COMMENTARY | Barry Bonds is a presumed cheater, and Ryan Braun is perceived to be. One is the face of the steroid era, and the other was supposed to help bury it. Ten years ago, one's legacy began to unravel and today, the other's may be over before it even began.
Once upon a time in 2003, the world of baseball was flipped upside down when the Bay-Area Laboratory Co-Operative, better known as BALCO, was investigated for supplying a number of high-profile athletes with human growth hormone.
The eye-popping home-run totals that had returned excitement to the sport of baseball in the late-'90s and early-2000s -- and that helped lure back fans who had abandoned Major League Baseball after the 1994 strike -- were slowly discovered to be tainted.
Right in the middle of that investigation was one of the most prolific home-run hitters in the history of baseball, San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds. Bonds was one of the most naturally gifted athletes anyone had ever seen play the sport, with the ability to steal bases and hit for power while perennially racking up Gold Gloves in the outfield. But where Bonds really began to turn heads was in 2001 when he set an MLB single-season record with 73 home runs.
Just three years earlier, the baseball world was mesmerized by the home-run chase between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, and now, Bonds was setting his own record pace. This time around, however, there was increased speculation about steroid use regarding Bonds so he could bulk up and drastically increase his power numbers.
Back in 1998, a bottle of androstenedione, a steroid precursor, was found in McGwire's locker, but steroid use wasn't illegal at that time and the news was basically swept under the rug. Now, the 37-year-old Bonds, who had never hit 50 home runs in a season, walloped 73 over the wall, many of them landing in McCovey Cove. Suspicion grew.
As more and more information leaked about Bonds' link to BALCO and his use of "the cream" and "the clear," two different forms of anabolic steroids, Giants fans turned the other cheek and continued their unyielding support for the slugger. Eventually, in 2007, Bonds would go on to break the all-time home-run record, and in the same year, he was indicted on perjury and obstruction of justice charges because of his false testimony in the BALCO case. In 2011, Bonds was convicted on a single count of obstruction of justice.
Fans of the Giants caught a lot of flak for standing by Bonds throughout the controversy while the rest of baseball shunned what Bonds had supposedly done to reach new heights.
Enter Ryan Braun, another superstar whom has been the topic of conversation in baseball over the past year due to a positive drug test in 2011. Now his name has been linked to Biogenesis, a clinic being investigated by Major League Baseball for distributing performance-enhancing drugs.
It's an eerily similar situation to that of 10 years ago when high-profile names like Bonds, Jason Giambi, Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte were accused of steroid use following the BALCO scandal. Now, Biogenesis finds itself in the middle of a performance-enhancing drug controversy that most notably involves Braun and Alex Rodriguez, among several other big-leaguers.
Many Brewers fans have been and continue to be in a similar situation to Giants fans, supporting Braun through thick and thin while the rest of baseball seemingly declares him a cheater. The generalization with Braun is that he won his appeal of the 50-game suspension handed down by the league because he got off on a technicality.
This is true, although he stands strong behind the sample being tainted and that he never used performance-enhancing drugs. The fact of the matter is that Braun avoided suspension, and he has never been ordered to miss playing time due to using an illegal substance.
Meanwhile, Bonds also never missed time due to suspension during his playing career, but Major League Baseball did not implement an effective drug policy until the spring of 2005, the first year players were suspended under the Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program. It's likely Bonds would have tested positive for banned substances during his playing career had baseball installed a drug policy earlier, but random drug testing did not begin until 2003 at the big-league level, and punishments were not handed out until the 2005 season for positive tests.
What didn't help Bonds throughout the steroid controversy he faced in the waning years of his career was his personality. Bonds was not a well-liked figure outside of San Francisco because of his egotistical attitude and his mistreatment of the media, leading him to come off in an unfavorable light. There were signs in Bonds' mannerisms that pointed to his steroid use as well.
In 2011, Bonds' former mistress, Kimberly Bell, testified at Bonds' perjury trial detailing his attitude, saying he was "increasingly aggressive, irritable, agitated, very impatient, almost violent." She also claimed to notice hair loss and body growth as well as a lump in his elbow that he said was caused by steroid use. The apparent growth of Bonds' head was also a running joke, but at the same time pointed towards his use of human growth hormone.
