For nearly a decade, Barry Bonds has run from the truth. He dared the government to go after him, watched prosecutors bungle a case that cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars and finally on Friday skated by with 30 days' confinement to his mansion, two years of probation, 250 hours of community service and a $4,000 fine … which he promptly appealed, because as we've known for a long time, when Barry Bonds wins, he wants to win big.
Soon enough, this whole nasty BALCO mess will be something for the history books instead of the headlines. Once it is – once the appeal verdict frees Bonds of his judicial muzzle – it will be time for him to do what he should've done at his grand-jury testimony:
End the charade.
Admit he used steroids.
Apologize one more time.
And slowly but surely ease his way back into a sport that has proven itself willing to forgive even the most blatant cheaters.
There is no better case than Mark McGwire, notorious steroid user and St. Louis Cardinals hitting coach. McGwire epitomized juiced baseball players before Bonds. He whacked 70 home runs and broke records and rode his elephantine arms to national glory. Just as soon, McGwire was gone, off to retirement, happy to swallow his version of the truth forever.
Only he realized something: He missed baseball. And baseball, interesting enough, missed him.
The game's attachment with its greats sustains their accomplishments better than any numbers or highlights can. Seeing the number of Hall of Famers who appear at the induction ceremony every summer is a testament to that. Baseball is better when its best are around.
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So McGwire told his story. There were parts of it that didn't make sense. The details weren't altogether important. McGwire said what he did and that he was sorry, and, more than anything, that's all the ready-to-forgive public needed.
He returned to St. Louis, where they'd taken his name off the highway dedicated to him, where they once commissioned a statue of him only to leave it sitting in a California warehouse, and worked with Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina. He went about his job quietly. He didn't like to talk about steroids. He did so anyway. That was his entry fee back into the club.
"I was wrong," McGwire said over the summer, and there was genuine remorse in his voice. His hightailing it to a mansion in a gated community had as much to do with shame as it did avoidance of the truth.
McGwire wasn't the miserable lout that Bonds was, sullen and sulking in a corner of the clubhouse, imbuing everything he touched with bad vibes. No, he wasn't Sally Sunshine, either, but McGwire fell victim to the same disease that afflicts athletes across all sports: know-nothing-else-itis.
Even more than McGwire, baseball forged Bonds' identity. To quit cold turkey and not jones for an attachment to the game beyond an appearance every now and again simply doesn't match with Bonds' personality.
During the San Francisco Giants' World Series run in 2010, Bonds soaked in the adulation during appearances at AT&T Park. Taking steroids as he approached his 40s spoke of a need to hold on.
In doing so, he broke Hank Aaron's home run record, which made him persona non grata with Aaron, Bud Selig and plenty more throughout the game. They hated what Bonds stood for. Not only was a cheater prospering, he held two of the game's most revered records: single-season and all-time home runs. And yet if Bonds expressed contrition – a real, true apology, not a Pete Rose I-gambled-on-baseball-and-will-make-money-for-admitting-it farce – Selig would have to welcome him back. It's the order of life in baseball.
And once his appeal wraps up, Bonds will be free to do so for the first time in more than eight years. He spoke to a grand jury in December 2003, and while federal prosecutors couldn't convict him on perjury charges, he certainly didn't own up to the steroid use that "Game of Shadows" detailed to the very last cc. And because it was an open case, he couldn't deviate from that testimony, not without deleterious repercussions.
In time, he'll be able to say whatever he wants.
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"From a practical standpoint, you can't imagine that if Bonds admitted doping they'd come after him," said William Keane, a San Francisco attorney familiar with the BALCO case after representing track coach Trevor Graham. "They've gotten their pound of flesh. I couldn't fathom them doing it."
Technically, Keane said, the government could reinstate the counts the prosecution dismissed without prejudice. In all likelihood, he said, not only would the government not do that – double jeopardy could easily apply – it wouldn't go after Bonds' friend and trainer, Greg Anderson, who spent more than a year in jail refusing to testify against Bonds.
"If you're a prosecutor, you finish a case and move on," said Keane, who spent seven years as a federal prosecutor. "[Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew] Parrella's got another 20 cases in his filing cabinet."
The opportunity will be there. The only question is: Will Barry Bonds want to take it? Will he have grown enough as a person to acknowledge and own his faults, to show vulnerability to a fan base that regarded him as superhuman, to ask back into the game because he understands it wants to ask him back, too? Will he emerge from this a different person? Is his offer to pay for the college education of the children of Bryan Stow, the Giants fan who suffered a severe beating at Dodger Stadium, a sign of a new Bonds – the one who received a lessened sentence from Judge Susan Illston thanks to his charitable work?
Because if this experience can in any way humble Bonds, disrobe him of the egotism that, combined with his flouting of the rules, made him sports villain No. 1, he can return like McGwire. Never will Bonds lose the steroid stigma. He forged that unbreakable bond too long ago for it to disappear. But there is a place for him in baseball.
Look around the sport. There is a place for Alex Rodriguez, there may be a place for Manny Ramirez and there was a place for Andy Pettitte. Perhaps none will end up in the Hall of Fame because of their misdeeds, but the great moments that millions of people associate with their names are too numerous to deny.
The same feelings surround Ryan Braun, who reportedly set records of a different variety lately: testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio. A follow-up test showed synthetic testosterone in his body. He is the newly minted National League MVP, an award Bonds won seven times. Braun also is fighting for his reputation in a performance-enhancing-drug arbitration hearing, hoping he can get off and avoid a 50-game suspension. If he can't, it will be interesting to see his tack when he's empowered to tell the truth: do it or run.
Hopefully, he would look at the past and know that running never works. It's got Barry Bonds where he is today: exiled from the game he loves, still vilified and minus nearly a decade of his life lost to a case that merited nowhere near that much time. Those years aren't coming back. Some fans may hate him forever. But Barry Bonds can return to baseball – on his own terms.
The truth will set him free.
Hopefully, he'll have the courage to tell it.
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