Blasting a home run 442 feet under enormous pressure to break a prized baseball record was not the hardest thing Barry Bonds did on Oct. 5—not by far. Earlier that day the San Francisco Giant attended the funeral of his close friend and sometime bodyguard Franklin Bradley, 37, who died Sept. 27 during what should have been routine surgery. "It hurt him extremely badly when Franklin died, as much as anything in years," says Bonds's father, Bobby, 55. "Barry loved this guy."
Yet only hours after the funeral Bonds lugged his 32-oz. maple bat to the plate against the Los Angeles Dodgers and bashed his 71st homer of the season, breaking the single-season record of 70 set a mere three years ago by Mark McGwire. For good measure, Bonds, 37, hit another homer that night and yet another on the final day of the season, Oct. 7, finishing with a staggering 73 and wrapping up one of the greatest seasons ever—especially for a baseball senior citizen. "When you're 37, you're usually on your way out," says Bonds's friend and teammate Shawon Dunston. "But Barry has been the best player in the game, and at 37, he's proven he's still the best."
A three-time Most Valuable Player with a sterling baseball pedigree—his father was a star with the Giants and his godfather is Hall of Famer Willie Mays—Bonds was, before this season, never known as a pure power hitter (his previous high was 49 homers, in 2000). "I'm not in Mark McGwire's class," he told PEOPLE in June. "I'm a different type of player." Yet Bonds blasted a homer every 6.52 at-bats this year—another new standard—and broke Babe Ruth's 81-year-old record for slugging percentage, a good indicator of explosive power. "Everybody asks me what I'm feeding him," his wife, Elizabeth, 31, said in June. "We're trying to figure out what he's doing differently."
For one thing, Bonds was more open and accommodating than in his past 15 seasons, when he was seen as one of the league's surliest stars. "He's shown us emotions that we haven't seen before," says Dunston. "It's kind of funny coming from him." While Bonds is far from the friendliest fellow around, and by some accounts still standoffish with teammates, he enjoys a new tranquillity away from the ballpark. Divorced from first wife Sun since 1994 (their separation was bitter, though they now share custody of son Nikolai, 11, and daughter Shikari, 10), he has been happily married to Elizabeth, a longtime friend, since 1998, and the two have a daughter, Aisha, 2, about whom Bonds is crazy. "You can't fight your evil demons forever," he said of the inner calm he showed during his chase of McGwire's record. "When things go good in your life, you're going to do well."
Bonds even weathered the heartbreak of losing his friend Franklin Bradley, who died of complications during stomach-stapling surgery designed to help the 500-lb. man lose weight. Bonds, who paid for the operation, wept at a press conference before his game the next night and again in the dugout after hitting his 68th home run, which he dedicated to Bradley. After hitting his 71st homer a week later in San Francisco's Pacific Bell Park, Bonds hugged his son Nikolai, a Giants batboy, jogged to the stands to kiss his wife, daughter and mother, Pat, then ducked into the dugout to take a cell-phone call from his father, who was hosting a golf tournament in Connecticut. "I told him how proud I was and that I loved him," says Bobby, a special assistant for the Giants. "Barry didn't say a whole lot. 'I love you, Dad.' But he was extremely happy."
And why not? A free agent who could double his 2001 salary of $10.3 million next year, Bonds is only 188 away from Hank Aaron's all-time home-run record of 755. The only thing he'll be retiring, it seems, is a few more records. "Barry has had a love affair with the game since a very early age," says his father. "He's got three or four more years of working his butt off."
Melissa Schorr in San Francisco and Lyndon Stambler in Hillsborough, Calif.
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