Thursday, April 06, 2006

As Bonds Nears Baseball's Apex, a Sinking Feeling

By Steve Fainaru
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 6, 2006; A01

SAN FRANCISCO, April 5 -- Superimposed over the left field fence at AT&T Park are images of Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron and the words, "A Giant Among Legends."

Bonds's career home run total, 708, is displayed prominently in right-center, just above those of Aaron (755), Ruth (714) and a legend he has already passed, Willie Mays (660), who happens to be Bonds's godfather.

For more than a decade, the Giants have been financially and emotionally dependent on their mercurial slugger. Now, with Bonds the focus of a Major League Baseball investigation into steroid use, the dysfunctional relationship has come to epitomize an entire era in baseball, one that brought the sport unprecedented riches but ultimately embarrassment and unease.

"This is not a good situation," said Chicago Cubs Manager Dusty Baker, who managed the Giants from 1993 to 2002. "It's not a good situation for anybody, you know? I feel bad for everybody."

For those still in Bonds's orbit -- team officials, players, sponsors and his coterie of assistants -- dealing with Bonds has become a series of uncomfortable trade-offs. The lucrative benefits are offset by the player's demanding personality and mounting evidence that his greatest achievements were tainted by performance-enhancing drugs.

Giants owner Peter A. Magowan said his club intends to cooperate "to the fullest extent that we can" with baseball's investigation. Magowan said he and other club employees would provide information to investigators if asked. At the same time, Magowan said, the Giants, who will play their home opener against the Atlanta Braves on Thursday afternoon, are preparing to celebrate Bonds's 715th home run, which would move him past Ruth into second place on the all-time list.
"We think and our fans think it's quite an achievement and should be recognized as such," Magowan said in an interview this week. "We will recognize it."

Bonds has earned it, Magowan said. Since the Giants signed Bonds as a free agent left fielder in 1992, the franchise value has increased from $100 million to an estimated $381 million. Attendance, which averaged 19,272 in 1992, averaged 40,000 in the first five seasons at AT&T Park until dipping slightly last season, when Bonds was hurt for most of the year. The stadium is essentially sustained by Bonds's popularity. Built with private funds, the ballpark requires annual mortgage payments in excess of $20 million, putting intense pressure on the Giants to keep it filled.

"Signing Barry Bonds helped turn San Francisco into a baseball town," Magowan said. "This is a city where the 49ers won five Super Bowls. And now this city has drawn 19.5 million people" to see the Giants "over the past six years."

Asked if that record would be tainted if Bonds is found to have used steroids, Magowan said: "I'm not gonna talk about steroids. There will be a time when I hope I can talk about them, but that time has not come yet."

Fears of a Faustian Bargain

The Giants are not the only ones grappling with their relationship with the left fielder. The slugger is 47 homers shy of Aaron's record, perhaps the most hallowed in American sport. But Bank of America, which has sponsored the team for 30 years and has nine ATM machines inside AT&T Park, has announced it will not sponsor a home run chase because of "questions about the issue of performance-enhancing drugs in the game," said Joe Goode, a bank spokesman, not specifically mentioning Bonds.

Meantime, ESPN, which last year paid approximately $2.4 billion for the rights to broadcast baseball over eight years, has struggled internally with its decision to purchase "Bonds on Bonds," a reality series. In an emotional March 27 meeting, ESPN reporters questioned whether the network had sacrificed its integrity to air a series in which Bonds preapproves the content.

The growing uneasiness surrounding Bonds mirrors the larger question that increasingly haunts baseball: whether the sport's renaissance in the late 1990s was essentially predicated on a lie.

The renaissance began when Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals and Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs dueled to break Roger Maris's 37-year-old single-season home run record in 1998. McGwire set the new record with 70. Bonds topped that by belting 73 homers three seasons later. From 1998 to 2004, major league attendance and home run totals soared concurrently. Baseball's annual revenue rose as well, from $2.3 billion in 1998 to $4.7 billion last year, and nine teams built largely publicly financed stadiums at a cost of $3.4 billion.

McGwire, an iconic figure after the 1998 season, has disappeared from public view after a humiliating appearance before a Congressional subcommittee in March 2005. Sosa, his skills diminished and hounded by steroid rumors, is out of baseball.

Steroids help build muscle and speed recovery but have been banned by most professional sports leagues because they also are known to cause undesirable side effects, create an uneven playing field and are illegal without a prescription.

