Saturday, November 17, 2007; Page E01
Why isn't anybody applauding? Not cruel cheers, just restrained applause at the news that Barry Bonds has been indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice.
Sad comments and hand-wringing have been the prevailing response since the story broke Thursday. From the White House to a thousand pundits we've heard that Bonds's plight is a bad day for everyone, a blow to baseball and a cause for seriousness bordering on grief.
Really? If Bonds's cheating is finally established beyond a reasonable doubt after years of denial, isn't that good? When those who harm their sport and lie to investigators are prosecuted appropriately, isn't that justice? If the most famous record in American sports is returned to its rightful owner, Hank Aaron, what could be fairer?
If Bonds used illegal performance-enhancing drugs that were against baseball's rules, shouldn't Hall of Fame voters know it? If Bonds has defied the sport and the government for four years, earning $75 million in salary since his initial grand jury testimony in the Balco case, knowing all the while that he was lying, shouldn't he be exposed?
On the other hand, isn't ours a culture that believes a person should get to defend his reputation in court? Shouldn't Bonds, who can afford the highest-priced lawyers, get his chance to tear the case against him to shreds?
In addition to beating the charges, perhaps Bonds can use this showcase to convince the public that he really did think the "clear" and the "cream" were innocent balms and that the "Barry B" and "BB" in Balco's records referred to somebody else. If Bonds can convince enough people that he really believed that his muscles, and his head, were getting bigger by legitimate means, maybe he can still squeeze into Cooperstown.
When the weight of the government is brought to bear on a single citizen, we sometimes fear for his ability to defend himself adequately. However, Bonds has earned $188 million in his career, so it'll be a fair fight. And, if there is no plea bargain and the case eventually gets to trial, he'll have a home-field advantage in the form of a San Francisco jury.
Don't we have our concerns backward? Ever since Balco broke in '03, my main worry has been that Bonds would never be convicted or exonerated or even brought to trial. Instead, he and his sport would simply be dragged into disgrace by leaked grand jury testimony. What if the feds, despite their time and expense, never built a case worthy of a courtroom? Yet their voluminous evidence, never exposed to cross-examination, might convince most fans of Bonds's systematic cheating. Now, we get a last act.
"A bad day for baseball? No, a bad day for Barry Bonds," one baseball official said yesterday. "Baseball may be better off today than it was yesterday."
The sport certainly reached its internal views on Bonds long ago. Commissioner Bud Selig agonized for months over whether to attend a game in which Bonds might hit home run No. 756 to pass Aaron and even considered what his public posture should be -- finally deciding to keep his hands in his pockets rather than applaud. Some in the game, regardless of the result of a Bonds trial, now feel that the federal indictment has, in the words of one executive, "besmirched Barry Lamar Bonds forever."
That may be too harsh a judgment and premature as well. Given the high conviction rate on federal indictments, the most likely outcome is that Bonds will accept a plea deal and spend a few months in jail, or be found guilty and serve a year or two. Even in such worst-case scenarios, it's unlikely that Bonds will be remembered as harshly as Pete Rose, who went to jail for tax evasion.
The all-time hit king was banned for betting on baseball while manager of the Reds, violating the game's first commandment since the Black Sox days. The worst that can be said of Bonds, even if all charges are true, is that he did what dozens, or perhaps hundreds, of other players in his time also did.
Anger at Rose, once one of the most popular players in the sport, still simmers. His stonewalling, before finally confessing, still grates because it served no purpose except to defend his own enormous pride. Ironically, if Bonds takes a plea or gets convicted, it may provide a public conclusion to his steroid saga that Rose's gambling never had -- a sense that Bonds's punishment not only fit his crime but perhaps surpassed it. And if Bonds, one of baseball's least popular players, somehow hears the words "not guilty," he may get sympathy Rose can only dream of.
In light of Bonds's indictment, many in baseball are now asking why the slugger, if he was guilty, took such large legal risks four years ago. Did he think the Balco case would run out of gas? Did he misunderstand how much government prosecutors are irritated by open defiance of their authority?
"Apparently, Barry misjudged a lot of things," a high-ranking baseball official said yesterday. However, he did earn $75 million in the last four years. He did pass Aaron. And, who knows, he might never have been indicted at all. After all, one reason the charges were so long in coming might be because of turmoil and personnel changes within the justice system far above the level of a ballplayer in trouble. Since Bonds testified, the country has had three attorneys general and last winter, President Bush nominated Scott Schools to replace the original U.S. attorney in San Francisco in charge of the case, Kevin Ryan.
Perhaps someday we will know what backroom considerations may have come into play. To be sure, the ultimate timing has been, shall we say, fortuitous. While his legal fate hung fire, Bonds not only earned a fortune but passed Aaron. So he can't claim that this indictment cut short his career before he had a fair chance to break an enormous record. On the other hand, Bonds's indictment comes just about a month before the Mitchell commission tries to summarize the steroid era and, perhaps, name even more names. "Mitchell will have a lot of stuff," one well-placed source said yesterday. With Bonds, Balco and the Mitchell commission coming to a convenient climax at roughly the same time, baseball may be able to claim by next season -- who knows yet with how much justification -- that it has finally done an honorable job of addressing an enormous problem. And the end of an era, perhaps the most disgraceful in baseball history, may finally be in sight.