Barry Bonds' prime was like no other. This is because, in part, he had performance-enhancing drugs pumping through him. He's admitted as much under oath.
Drugs helped him club a record 73 home runs in 2001, his most famous offensive number. Yet that's no more mind-boggling than the 232 bases on balls he drew in 2004, 31 percent more than the highest non-Bonds total in history (Babe Ruth's 170 in 1923).
Back then, Bonds was a base-on-balls machine. On Friday, 16 months since his last game, he drew one more walk.
Government prosecutors said Friday they would appeal a damaging pretrial evidence ruling, indefinitely delaying Bonds' trial on federal perjury charges. Jury selection was scheduled to begin Monday in San Francisco. Now that won't happen until the California 9th Circuit Court hears the appeal on whether the trial judge's ruling to exclude steroid tests and doping calendars allegedly belonging to Bonds stands.
It's the latest sign that, after five years, millions of dollars and untold man hours, the case against Bonds is in shambles. The likelihood it can ever be put back together looks increasingly slim.
While not total vindication, this is a satisfying day for Bonds. If the appeal is denied, the charges may be dropped for lack of evidence.
Bonds has maintained his innocence on claims he lied under oath when he told a grand jury he never knowingly took steroids.
For the delay, he can thank the loyalty of friend and personal trainer Greg Anderson, who served three stints in prison totaling more than a year for refusing to speak to prosecutors. Anderson stood before Judge Susan Illston on Friday and told her he would not testify at the trial, even as she threatened to jail him for a fourth time.
The crux of the government's case is proving Bonds knowingly took steroids. That begins by proving Bonds took steroids in the first place.
Bonds admitted under oath in 2003 that Anderson administered “the Clear” and “the Cream” to him. However, those substances were not classified as illegal steroids until 2005.
That technicality forced the government to rely on other evidence, including three failed drug tests and a detailed doping calendar that they claim belong to Bonds.
However, Illston ruled this month that without Anderson to corroborate, that critical evidence is inadmissible.
If the feds can't prove Bonds took illegal steroids, then they certainly can't prove he lied when he said he didn't knowingly take them.
All the government has left is a tape of Anderson talking about injecting something, but never mentioning steroids, and the testimony of a handful of witnesses, including an ex-girlfriend and a former business partner. Without the physical evidence, the case was weakened – which is why the government will appeal the evidentiary ruling. If the appeals court upholds Illston's ruling, the case may be over.
For Bonds, it would be a bittersweet victory.
He has an intense rivalry with prosecutors and IRS special agent Jeff Novitzky. Avoiding a conviction, let alone prison time, is a meaningful victory. It also allows Bonds to continue to maintain that he became baseball's single-season and career home run king without knowing that he was cheating.
However, the case also has cost the former slugger millions of dollars and revealed evidence and details that are professionally and personally humiliating. While a jury never may hear it in a court of law, everyone else did in the court of public opinion.
In baseball terms, nothing is as damaging as the admission that he had the Cream and the Clear in his system as he amassed historic home run totals.
Whether he knew it or not, he was being aided by designer steroids. The only reason they were not yet specifically banned by baseball and the government is that drug testers didn't know they existed.
It's a rather slim technicality and is unlikely to help Bonds when it comes to acceptance from fans and Hall of Fame voters.
Moreover, the fact that he beat the charges largely because of Anderson's silence actually reinforces the belief Bonds was guilty. If Anderson were able to exonerate his friend, he would have no reason to go to prison to maintain his silence. He has to be hiding something.
Still, this at least offers Bonds and his fans some thread of a counterargument. If the government appeal fails and the charges are dropped, Bonds never will have definitively failed a drug test nor been convicted of any crime.
It also is a terribly humiliating setback for the government and its obsession with the pursuit of drug cheats in baseball. Prosecutors long ago identified Bonds as the biggest catch. While potential perjury charges still remain with Roger Clemens, that case is alive because Clemens chose to testify in front of Congress.
The Bonds charges were built from the bottom up, prosecutors painstakingly piecing together evidence. They failed to plan for Anderson's silence, though, meaning Bonds could become one of the fewer than 5 percent of defendants who defeat United States attorneys.
The appeal will determine the end of this story, but Friday afternoon in San Francisco, the government took a major step backward at a time when it thought it would be going in for the kill.
Barry Bonds' trial is postponed indefinitely – perhaps one final walk for the slugger.