Bonds's current predicament -- chasing Ruth and Aaron while under investigation for using drugs to help him hit home runs -- at times borders on the surreal.

On the morning of March 30, Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig announced that George J. Mitchell, the former Senate majority leader and part owner of the Boston Red Sox, would head baseball's investigation. As the basis for the investigation, Selig cited "Game of Shadows," a new book by two San Francisco Chronicle reporters -- one of whom is the brother of this reporter -- that details Bonds's alleged steroid use in numbing detail.

That afternoon, at the corner of Third and King streets in San Francisco, a Borders bookstore had dozens of copies of the book stacked inside the front door. Across the street, Bonds, who has denied knowingly taking steroids, sat inside the Giants clubhouse, relaxing before an exhibition game while two of his personal trainers stared blankly at the television, where an ESPN analyst was pondering their boss's possible fate.

About 20 feet away from Bonds, shortstop Omar Vizquel offered support for his teammate while, at the same time, acknowledging doubts. "Obviously, Barry is a target because of the home run chase," Vizquel said. "Who doesn't want to talk about the home run chase and the record and is he or is he not" going to break it? "It's major league history. This is going down for the books forever. And I would love to [see] that moment on the field. How excited I would be to see Barry Bonds hit his 755th home run in front of 45,000 people. That's going to be unbelievable."

Asked if he would feel as excited if the investigation reveals that Bonds used steroids, Vizquel replied: "Probably not. If the whole thing comes out to be positive and it's out in the open, I don't know if it would have the same, what's the word? I don't know, it wouldn't feel as exciting."

Uncomfortable Trade-Offs

It is almost impossible to calculate how much Bonds has meant to the Giants. At the time the club acquired him, former owner Bob Lurie had tried to move the team to Tampa Bay. Rebuffed by his fellow National League owners, Lurie sold the Giants to Magowan, a former chief executive of Safeway. Magowan, in his first move, signed Bonds, then a free agent who began his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, to a six-year, $43.2 million contract.

"That signing of Barry Bonds put into effect a chain of events that, number one, kept the Giants in San Francisco and over the next 13 years gave us the third best won-lost record in baseball," Magowan said. "It put the best player in the game in a Giants uniform and has helped us draw more fans in the last six years than any team in baseball except the New York Yankees. None of that would have been possible, I don't think, without Mr. Bonds."

By 2000, the Giants had moved into their new state-of-the-art stadium, then known as Pacific Bell Park. Bonds was the Giants' main draw; the ballpark, constructed so that long homers to right field would land in San Francisco Bay for "Splash Hits," was essentially built with him in mind.

But the team's reliance on Bonds came with a trade-off: The left fielder began to exercise his new power. He staked out a wing of four lockers in the Giants' clubhouse, replete with a leather recliner on which he napped before games. The area was soon peopled by Bonds's personal trainers, in violation of a league policy that limited clubhouse access to players, club employees, immediate family and others authorized to do business, including members of the media.

One of those trainers was Bonds's weight coach, Greg Anderson, who was later indicted in a federal probe of a San Francisco area nutritional supplements company known as the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative, or BALCO. Anderson later pleaded guilty to distributing steroids and was sentenced to three months in prison and three months of home confinement.

The Giants' response to Anderson's indictment in 2004 shows how the team has bent over backwards to accommodate Bonds.

In the wake of the BALCO scandal, MLB moved to enforce limits on clubhouse access. The Giants circumvented the policy by putting Bonds's personal trainers on the team payroll. They included Bonds's speed and flexibility coach, Harvey Shields. Bonds later testified before a federal grand jury on the BALCO case that like him, Shields ingested a clear substance that both believed was flaxseed oil, the Chronicle reported. Prosecutors said it was an undetectable steroid. To replace Anderson, the team hired another strength coach, Greg "Sweets" Oliver, who is frequently seen carrying Bonds's bats.

Shields and Oliver are part of an entourage that also includes a videographer, a chiropractor and a batting practice pitcher. Members of the entourage also work with other Giants players but their movements are controlled largely by Bonds.

Giants officials acknowledge that Bonds gets special treatment but said he has earned it as the cornerstone of the franchise. Asked how the club determined where to draw the line, General Manager Brian Sabean said: "You draw the line by what happens on the baseball field. In his case, at least my opinion, he has the effect of the great college basketball player. That's unheard of in baseball, where one guy can make five. When he's on the field in a Giants uniform, it can elevate everybody's game."

Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report from Washington.

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