In game of innocence, guilt, Bonds down to his final strike

October 19, 2004|By David Steele

NOT LONG AGO, when it was noted in this space that Barry Bonds' achievements were being unjustly unappreciated, responders gave almost the same reason: We're not going to celebrate a cheater. Or, to be as fair as possible, a suspected cheater.

Point taken. Very well taken, in light of news coming out of San Francisco over the weekend.

If the evidence surrounding Bonds hasn't overwhelmed everybody by now, it's as close to doing it as it ever has. Direct proof of the No. 3 all-time home-run hitter using steroids, or at least direct links between Bonds and steroids, is still necessary to completely discredit him and his accomplishments, at least from here.

But as they say, where there's huge, billowing clouds of smoke ...

Now, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, which has been all over this story like "cream" on Gary Sheffield's knee, one of the indicted BALCO defendants - Bonds' trainer and longtime friend, Greg Anderson - is on tape saying Bonds used illegal substances last season. Also, Anderson reportedly said plans were in place for Bonds to circumvent the testing program by getting advance warning of tests.

In case the timeline has gotten too complicated, that's after the brouhaha over testing and the union and the parade of players tromping through grand jury rooms - and after a testing program, lame as it is, was put in place.

If true, Bonds' legacy takes its worst beaning yet. No claims of not knowing what he was ingesting, as Sheffield told the grand jury, as revealed a few weeks ago. No claims of trusting people who shouldn't have been trusted. This would be blatant rule-breaking, intentional and indefensible.

If true, that is.

You know there is some heavy-duty, world-record, gold-plated lying going on somewhere amid all this. It's just a matter of whom you trust least, and who has the most motive to deceive. Anderson and his co-defendant, Victor Conte, have more than enough reason and the proper sleaze factor.

On the other hand, they're not Bonds, and they're not within striking distance of the loftiest record in American sports. Nor are they as notoriously unpleasant or unlikable as Bonds, at least not on a national level. (Maybe we just don't know them well enough.)

It would thrill a huge portion of the public to see Bonds get nailed on this, or otherwise be denied his place in history. But at this point, can anyone logically and rationally believe in a nationwide conspiracy to block Bonds from immortality, rather than in the evidence mounting against him over the past few years?

To paraphrase the eminent 20th-century philosopher and sociologist, Richard Pryor, you gonna believe him or your lyin' eyes?

Baseball wants to believe Bonds.

At this time of year, when baseball wants America smitten with the Yankees and Red Sox, it really wants to believe its best player is clean and a victim of a dizzying array of circumstances. It also wants the results from the decade-long power surge - the attendance, ratings, buzz - but not the questions accompanying them. It wishes there were another reason everyone is talking about Ken Caminiti these days, another set of suspicions about Jason Giambi's absence from the Yankees' lineup, and another basis for discussion about its greatest current slugger.

Other sports have faced the dilemma. Football and the Olympic sports thought they could ride out the storm and hoped that their credibility would withstand it all. They were wrong. They eventually succumbed. The pressure to do so finally came, not only from outside the sports, but inside.

How long it will take for the pressure on baseball from within to reach critical mass is hard to guess. The reaction from those inside the sport - even from those who are closer to Bonds than others - indicates that the critical mass is building. Summed up, the reaction is, "I hope it's not true, but if it is, we can't stand for that."

Neither can the record book.

Not that this can be resolved so neatly. It's a lot easier to talk about asterisks than to actually type them in. (And any talk of "level playing fields" takes us down roads a lot of people would rather not travel - like back beyond 1947, when the game was officially segregated. Anyone truly ready to see Ruth's records with an asterisk next to them?)

But on this topic, do you throw out Bonds' past 200 homers? His past 100? Everything from 2001, but not 2002? And if you go there, do you proceed to Caminiti's MVP season? What about Giambi's?

Do you investigate Sheffield's marks from the year he took Bonds' advice and his healing potion? What about 1998, with McGwire and Sosa? What about the records of the pitchers they all took deep? And do we just indict the batters and not the pitchers?

Of course, the man is still innocent until proven guilty, beyond a reasonable doubt. Bonds still is entitled to that much. This entire issue still requires some concrete evidence against him.

But not much more. Not anymore.

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