At its heart, baseball’s steroids era was about ambiguity. Players faced an ambiguous moral choice: use the same illegal drugs many of your competitors were using or risk falling behind. The most essential, black-and-white equations at the heart of the game — pitcher versus batter, wins and losses, the cold veracity of individual records — were gray and muddled, open to interpretation.
Even where there appeared to be definitive answers, there were hidden by layers of ambiguity. Rafael Palmeiro flunked a drug test, but to this day blames a tainted supplement. Mark McGwire finally admitted his steroids use, but claimed the drugs didn’t help him hit home runs. The Mitchell Report purported to reveal the true extent of steroids use in baseball, but almost all its new findings stemmed from one rogue source.
In that context, what happened Wednesday in the federal trial of Barry Bonds was a fitting outcome. Facing four felony charges that he lied to a grand jury about his steroids use in 2003, Bonds was found guilty of just one charge — obstruction of justice — while the jury was hung on the three more serious ones.
The verdict: ambiguity.
After nearly three years in court and an estimated $10 million in legal costs — both of those figures could rise in the event of an appeal and/or retrial — we can’t even get a definitive answer to the simple question of whether Barry Bonds lied about using steroids. We also don’t know if Bonds will do jail time — a sentencing hearing was scheduled for May 20.
The Bonds verdict, delivered by a jury of eight women and four men, was wholly unsatisfying to anyone in search of hard answers, closure or simple justice. Neither the government nor Bonds’s defense team could claim a clean victory. The feds didn’t nail him, but neither did he skate.
The trial itself seemed full of – you guessed it – ambiguity. At one point, a key prosecution witness completely contradicted the testimony of another. We heard plenty about the size of Bonds’s testicles, but very little about his drug use. And of course, the entire case pivoted on the fact the feds could not compel the witness who knew all the answers, Bonds’s former personal trainer Greg Anderson, to testify.
And what now? Why, more ambiguity, of course. An appeal. Perhaps a retrial on the unresolved counts. And then the Hall of Fame debate.
Bonds will appear on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time in 2013, which will start a 15-year period of soul-searching and angst on the part of voters, none of it likely to resolve the question of Bonds’s worthiness of enshrinement in Cooperstown. He likely will receive enough votes to remain on the ballot year after year, but not enough to gain election. By the time the last of the steroids-tainted superstars of this era have finished their 15-year runs on the Hall of Fame ballot, we could be in the 2030s.
Even if the vast majority of us are convinced, even without definitive evidence, that Bonds used steroids, we can’t agree on what it means. Are his records tainted? Does he belong in Cooperstown? Was his career Hall-worthy even before he started using? Is he a stone-cold criminal, or a victim of overzealous prosecutors on a witch-hunt?
Because we’re baseball fans, we crave hard answers — a win or a loss, a home run or a foul ball, a yes or no vote on our ballot. But when it comes to steroids, we have learned by now there are no hard answers, only varying degrees of ambiguity.