Thursday, April 14, 2011

So Now What?

The jury has spoken, sort of.

Barry Bonds is guilty of delivering evasive answers to a federal grand jury. The jury deadlocked on the more substantive charges that he actually lied to the grand jury about whether he ever knowingly took performance-enhancing drugs.

For Bonds, despite his smile-and-wave on the courthouse steps, this is serious stuff. "Convicted felon" is a pretty heavy phrase to hang on your resume (although, frankly, it never held George Steinbrenner back all that much). But does anyone really think the verdict changed the big picture?

The big picture is this: Baseball was rife with steroids and other performance-enhancers for years. The lords of the sport either knew this, or maintained the sort of ignorance that strains credibility. Bonds, Clemens, McGwire, Sosa, Palmeiro, A-Rod, Manny...the list goes on. We're talking about some of the game's biggest stars, the men who made the turnstiles spin and the television cash pile up.

I've written and said enough over the years about whether it was appropriate for the feds to pursue this case against Bonds. That bell has rung. But let me pose this question: how do you think it would go if baseball owners, executives, and managers were hauled before the grand jury and asked what they knew about steroid use in their sport? How many more evasive answers and/or lies might the prosecutors hear?

Far be it from me to try to sell Barry Bonds as a sympathetic figure--a fall guy for baseball's sins. He's a hard guy to feel sorry for and few doubt that he did what prosecutors could never charge him with: bulk himself up with magic potions.

But the key thing to remember is that Bonds was not alone. In fact, plenty of people who followed his case believe he turned to chemistry after watching McGwire, Sosa and others turn baseball into a brand of pinball.

It's now called "The Steroid Era". Some of its leading practitioners are known. Many more are suspected. And sadly, there are undoubtedly players who never juiced but will forever be tarred with the brush of suspicion, for they have no way of proving they didn't. Baseball has strengthened its drug-testing policies; Manny Ramirez' sudden retirement the other day after another positive test is proof that at least some of the cheaters get caught.

How history will view all this is unknowable. Much attention is paid to the Hall of Fame vote as a sort of litmus test; Bonds and Clemens are a year away from being eligible. Both are statistical shoo-ins yet neither is a sure thing. But the Hall is only a single lens on the sport and the society that surrounds it. Whether Bonds has a plaque in Cooperstown or not, his story will be told for generations--if only as a cautionary tale. The verdict changes nothing; Bonds' die was cast long ago.

Baseball is alive and well. On the day the Bonds jury returned its verdict, more than 320,000 people voted with their wallets and went to a Major League game. Barry Bonds wasn't in the lineup anywhere.

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