Baseball was either unaware of a growing steroid problem in the '90s and early-2000s, or completely ignored it. While using any sort of performance-enhancing drugs to gain a competitive edge seems to universally be deemed unethical and unfair, there was really nothing stopping these players from putting anything and everything in their bodies, even though as far back as 1991 steroids were prohibited in baseball. Bonds was swept up with the growing norm of steroid use, and, combined with his world-class ability, became the most feared hitter in the history of baseball.
Bonds was likely bound for Cooperstown before he gave into the world of steroids, but there was still that desire to be the best as he watched players shatter records around him. In his defense, steroid use became fairly common in baseball during the prime of his career, but how he handled himself following allegations by conceitedly denying steroid use is part of what set Bonds apart from other steroid users.
Since a legitimate drug policy wasn't implemented until the tail end of Bonds' career, can he really be considered a cheater? He certainly comes off as a liar as demonstrated by his ongoing perjury trial, but nothing points to Bonds using steroids after testing entered the sport, or after punishments were handed out as a result of using steroids.
But the point is that Bonds did, in fact, use steroids. He admitted doing so in the opening statement of his trial in 2011, although he said he was misled by his personal trainer, something few are willing to believe. Anabolic steroids weren't legal to be distributed by trainers -- they required a physician's prescription. And while there weren't punishments for steroid use for a majority of Bonds' career, they were still banned.
His use was largely frowned upon by baseball purists and baseball fans in general. That is, fans who rooted for any team but the Giants. In San Francisco, Bonds was a beloved figure who helped carry his team to a World Series appearance and electrified the city with his great power. Chasing history year after year seemed to outweigh the giant elephant in the room that Bonds went an unnatural route to get to where he was, an elephant the rest of the league could clearly see.
Now, Ryan Braun endures the jeers of baseball fans across the country for his link to PEDs over the past 14 months. But when comparing the spectacle that revolved around BALCO about a decade ago to the Biogenesis situation, it doesn't feel as though the controversy is being taken as seriously this time around.
Is it because the government hasn't gotten involved? Is it because baseball has already been down this road, and people are tired of talking about PEDs or simply couldn't care less? Is it because this report doesn't have the same cold-hard facts to stick and gain momentum moving forward?
The investigation is still ongoing regarding Biogenesis, so it's hard to say how this particular situation will be viewed down the road. But the general feeling is that it's not as big of a deal because baseball has already had its share of steroid and PED hullabaloo with BALCO and the Mitchell Report.
Braun individually has gained more notoriety not only because he is one of the league's stars, but also because he has already been condemned of having elevated levels of testosterone in the past. But due to the circumstances surrounding how his sample was handled, there wasn't as much scrutiny facing Braun the following season compared to Bonds. Now that his name is being dragged through PED talks again, fans are growing more and more skeptical, and Braun isn't being cut as much slack by the baseball world.
When digging into the intricacies of Braun's link to PEDs over parts of the last three years, Brewers fans have their reasons to stand by Milwaukee's franchise player. His sample wasn't delivered in the required time frame, and while the handler has denied tampering with the sample, it's always possible considering it didn't go straight from the ballpark to a FedEx facility.
The tampering accusation is farfetched but even if that can be discounted as a possibility, Braun's testosterone level was an outrageous two-times higher than the highest level ever taken by Major League Baseball. Braun had to have really, really amped up on testosterone -- which is entirely possible considering players linked to Bosch who have tested positive are believed to have had extremely elevated testosterone levels -- or something shady was going on either before the sample arrived or when it was at the testing center.
Even though Biogenesis has distributed PEDs to athletes doesn't necessarily mean that's all it allocates, and as Braun said in a statement, he only used Tony Bosch, the operator of Biogenesis, as a consultant for his appeal case spanning 2011 and 2012. While his name was listed on a piece of paper at Biogenesis, it wasn't next to any PEDs -- just "20/30K," a number supposedly disputed between Braun's attorneys and Bosch over how much they owed Bosch for his consulting.
