We just witnessed a jury of Barry Bonds’ peers throw up its collective hands and say, “With all the real crooks in the world, you expect us to hammer a guy who lied about cheating in some dumb sport?” We just were handed the clearest possible message that baseball’s Steroids Era will die not with a big hit of a verdict but with a shrug of indifference.
Message: Move on, please.
I’m not sure if the jury in San Francisco got it right legally, but in the grand scheme this verdict was Solomonic. We all know Bonds took steroids and then lied about taking them, but you know what? He wasn’t the lone ranger. And the attempt to make Bonds the poster prisoner for misdeeds so widespread as to be the rule of baseball and not the exception had become an embarrassing bit of overkill.
Oddly enough, it was overkill that brought Barry Lamar Bonds to this place. He was already a Hall of Fame hitter, but he saw Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa — lesser talents, in his regal eyes — become the apples of baseball’s eye in the Great Home Run Chase of 1998, and Bonds said to himself, “You want homers? I’ll give you homers.”
McGwire stopped at 70. Bonds hit 73. But by then baseball as a corporate entity and we the admiring public had begun to get suspicious, and where Big Mac and Slammin’ Sammy were beloved — Sports Illustrated named them its co-Sportsmen of the Year in 1998 — the sneering Bonds could never be. He got too big. He hit too many home runs. He made the game unfair.
But then a strange thing happened: In the Javert-like pursuit of Bonds, the feds rendered him almost — almost, I said — sympathetic. Cheat on Wall Street and you can get away with it. Cheat in baseball and it’s a federal case?
The lies Bonds allegedly told? They came more than seven years ago. He hasn’t played since 2007. Is there some civic need for this man to be taken off the streets in the year 2011?
Through testing and suspensions, baseball has — years too late, but what do you expect from baseball? — begun to distance itself from steroids. Do we really need to see Bonds (or Roger Clemens, or anyone) on trial for telling lies? Will it polish their tarnished sport ex post facto?
Bonds was found guilty of obstruction of justice, which seems the jury’s concession that Bonds did something legally wrong even if it remains unclear just what. A mistrial was declared on the three counts of perjury, which suggests these 12 citizens are as weary and woozy as the rest of us. It’s believed Bonds won’t go to jail for this one conviction, and surely the U.S. government has better ways to spend more millions of taxpayer money than to retry him for lying.
I’ve long believed baseball would be better served by granting amnesty for steroid use. Let the sinners become apostles, telling kids: “I did wrong, but here’s why you shouldn’t.” Being its silly self, baseball has sought to have others — Hall of Fame voters, U.S. prosecutors — do its dirty work. This tepid verdict should serve as the inspiration for the sport to say: You were wrong in cheating and we were wrong in turning our managerial head, and now it’s time for forgiveness.
The constant finger-pointing — “He cheated! And him, too! And that guy over there!” — serves no purpose. In a sporting era where numbers and bodies were artificially inflated, can we ever know for sure that anybody didn’t cheat? What if a player on steroids hit a home run off a pitcher on steroids? In the interest of competitive balance, would that have been OK? And for all you stat geeks: How many of Bonds’ 762 homers wouldn’t have been homers had he ingested nothing stronger than Powerade?
By now, we’re all informed enough to know that bad things happened in baseball a while ago. But that’s the point: It was a while ago. Bonds has retired. Clemens is retired. The sport is moving forward. There’s no cause for our government to keep fighting a battle that was long ago lost.
By Mark Bradley