April 14, 2006
Once again, the lead story in the baseball world has nothing to do with baseball. On Thursday, CNN reported that the government has launched an investigation to determine whether Barry Bonds committed perjury in front of the federal grand jury that investigated BALCO in 2003, and which eventually indicted Victor Conte.
Bonds' grand-jury testimony was leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle, an event which became the impetus for an investigation into his life that produced a book, Game of Shadows, a book that now becomes the impetus for a perjury investigation, the news of which also gets leaked.
Maybe people don't like Bonds' recent bout of self-pity, but go back and read that sentence again. Think about how that cycle might make you feel if you were in the middle of it. Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you, and just because you're unpopular doesn't mean you have to surrender all your rights as a citizen. There have still been no repercussions for the leaking of that testimony.
As was the case with those leaks, this latest information comes with no names attached, just--from the ESPN.com version of the story--"a person with knowledge of the probe" and "multiple sources" and "the Chronicle's sources." Perhaps this is the way the game is played these days, but I'm distinctly uncomfortable with the process.
Of course, not wanting to attach names to things is part and parcel with steroid stories. Just a week ago, there was a piece in the Los Angeles Times about how scouting would regain prominence in a "post-steroid era." The whole piece was problematic--I find the notion that the game is undergoing some radical change to be in stark contrast with the available evidence--but there was a quote from Dodgers' GM Ned Colletti that was particularly bothersome. He said, "You keep hearing more names, and you see productivity fall off. You start to wonder. … I was actually surprised at some of the players who I was told, [and pitchers], the reason the performance is down is because [they were] juicing. Some of the names, some of the people, are shocking." (Note that the angle brackets were in the original piece.)
And that's how baseball wants it. God forbid people actually find out that players they like might be using, or have used, steroids. It's much better if all the attention gets focused on the unpopular guy in San Francisco, or for the media to treat Mark McGwire like a pariah because he didn't give them what they wanted last March, or for rumors to swirl around Sammy Sosa because he made the mistake of going through a sharp decline from 2003-2005, something no player had ever done from ages 34 to 36.
Meanwhile, after four years, we have testing results that indicate that the steroid "problem" is vanishingly small. One notable star has tested positive, and your average baseball fan couldn't name any of the other players to be suspended under the new new policy. Those average baseball fans continue to show up at baseball games in droves, pushing attendance and revenues higher, and for all the idiocy about last year's dip in offense being connected to steroid testing, offense is up again this year (in an admittedly small sample) despite yet another increase in the penalty for getting caught. If we can get punishment for a first offender to be execution, we might push offense back to 1930 levels.
It's unlikely that Barry Bonds will be around for that. He's a 41-year-old man with bad knees, trying to play the game he loves for one more year, and enduring considerable pain in doing so. He's at the center of a media feeding frenzy, vilified for what he has done, for what he's been rumored to do, and for what he might yet still do.
The lesson of Barry Bonds has nothing to do with steroids, or for that matter, with baseball. The lesson of Barry Bonds is this: if you're in the public eye, you better kiss the media's collective ass. He didn't, and he made no effort to hide his disdain for the people who covered the game and the work they did. That attitude, as much as anything else he's done, is why he finds himself in this situation today. He has no voice, no one providing balance, and his ham-fisted effort to get his own story out without a filter--"Bonds on Bonds"--is probably doing him more harm than good.
Maybe Bonds is a liar and a cheater--but almost certainly not a perjurer, given how he parsed his testimony and the difficulty of proving that charge--but there are no heroes here. The media has behaved shamefully throughout the arc of this story, slipping another notch in its long, slow descent from its former place among American institutions.
And you can quote me on that.