Commentary

Barry Bonds verdict shames the game

Originally Published: April 14, 2011
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

Barry Bonds, baseball's all-time home run leader and from 2000 to 2004 easily the most dominant player since Babe Ruth, will wake up Thursday as a convicted felon. One of the game's greatest players -- seven times his league's Most Valuable Player -- was found guilty on Wednesday of evading and misleading a grand jury in 2003. A San Franciso jury convicted him of obstruction of justice.

[+] EnlargeBarry Bonds
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesBarry Bonds hit more home runs than anyone in history. Now baseball's record holder is a convicted felon.

Roger Clemens, arguably the game's greatest pitcher, faces the possibility of a similar fate. Seven times a Cy Young Award winner, Clemens will go on trial this summer for lying to Congress.

And Manny Ramirez, one of the featured faces of the crowning moment of this millennium -- the Boston Red Sox finally winning the World Series in 2004 for the first time since 1918 -- retired from baseball last week rather than accept a 100-game suspension for being caught using performance-enhancing drugs again.

Despite fierce but unsuccessful attempts by fans, writers, players and management to soften the devastating and embarrassing effects of the steroid era, baseball's greatest fears are coming true.

Wednesday's verdict in the Bonds trial is confusing and in many ways unsatisfying, but it reinforces baseball's terrible truth: the steroid era is the most discredited period in the history of American professional sports. The apologists will continue to try to laugh the era off as hyperbole, suggesting that players have been looking for an edge since there were eight balls in an at-bat and pitchers threw underhand. Or they will continue to criticize the government for wasting taxpayer's time and money on the Bonds prosecution, or try to use the nonsensical argument that players who used uppers in the 1960s were no different than the players injecting themselves with female fertility drugs.

Of course, there is a difference. The difference is in the collateral damage, the real collateral damage. Bonds and Miguel Tejada, the two MVPs in 2002, have now both been convicted in PED-related cases. Clemens faces possible conviction. Rafael Palmeiro, despite 569 home runs and 3,000 hits, received only 11 percent of the available votes for the Hall of Fame this winter. Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs in 1998 and finished his career with 583, but received less than 20 percent of the votes.

[+] EnlargeRoger Clemens
Stan Honda/AFP/Getty ImagesRoger Clemens has maintained the same sort of 'denial' stance that Bonds took into his trial.

Jason Giambi, the fun-loving 2000 American League MVP, was never the same player or the same celebrity after he admitted to PED use. Sammy Sosa, like David Ortiz and Ramirez, is reportedly among the positives from the 2003 survey steroid testing list. The late Ken Caminiti, another MVP, admitted to using. Mo Vaughn, the 1995 MVP and heart of the Red Sox for so long, is named in the Mitchell report.

There is not another American sport where so many of the elite have been disgraced. Nothing comes close to this. Not Pete Rose, not the Black Sox, not baseball's drug trials of the 1980s, not the college basketball scandals of the 1950s.

Perhaps only the segregation era shamed the game as much as performance-enhancing drugs have. But segregation was a societal issue, and few individual players (even highly publicized racists such as Ty Cobb or Cap Anson) suffered the disintegration of their professional reputations that has come with being associated with steroids.

But the Bonds case, and the Clemens case to follow, are only partly about performance-enhancing drugs. They're also about the belief among players that they could lie to a federal grand jury or to Congress. Or to you. And the game's general managers, owners and commissioner believed they could do the same, and did until the entire card house came crashing down starting with the famous Congressional hearings on March 17, 2005. Wednesday's guilty verdict is further evidence that the collapse is ongoing.

The people who made the most money off of Bonds have run from him as if he were made of Kryptonite. The San Francisco Giants, whose final contract with Bonds lasted just long enough for him to break the home run record, had more or less already washed their hands of him, a few crowd shots of Bonds attending a Giants game notwithstanding. On Wednesday, their statement said only that, "This case is ongoing and we expect it will proceed in a fair and orderly manner."

[+] EnlargeBarry Bonds
Justin Sullivan/Getty ImagesHow much longer can fans cherish their memories of Bonds' now-tarnished glory days?

Bud Selig, who became the richest commissioner in baseball history during the steroid era, issued a statement that did not mention Bonds by name, as if he had never played the game, had never impacted its record books, its history, culture or that the game would endure beyond scandal.

"This trial is a stark illustration of how far this sport has come," Selig said in a statement released after the verdict was read. "In contrast to allegations about the conduct of former players and the environment of past years, 2011 marks the eighth season of drug testing in the major leagues and our 11th season in the minors. With increased testing, cutting-edge research, proactive security efforts, and extensive education and awareness programs, we have demonstrated an unwavering commitment to keeping illegal substances out of the game.

"We have devoted all of our efforts to achieving the toughest, most comprehensive drug testing program in professional sports, and the generation of young players that has entered our game in recent years has never known anything but the rigorous protocols that have been in place for years. Our game has never been more popular than it is right now, and we must remain vigilant in order to meet all the challenges of the future. Performance-enhancing drugs have no place in baseball."

[+] EnlargeManny Ramirez
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesManny Ramirez was a hero in 2004. Last week, he slipped away from the game in disgrace.

Contrast Selig's words to those spoken by another commissioner, A. Bartlett Giamatti, on Aug. 24, 1989, about his banishment of Pete Rose for gambling. Giamatti understood that the players also make the game, by their talent, their names and the wonder of their skills. Giamatti mentioned Rose by name, for responsible effect, to show that the game had been wounded by one of its greatest sons, an admission Selig could not make.

"The matter of Mr. Rose is now closed," Giamatti said that day. "It will be debated and discussed. Let no one think that it did not hurt baseball. That hurt will pass, however, as the great glory of the game asserts itself and a resilient institution goes forward. Let it also be clear that no individual is superior to the game."

When a trial ends, it is supposed to provide closure. The Bonds trial did not, but it did shift the steroid era into its second phase, its deadliest phase for baseball. It's where the greatest of a generation, the men at the top of the record books, are erased by a game that is just as guilty as its players.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42

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