Friday, December 16, 2011

Justice On Steroids

Barry Bonds, who was convicted in April on one count of obstructing justice by giving evasive answers to a grand jury, was sentenced today to 30 days of house arrest, 2 years of probation, 250 hours of community service with youth groups and a $4,000 fine.  Federal prosecutors were seeking to put Bonds in prison for fifteen months.

Before Bonds' trial, I wrote the following piece on how the government's dogged pursuit of Bonds was such a colossal waste of resources.  That view is hardly undermined by today's sentencing.  

Trial On Steroids

March 23, 2011

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?


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