Barry Bonds and Baseball's Shame
Eight years and $55 million later, federal prosecutors finally ended their pursuit of Barry Bonds, dropping their perjury case against the slugger accused of taking steroids and lying about it. It's hard to say it was worth it.
Bonds has been the focus of inquiry since 2003, when he testified in front of a federal grand jury as part of the investigation into the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative, or Balco, the California-based company that was ultimately found to have been supplying anabolic steroids to athletes. Bonds admitted taking substances provided by his personal trainer, claiming he thought they were nutritional supplements, but denied taking steroids or human growth hormone.
Federal investigators then tried to nail Bonds for lying under oath, indicting him for perjury in 2007. Four years later, he was convicted of one count of obstruction of justice and a mistrial was declared on the perjury charges. Bonds appealed and a federal court overturned the conviction this past April. On Tuesday, the Justice Department announced it wouldn't pursue an appeal, which would have sent the case to the Supreme Court.
You don't have to be one of those people who thinks the government should always stay out of sports to think this entire affair was a gigantic waste of time and money. You also don't have to be a doping advocate to think Bonds was singled out for something dozens of big-name athletes were suspected of doing. You might say, but wait, the feds also went after Roger Clemens -- and you'd be right. And they had just as much success in that case as they did with Bonds: Clemens was acquitted of all six counts of perjury and obstruction in 2012.
But the obsessive pursuit of Bonds on extremely flimsy charges wasn't just about cracking down on drugs in sports. It was about making one of the best players of all time the avatar for an era that Major League Baseball still hasn't quite come to terms with. It was an era of rampant doping, yes, but also one that restored fans' interest and faith in baseball following the 1994 strike and kept revenue growing. We've seen a similar strategy with the league's treatment of Alex Rodriguez, who, yes, made his own bed, but who has also been disproportionately punished, partly because the league was disappointed that he never became the sport's savior. The blow from realizing that Bonds's record of 762 career home runs -- among the most revered records in all of sports, almost to a fault -- was softened slightly by the expectation that Rodriguez would eventually shatter that number, and when he did so it would be clean.
So baseball overreacted like a scorned lover to A-Rod, and the federal government relentlessly pursued Bonds, trying to make a couple of stars the collective face of a much bigger issue, facilitated by MLB's selective moralizing. The hope was that we might forget about those decades the league profited from players they'd ultimately denounce. It's not unique to sports to go after unsympathetic, guilty individuals to avoid addressing larger, more systemic problems that might threaten entire institutions. Bernie Madoff comes to mind.
To that end, I guess you could say the years and millions spent chasing Bonds amounted to a giant, purple diamond given to us to make up for all that time the league violated its own sanctity. I'm not sure we can be so easily bought.
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