Although Pennsylvania is locked in ice, the baseball season is starting up in Florida and Arizona. The following is the best baseball story I’ve ever written that no one has read. It is a repost here and can be found at my website (jeff-howe.net) under “Stories” as “Driving Barry Home.” Look there also for new posts on Parkinson’s, full moons and a new blog later this week.
On August 7, 2007, Barry Bonds drove a baseball deep into the San Francisco night, thus becoming, arguably, the all-time home run champion of baseball. In doing so, he forever linked himself with my 1995 green Ford Escort station wagon, a champagne toast in front of San Quentin prison and a snowy late-night drive from Milwaukee to Green Bay and back.
I should probably explain.
I have turned-over 100,000 miles in two different cars in my lifetime, and 200,000 miles in another. Each was a dear automobile to me – full of journeys and memories. And each time the prospect of watching the odometer roll over wearing nothing but six bare-naked zeros and a decimal point approached, I pondered what I should do to properly mark the occasion.
The first car was an old, used, 1969 Rambler that I purchased in Michigan while in college and drove across the country to California. In the late 70’s, I was living in a small one-room chauffeur’s apartment above a garage deep in the redwoods of Marin County – just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. The Rambler was running poorly so I drove it sparingly, leaving it parked out under the big trees. Eventually the odometer tumbled to 99,980, and with a mere 20 miles separating she and I from infamy, we decided to grab a bottle of champagne and drive until we reached 100,000.
Magically, this mile post occurred right outside the front gate of San Quentin prison. We pulled over, popped the cork, played celebratory music on my harmonica, honked the horn wildly and drank the entire bottle of Champagne without incident. Apparently anyone passing by San Quentin stares at the frightful walled monstrosity and pays no attention to celebrants parked on the other side of the road. No one paid the triumphant Rambler nor I any notice.
But that’s not the story.
In the summer of 1986, the year that a young rookie named Barry Bonds hit his first major league home run, I purchased a “seasoned” Mazda 626. It was a functional, square little car that I drove all over the country on a variety of adventures, rapidly piling up the mileage. A few years later, while living in Milwaukee, I again watched impatiently as the odometer continued its unobstructed march towards 100,000. Eventually it reached 98,798, just over two hundred miles short.
At my usual rates of travel, this could take three or four days, maybe not until the weekend. I couldn’t wait. So on a snowy midnight in December, I jumped into the car and drove northward towards Green Bay and beyond. I drove until I felt I’d traveled half way before turning around and heading back. By the time I returned home my odometer sat at 100,002.8. (The actual century locality turned out to be an unremarkable spot on the outskirts of Milwaukee under a street light and a sign that read “Jack Gronik’s Nuts – Salters and Packers”.) We had no champagne and it was getting late so we noted the fact and rolled home with no fanfare.
But that’s not the story either. I’m merely establishing a modus operandi and a previous pattern.
• • •
Throughout the summer of 2007, the baseball world watched as Barry Bonds inched closer and closer to Hank Aaron’s all-time home run mark of 755. Few doubted that Bonds would eventually eclipse the record, but its validity was suspect because of Bond’s rumored links with steroids. It would be a tainted record at best, and no one was sure how to regard it – most especially Bud Selig, Commissioner of Baseball.
That same summer I drove to work and back each day, listening to sports radio and wondering how Bonds and his record would ultimately be regarded - both at the time of breaking it and many years into the future.
As I drove, I watched the odometer on my green 1995 Ford Escort wagon climb from 195,100 to 197,300 to 199,000. Like Barry Bonds, it kept going – inching closer and closer to the magic mark of 200,000. Also like Bonds, it wasn’t a matter of whether or not the mark would be set, but how the event would be celebrated. The nearer I approached to 200,000, the more I began to fret over exactly how I would mark the occasion. Would I jump in the car and do another daring midnight ride? Would I have a champagne toast at the Spot? Or would I simply turn over 200,000 driving to work one morning with little more than a tip of a cup of coffee?
Barry was at 753. The Escort was at 199,995.9. Barry needed two to tie, three to take the record. The Escort needed just 4.1 miles to roll over. We were both poised, waiting to see what the other would do. And then one night the stars converged upon a single, focused point and I knew exactly what needed to be done. Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants had finished up in Chicago and would be traveling to Milwaukee for a three-game weekend series with the Brewers. He would surely hit a couple in Milwaukee. I looked at the facts:
1. I used to live in Milwaukee.
2. I moved to Milwaukee from San Francisco.
3. Milwaukee was were I turned over my second 100,000 miler. (San Francisco my first).
4. Hank Aaron began his career with the old Milwaukee Braves, and broke Babe Ruth’s record playing for the Braves after they moved to Atlanta.
