.

Saving grace


Steady San Diego Padres closer Trevor Hoffman solidified his case as the game’s finest reliever by picking up his 479th save, moving past Lee Smith into first place on the all-time list. Hoffman also made his 776th relief appearance for the Padres in 2006, breaking the major league mark for most relief appearances with one team. The 38-year-old picked up 46 saves on the year and finished second in the NL Cy Young race to Arizona’s Brandon Webb, helping lead the Padres to their second straight NL West title.

Finally, an owner


After years of searching, Major League Baseball finally found a suitable owner for the Washington Nationals, ending another frustrating spectacle under embattled commissioner Bud Selig. Baseball purchased the then-Montreal Expos for $120 million in 2002 and relocated the moribund franchise to Washington. It took an exhausting search before the commissioner’s office was able to strike a deal with a group of investors headed by real estate developer Theodore Lerner, finally giving the once-nomadic franchise a sense of security. Lerner will look to turn around a team that finished last in the stacked National League East, a distant 21 games behind the division-winning New York Mets.

Negro Leaguers inducted


In an act that many considered long overdue, the Hall of Fame opened its doors to a number of former Negro League and pre-Negro League players who were shut out from playing in the majors because of racism and segregation in the early part of the 20th century. Among the 17 former Negro Leaguers inducted into the Hall were Ray Brown, a pitcher for the Homestead Grays, and Jud Wilson, a feared hitter (and brawler) who played 23 years in the Negro Leagues. Also inducted was Effa Manley, part-owner (along with her husband, Abe) of the Brooklyn Eagles, who became the first woman ever included in the Hall.

Wild child


Proving to be a volatile mix of talent and temper seen often in the majors (Albert Belle, anyone?), Delmon Young made noise this year for both his offensive prowess and his outrageous antics. Young started the year by serving a 50-game suspension after going ballistic on an umpire while playing for the Triple-A Durham Bulls. After being called out on strikes in a game against the Pawtucket Red Sox, Young tossed his bat at the umpire, hitting him directly in the chest. An apologetic Young eventually got the call up to Tampa Bay and responded by homering in his first game (after being plunked in his first at-bat) and collecting eight hits in his first 11 at-bats, ending his short stint by batting .317 in 30 games for the Devil Rays.

World champion


Proving to be a more accurate portrayal of the World Series, the inaugural World Baseball Classic got under way, pitting 16 countries from across the planet to compete in a truly global sporting event. High-profile squads such as the Dominican Republic and the United States, filled with stars from the majors, flamed out gloriously in the competition, with the U.S. bowing out in the second round of pool play and the Dominicans getting eliminated in the semifinals by Caribbean rival Cuba. Cuba, buoyed by its national claim as an underdog team of amateurs playing against highly paid competitors, could not fulfill leader Fidel Castro’s dream of an internationaltitle, losing to Japan and its prized pitcher, Daisuke Matsuzaka, who earned MVP honors after beating the Cubans 10-6.

Drug policy working


Those inflated power numbers of the late 1990s appear all the more troubling now. The 60-homer mark that was hit regularly for a five-year period and celebrated, was met with an almost ho-hum attitude this year (alas, Philadelphia’s Ryan Howard came up two short), perhaps also proving that the majors’ new steroid policy could be effective. The increased testing and punishment (50 games for a first offense) proved to be an efficient deterrent as just three players were found guilty of offenses — the New York Mets’ Yusaku Iriki and Guillermo Mota, and the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Jason Grimsley (whose transgression was marked by ugly tell-all accusations and eventually led to his retirement).

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