Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Trial On Steroids

So many people in and out of baseball hate Barry Bonds passionately.  He was a selfish player who focused unduly on his own statistics.  He is arrogant and unapologetic.  He has always treated the press with great disdain.  He had his own Barcalounger in the Giants' clubhouse.  Unlike, perhaps, more sympathetic marginal or fading players, he was a brilliant player in his prime when he felt compelled to cheat by using steroids.  He is a petty man who cheated because he was jealous of Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire, and wanted to become not just the best all around player, but the home run king.  And it worked; he not only broke McGwire's single-season home run record, even more egregiously, he eclipsed the hallowed career home run mark of the beloved Hank Aaron.  Have I missed anything?  Oh, and he denied knowingly taking steriods when forced to testify under oath before a grand jury.

For the last of these, Bonds is on trial, charged with lying to the grand jury and obstruction of justice.  It seems, however, that those who hate Barry Bonds hope he is humiliated, found guilty, and sentenced to a long prison term for his many other other non-criminal offenses.

I am not one of the Barry Haters.  Watching Barry Bonds play for the Giants, both pre- and post-alleged steroid use was one of my greatest thrills as a baseball fan.  Every time I went to the ballpark I felt it was a privilege to be able to see one of the most amazing players to have ever played.  In 2001, the year he hit 73 home runs, he hardly ever got a decent pitch (he walked 177 times that year), but when he did he crushed it.  Maybe steroids added some distance to these blasts, but the discipline, focus, timing and beauty of these at bats can't be credited to drugs.  The dude could flat out hit.

OK, with that disclaimer out of the way, I think the issue is less about Bonds and more about whether the United States Government should be expending so many resources on the use of performance enhancing drugs in baseball.  We now know that steroid use was rampant for about a decade, beginning roughly in 1995.  During that time, offensive numbers (and players’ heads) were suspiciously inflated, fueling a welcome fan resurgence after the devastating baseball strike of 1994.  Attendance soared and baseball ownership gleefully looked the other way.  While all other major sports put policies into place banning steroid use, baseball management did nothing.

I strongly believe that the federal government can play an important role in investigating and remedying many of our social ills, including, for example, poverty and hunger, discrimination, deceptive practices of financial institutions, unsafe food production, inhumane working conditions, environmental hazards and climate change. Steroids in baseball does not come close to making this list.  Nevertheless, we have had federal investigations, grand juries, and even Congressional hearings to address an issue that should have been -- and eventually was -- handled by baseball itself.  (Roger Clemens, for whom I have no warmth in my heart, will be tried this summer on allegedly lying to Congress; I take the same position on Clemens as I do on Bonds.)

In 2002, a federal investigation began into whether BALCO labs was providing steroids to athletes, including baseball players.  Barry Bonds and others testified before a grand jury which, in 2004, issued a 42-count indictment charging BALCO-related figures with running a steroid-distribution ring.  40 of these charges were eventually dropped.  The main target, Victor Conte, BALCO's founder, pleaded guilty to one count of money-laundering and served only 4 months in prison followed by 4 months' home confinement.  BALCO's vice president James Valente received probation.  Greg Anderson, Bonds' personal trainer, received 3 months in prison and 3 months home confinement, although he served additional time for refusing to testify against Bonds.

Given the relatively light sentences received by the major players in the scandal it is hard to see the dogged pursuit of Barry Bonds by federal prosecutors as anything more than vindictive, ego-driven and an attempt to justify the enormous waste of time and resources.  The scandal derailed the end of his career, when no team was willing to sign him.  His legitimate claim to being one of the greatest ballplayers of all time, even before his alleged steroid use, and all his remarkable records are considered tainted by many.  And, as I started this piece, he is reviled by all but the most die-hard Giants fans (and me).  Isn't that enough?

[Related posts:  Hall of Fame On Steroids; Living Legends]


lonbud said...

I'm with you, bud, on all counts. Watching Barry Bonds play baseball was always wonderful, often breathtaking and -- as a nominal Giants fan -- a generally happy experience for me.

The waste of time, talent and money his prosecution has engendered is a disgrace to the entire American judicial system.

Stephen said...

You're right. The resources allocated to prosecuting Bonds could be more wisely spent. Like nailing the even more dickish Roger Clemens. (I've got your back, Mike P.!)

Ethan said...

Why aren't there any other players in the game that are as exciting to watch play?

Because it is physically impossible to perform at that level of play for so many consecutive years. That is, unless you cheat.

I'm sorry, but I have to throw in an Anti-Barry response (and that's not just because he never failed to destroy Dodger pitching). Bonds took a drink from the magical fountain of youth that kept his hands quick and his endurance up, and just because he took a hit in the public relations department doesn't let him off the hook (his testicular sacrifice isn't enough, either).

It won't be enough until a fat asterisk has been stamped next to Bonds' records. Except by the time it gets to looking at the record books, his name may not be there...

P.S. Saw this article earlier today before I read this post and found it very interesting. I'm sure there is more written about this perspective of the scandal...I'll do some research.

Go Dodgers!

Ethan said...

Here's that article:

Lovechilde said...

Ethan: I think it is possible to be both anti-Barry and anti-prosecution. You can despise Bonds like I despise Clemens -- who hit our beloved Mikey P) but also oppose the federal government's over-reach.

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