More recently, Braun's name came up in a separate ESPN report for being on an additional document written by Bosch with "$1,500" listed next to his name. Could this simply be an amount Braun also owes Bosch for his consulting? Perhaps, but a source in the story says there is no reason to be on that list unless you are purchasing PEDs from Biogenesis.
Still, in neither Yahoo!'s report or ESPN's report is there definitive proof of Braun purchasing or using PEDs. Even if Braun didn't, which few outside of Milwaukee refuse to believe, why was Braun using Bosch as a consultant in the first place if he wasn't a licensed physician? Well, wouldn't you want to contact anyone you possibly could who had knowledge of performance-enhancing drugs when trying to clear your name and avoid a 50-game suspension? Bosch's name hadn't come to the forefront until recent reports, so it's not as if Braun was checking in with a man notoriously known for supplying athletes with PEDs.
There are several reasons to hate on Braun, and several reasons to defend him. Because there is that possibility that Braun never used performance enhancers, Brewers fans are willing to stand by their man. They are willing to believe what Braun has to say, because they know him better than anyone. Even if they are cynical, which they have a right to be due to his numerous connections to PEDs, there is one defense that almost no one can ignore.
Braun hit .319 with 41 HRs and 112 RBIs in 2012, the season after his positive test, and didn't have any positive tests during or after last season. He arguably had a better season than in 2011 when he won the MVP. How can that be explained if Braun needed PEDs to perform at such a high level? It's possible Braun is using some sort of concoction undetected by tests, but considering how much he must have been tested coming off a positive test, the risk would seem downright foolish.
Under the assumption that both Bonds and Braun used substances to gain a competitive advantage, Bonds actually deserves less scrutiny considering he did it during a time where there wasn't really anything stopping players from using PEDs. During Braun's career, testing has become more rigorous and using PEDs is flat-out against the rules, not to mention results in suspension.
In fact, baseball will expand its drug testing program by conducting in-season blood testing for human growth hormone and implement a new test used for detecting synthetic testosterone beginning in 2013. Translation: It will become even harder for players to get away with using PEDs.
But getting back to Bonds and Braun, one underlying factor that separates them is how they are perceived. Bonds' arrogant, demeaning attitude already rubbed fans the wrong way, and when he became linked to steroid use, it was an opportunity for fans to jump all over Bonds even though he wasn't the only player using banned substances. His unrealistic growth in size -- Bonds gained 18 pounds between 2000 and 2001 -- didn't help Bonds' cause, either.
With Braun, he was perceived to be blessed with great natural ability -- like Bonds -- who served as an ambassador post-steroids era while being able to hit for power without the use of PEDs. He was generally well-liked along with similar up-and-comers like Evan Longoria and Troy Tulowitzki. As a result, he may have been given the benefit of the doubt by many baseball people. Braun barely cracks 200 pounds and his body type doesn't exactly fit the mold of someone who is beefed up on roids.
The fact of the matter is that Bonds supporters and Braun supporters, who are generally fans of the Giants and Brewers, are going to stand by their guy through thick and thin. If that makes them bad fans, then so is just about everybody else because they would do the same exact thing.
San Francisco and Milwaukee fans are educated, and while they may accept the fact that Bonds and Braun used any means necessary to reach the pinnacle of their sport, it won't stop them from getting behind their much-maligned stars. It's what fans are supposed to do. Even those who believe Braun is clean have plenty of motives to support their belief and if that draws ridicule from outsiders, so be it.
It's natural for fans to mock their rivals at any opportunity presented. On the flip side, those same fans will often neglect to delve into the nitty-gritty information available, unlike the fans of the team they are scorning. You would hope people could educate themselves on the situation, but that simply doesn't happen. It makes for a frustrating time for those supporting the accused.
The jury is still out on Braun. It's just about closed on Bonds. Until Braun admits PED use and is definitively found guilty of using banned substances, there is hope in his corner -- albeit declining.
Fans will support their team come hell or high water, and outsiders will never understand why -- until it happens to them.
Dave Radcliffe lives in a little known Milwaukee suburb and is a self-proclaimed Wisconsin sports expert who has contributed to JSOnline and as a featured columnist among other sites and publications.
You can follow Dave on Twitter @DaveRadcliffe_.