5. Bud Selig, the commissioner of baseball, lives in Milwaukee.
Well jeez, it may not make sense to you but at the time it made perfect sense to me. It made cosmic sense.
I had access to a second car, so I decided that I would park the old Ford in the driveway and wait until the day Barry hit his record-breaking 756th home run to turn over 200,000 miles. We would do it together. And so the car waited. Throughout the remainder of the Milwaukee series Barry failed to hit a single home run and the records remained intact and on hold: 754 and 199,995.9. The Giants returned home but Bonds failed to homer for over a week. The Giants then traveled to Los Angeles and San Diego where Bonds hit #755 to tie the record. The next one would be history. The Escort was poised. The world slowed. You could hear the heartbeat.
On Tuesday night, August 7th, I plopped down in front of the TV to try to catch the end of the Late News. Immediately I saw a video of Bonds stepping to the plate at AT&T Park in San Francisco, uncoiling on a pitch and launching a ball high, long, deep… I jumped from the TV and ran to the car in the driveway. I turned her over and pointed her out upon the open road with high beams on.
She sported a rakish devil-may-care grin that you only see on a car who is off upon a late night date with destiny. There would be no room for error. She sat at 199,995.9, just 4.1 miles short. In order to return exactly at 200,000.0 we’d have to go out 2.05 miles and come 2.05 back. The odometer was only good to 0.1 – we were in math’s hands now. We drove. Down the road, across the bridge. 199,996.8. Up the hill, down to the creek, over the creek and up the big hill on Brenneman Road. 199,997.5.
Watching the odometer carefully, we slowed. We switched from autopilot. We drove by FEEL. 199,997.94…. The ball disappeared from sight as it climbed above the lights… Suddenly, magically, the math said "yes!". I pulled up hard on the reins, shifted my weight, burst a loud whistle from between my teeth and turned her back around to the south. Her big head flashed and her turn signals twinkled as she reared around, blowing steam from her nostrils and dripping ice from her chin.
Right then. Right then she knew it. And I knew it, and so did the night and the wind and the dying shouts of 60,000 fans in San Francisco. She knew she had a chance to make it back to the driveway, to pull in exactly on the nose; and then to sit smug all night knowing she was flashing "200,000.0" like a great big Cheshire grin.
The ball reached its apogee and began it’s descent. Bud Selig held his breath. Back we headed, closer and closer. Down the hill. 199,998.5 Across the bridge, up our road… 199,999.3… We could see the mailbox ahead. Would we make it? Would we end up 1/10th short?
Would we overshoot our mark? It was too late to worry, the die was cast, our fate was now completely in the hands of the circumference of our wheels. I cut the engine and rolled silently into the drive, just-a-bit-further-until-over-it-rolled:
The ball plopped sailed over the right-center field wall and into the bleachers, setting off a vicious scrum for the valuable archive. Barry, the Escort and I sat in the quiet of the driveway sharing the rarest of moments.
We were all in the presence of greatness. The moment called for a Word, it was nearly midnight, this day of destiny was soon to end, the spirits were quiet. I cleared my throat and collected my thoughts. This was a moment for posterity. This was a moment for Barry and baseball and the Escort and the Mazda and the bottle of champagne in front of San Quentin. Damn Bud Selig and damn Jack Gronick’s Nuts, this was bigger then all of us. I knew I would be forever judged by what I said right here, right now. My confidence and wisdom must not fail me....
"No shit!" I said, listening to the tinks and pops of cooling manifold steel. Barry chuckled, gave me a high five, opened the door and walked off into the night.
• • •
Barry Bonds drove a few more into the night and ended the 2007 season with 762 home runs, thereby establishing a new all-time record. But by that time, the steroid controversy had so completely enveloped him that he left the game never to return.
Like Barry Bonds, the little Ford Escort put on a few more miles until electrical problems forced me to trade her in. When I turned over the keys in November of 2007, she showed 201,365 on the odometer.
Bud never called. The record will be forever subject to debate.