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SAN FRANCISCO – Five years on, the specter of Barry Bonds lingers in the Giants' clubhouse. Performance-enhancing drugs were pervasive in baseball throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, and the interminable Steroid Era was symbolized by the hulking, prodigious Bonds. This was Team BALCO.
The ugliness of the era repackaged itself in the form of another Giants star left fielder, not nearly as hulking but guiltier in baseball's eyes than Bonds ever was. Melky Cabrera was suspended 50 games Wednesday for testing positive for testosterone. Cabrera, second in the National League with a .346 batting average and a pleasant surprise for a team starved for offense, is gone for the rest of the regular season.
That it happened where Bonds conducted his steroid-fueled reign without reprisal is somehow karmic, somehow appropriate. Cabrera, a career slash line of .278/.331/.408 suddenly boosted this season to .346/.390/.516, is out of uniform and the Giants must suffer because of it.
This is the same team that years ago allowed Bonds' supplier, Greg Anderson, to roam the clubhouse. They enabled. They turned a blind eye. When law enforcement intervened and the lid was lifted on the crimes, the Giants waffled until Bonds broke Hank Aaron's career home-run record in 2007. AT&T Park was packed every night, the air was electric, and although everyone but the deepest in denial knew Bonds' exploits were tainted, fans cheered and the team went along.
To the Giants' credit, Bonds wasn't re-signed after the '07 season despite his 28 home runs in 126 games, his league-leading .480 on-base percentage and ungodly 1.045 OPS. They would try to scrub PEDs from their image. Drugs would always be part of Bonds' legacy, and the Giants were tied to his needle-pocked hip, but a new drug-free/Bonds-free team would move forward, however belatedly, into the MLB testing era.
All that ended Wednesday. The Giants escaped culpability and sanctions for allowing a festering drug culture to thrive in their clubhouse – see grand jury testimony from Marvin Benard, Benito Santiago, Armando Rios, Bonds, et. al. – but now they've been taken down by the drug-testing protocol put in place in large part because of their former employees' malfeasance.
Cabrera and Buster Posey, batting in the Nos. 3 and 4 spots, were the best hitters in this Giants' lineup. A team built on starting pitching has stayed abreast the Dodgers in the NL West race, but losing Cabrera's bat is likely the death knell. They just don't score enough runs. Pablo Sandoval, back from an injury, was inserted in Cabrera's No. 3 spot Wednesday. Hunter Pence, acquired at the trading deadline from the Phillies to bat fifth and provide protection for Cabrera and Posey, eventually might be bumped up to the three hole.
If somehow the Giants edge the Dodgers and win the West, Cabrera could return after five postseason games. It's a thought fraught with flaws: He would be too rusty to hit big-league pitching, and if the Giants advance that far it would likely mean they found a suitable replacement for him.
"I'll be honest, I'm not thinking about that," manager Bruce Bochy said. "We've got too much in front of us and too many games. This is a tight race. So I'll be honest, that's the last thing on my mind right now."
The impact of Cabrera's suspension reverberated throughout baseball. This is as commissioner Bud Selig intends it. Dirty tests and 50-game suspensions have become common in the minors but hadn't disrupted a pennant race at the big-league level to this extent. BALCO mastermind Victor Conte, who these days enjoys weighing in on anything PEDs related, be it Olympics, boxing or baseball, insists that the use of synthetic testosterone is "rampant" in MLB, and that a player would have to be exceedingly careless to get caught.
Compared to the pure testosterone used before testing, the synthetic stuff is less effective but also more difficult to detect. It's fast-acting and quickly flushes through the body. A player such as Cabrera had to have been unlucky to have been picked for a random test the day he took the substance, or perhaps MLB drug testers were tipped off. We'll likely never know.
It's the same substance reigning NL MVP Ryan Braun tested positive for last year. Braun won an appeal and successfully overturned a suspension after a panel ruled the handling of his test sample didn't meet protocol.
Cabrera barely fought back. He'd set a Giants record with 51 hits in May – breaking the mark of 49 set by Willie Mays. He is second in the NL in batting to Andrew McCutchen, and would win the batting title if nobody ends up higher than .346. He told a reporter July 27 that he'd been tested a week earlier, and although rumors swirled about a positive test, nothing was admitted to until the suspension was levied.
"My positive test was the result of my use of a substance I should not have used," Cabrera said in a statement released by the union. "I accept my suspension under the Joint Drug Program and I will try to move on with my life. I am deeply sorry for my mistake and I apologize to my teammates, to the San Francisco Giants organization and to the fans for letting them down."
Players in the Giants' clubhouse and around baseball were either matter-of-fact or expressed sadness. There was no outrage. If there's an emotional undercurrent, it's probably fear.
"They have a program, they test us," Pence said. "If we test positive, you get a suspension. Simple." Pence's comments came after Wednesday night's game while standing in front of his locker. It's not just any locker; it's one of four in a row at the far end of the clubhouse that used to belong to Bonds. The day he joined the Giants, he was flattered to see where his new uniform hung.
After all, Bonds was the greatest home run hitter of all time. The record books say so. He also was the most notorious drug cheat of all time, a symbol of an era when bodies and achievements became bloated and for the longest time everyone inexplicably just marveled at it.
BALCO forced baseball to confront the problem. Recognition led to disgust. The Mitchell Report revealed more. Testing was implemented then bolstered. Conte and others continue to believe many players use PEDs and find a way around testing dirty.
Cabrera was nabbed, though, and for the first time a pennant race will be directly impacted because a drug user was busted. The Giants, at long last, will lose their big-hitting left fielder.
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