For two years we've been waiting and bracing for the worst of the steroid news, and now that the most famous names in sports have either been implicated or implicated themselves, I'm less outraged than sad. I wanted to believe Barry Bonds when he told me one night at dinner last March, completely voluntarily, that he did not use performance-enhancing steroids. I wanted to believe Marion Jones last summer when she so eloquently denied using steroids, when she so defiantly offered to take a lie-detector test and asked for the BALCO grand jury to release her testimony.
But it looks as if they've used up their benefit of the doubt, if they ever had any. Bonds is the biggest star in baseball by a million miles, and whether we believe he knew it or not, we know now that he took illegal performance-enhancing drugs. Jones is the biggest star American track and field has had in at least the last four years, and as sleazy as BALCO founder Victor Conte seems to be, it's hard to not believe him when he says he sat one foot from Jones as she injected steroids into her own body with a syringe . . . and even helped design the steroid program she was on.
The BALCO trial won't start for some months yet, but already this looks like the worst-case scenario. And the inclusion of Bonds, because of his testimony to the grand jury, is a jaw-dropper because baseball is exponentially bigger than track and field in this country and in baseball Bonds is bigger than Jason Giambi, whose cover was blown back in spring training when he arrived at camp shriveled up like a prune, having had a winter free of juicing and lifting.
For two years now, we've debated whether Bonds is the best player ever, better than Ruth, Mays, Williams, Cobb, all of 'em. In a game defined to a great extent by its records, Bonds could retire in two years as the single-season record holder in home runs, walks, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, and of course the all-time home run record.
MLB needs to put an asterisk by all of Bonds's numbers, and for that matter by all of Mark McGwire's titanic numbers from the late 1990s because he, too, took something that was legal at the time but is not now. They'll go into the Hall of Fame as great players, though the plaques that commemorate their accomplishments ought to say they took steroids. And asterisks ought to be required because they had illegal chemical assistance that Hank Aaron did not have, that Ruth did not have. Baseball has always encouraged cheating on the field of play, whether we're talking about scuffing the ball or stealing signs. But throwing a spitter isn't illegal; taking steroids is.
It's fair to put an asterisk next to Bonds's totals, perhaps even necessary, because he has arthritic knees that have little if any cartilage, and without steroid-driven workouts, it's reasonable to presume he wouldn't be physically able to play anymore, like most 40-year-olds throughout the history of baseball, including his godfather, the great Willie Mays who was stumbling around the bases at 40. Without steroids, it's fair to think Bonds would have had to retire a year or two ago, maybe at 660 home runs.
I don't cover much baseball anymore, but I have had a couple of extended social interactions with Bonds. I've spent enough time with him over the last couple of years to know that he's too narcissistic, too smart, too hands-on and too curious to put something into his body without knowing what it is. His body is his temple. Bonds can tell you how many grams of fat are in a 10-ounce filet mignon and how many teaspoons of sugar are in one 16-ounce serving of Coca-Cola, so while he might have thought "the cream" was some kind of miracle salve to help fight arthritis, I'm struggling to believe he wouldn't know every single thing about "the clear" before he put it into his mouth. The only way Bonds didn't know is that he didn't want to know, that he wanted some kind of plausible deniability if it was found out he took the stuff. The notion that he flat-out didn't know what he was doing just strains credulity.
I could argue here about the culpability of MLB executives, starting with Commissioner Bud Selig, who didn't fight Don Fehr and the union hard enough and long enough during previous labor negotiations for tougher drug testing policies. And it's even easier to find disgust for Fehr, who has never cared about the health of the game, only the wealth of his union members (though not their physical health).
But what intrigues me now is the lack of public outrage regarding all of this. Okay, I've come to presume the Olympic sports, particularly the summer sports, are full of cheaters, from East German swimmers to weightlifters from virtually everywhere to Ben Johnson. Fair or not, I expect cheating from Olympians. Having covered six Summer Games, I'm constantly fretting there will be a drug scandal either on deadline or in the middle of the night. But one might expect more of an outcry over muscled up baseball player, fraudulently inflating home run and power statistics.
Baseball is every day and right where we live, not every four years and halfway around the world. Yet, I'm looking at e-mail after e-mail expressing emotions that overwhelmingly range more from sadness to indifference. Yes, Bonds (and Giambi, if he has a career left) will be booed on the road. But will Bonds be a pariah? I doubt it. Editorial condemnation doesn't seem to be reflective of what fans feel about the stars they pay to see. For every e-mail expressing true outrage (usually from folks who feel they are keepers of the game), there are five from fans who either still don't know exactly what to feel or are more hurt or annoyed than angry.
People in and around Washington were much more exercised on the issue of benching Mark Brunell a couple of weeks ago than they are over the news or the implication that Giambi, Bonds and Jones have all cheated their sports and lied about it, which leads me to wonder how big a scandal this is, if the people consuming the product are either so cynical already or so uninterested that by spring they will be diving into McCovey Cove to retrieve whatever Bonds can crank.