By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 9, 2007
SAN FRANCISCO -- On Tuesday night, Barry Bonds produced the defining moment of his unparalleled career, slamming his 756th career homer to seize sole possession of baseball's most cherished record. But for the sport itself, Bonds's historic homer also represents a defining moment in another, less savory episode: that of the steroid era.
As history sorts through Bonds's career in the context of the era in which he played -- a process that could crystallize when he becomes eligible for the Hall of Fame five years after he retires -- Tuesday night's dramatic climax to the record chase is likely to join the 1998 home run duel between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, and the infamous March 2005 congressional hearing into steroids, as the enduring images of a scandal that seemingly has no end.
As a practical matter, while Babe Ruth held baseball's all-time home run record for 53 years and Hank Aaron held it alone for 33 years, Bonds's grip on the record could be far shorter. New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, 32, recently became the youngest player in history to reach 500 career homers, and barring injury or steep decline could threaten the all-time record in his late 30s.
In the interim, there will be those who claim Bonds's record is illegitimate -- and even deserving of a special designation, such as an asterisk -- because he was allegedly aided by steroids during the most productive years of his career. Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig himself has added weight to this argument by declining numerous opportunities to give Bonds's record his stamp of approval. Selig's ambivalent feelings toward Bonds are in stark contrast to his unabashed adoration of Aaron, whom he considers a good friend.
"I'm not going to pass judgment," Selig said in response to a question about the legitimacy of Bonds's record, "nor should I."
Selig, a student of baseball history, is keenly aware of the precedent for assigning an asterisk to an unpopular record. In 1961, then-commissioner Ford Frick did just that in regards to Roger Maris's single-season record of 61 homers, because, Frick reasoned, the record was achieved during a 162-game season, while Ruth's previous record of 60 was set in 1927 during a 154-game season.
However, Selig's associates believe it is highly unlikely he would pursue a similar tack with Bonds, because steroid use was so widespread and any action against one player would raise questions over where to draw the line with others.
For a sport that holds its records sacred, it is no simple matter to come to grips with one's feelings about Bonds and his steroid-tainted contemporaries, as they eclipse the marks set by the game's heroes of previous generations.
The single-season home run record was once as sacred as Aaron's career mark. For more than 70 years, it was held by only two players -- Ruth and Maris -- until Mark McGwire pushed the record to 70 in 1998, and Bonds hit 73 in 2001. In all, Maris's mark of 61 was bettered a total of six times between 1998 and 2001 by McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Bonds -- all of whom have been linked to the steroid scandal.
"It's an unsettling thing," said Dale Petroskey, president of the Baseball Hall of Fame. "I'll tell you something a Hall of Famer said to [Selig] a couple of years ago. It was at a dinner the night of the induction ceremony, and when it was over the commissioner stood up and talked about state of game, and took questions from the Hall of Famers.
"And one Hall of Famer said: 'Mr. Commissioner, they're making it look easy. And it wasn't that easy. They're cheapening everything we ever did.' I think Bud understood that."
However, among those who argue that Bonds's record should be considered wholly legitimate because there has never been definitive proof he used steroids is Cal Ripken, the former Baltimore Orioles star who was inducted into the Hall of Fame with Tony Gwynn on July 29.
"I'd like to think that until there's evidence [Bonds] has done something, you give him the benefit of the doubt," Ripken said recently. "To me it seems like a lot of speculation and suspicion."
In baseball's central offices on Park Avenue in Manhattan, according to some who work there, the prevailing feeling has been one of ambivalence: If it was inevitable that Bonds was going to break Aaron's record, the sooner the better -- because as long as Bonds is in the headlines, so is the issue of steroids.
But the completion of Bonds's assault on Aaron's record will not mark the end of the steroid controversy, only its pinnacle. And while it's true the hysteria over Bonds will eventually fade, several other tentacles of the steroid story remain very much alive.
"I just get the feeling most people feel [the steroid issue] is a giant elephant in the room that's just going to go away," said Buck Martinez, a baseball commentator for ESPN and XM Radio, "but you and I know it's not going to go away. If anything, it's going to get worse."
The sport is still bracing for disclosures from an investigation into a former Mets clubhouse attendant who admitted in a federal plea deal at the end of April to distributing steroids. The "clubbie," Kirk J. Radomski, has implicated 36 former or current major league players, a person briefed on the investigation told The Post.
The arrest of Radomski came only weeks after several prominent players reportedly were named as clients of an Internet-based pharmacy that was raided as part of a separate federal investigation.
At the same time, former Senate majority leader George Mitchell continues his MLB-sponsored investigation into steroid use in the game, a probe that lacks subpoena power, a definite deadline or the apparent cooperation of active players. Still, Mitchell's team of investigators has spoken to hundreds of MLB and team employees, as well as former players, and is also receiving information from the Radomski investigators.
Bonds, too, has his own steroid-related legal issues with which to deal. The federal grand jury investigating him for possible perjury and tax evasion recently was extended by another six months. Bonds gave sworn testimony in 2003 in which he acknowledged using steroids but said he did not do so knowingly, according to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle that his attorney has not contested.
Many baseball insiders believe Selig would suspend Bonds immediately in the event he is indicted, then battle baseball's powerful union over whether the suspension can stand. Even if the grand jury ultimately fails to indict Bonds, the ending of that legal process could free Selig to force Bonds into speaking with Mitchell, much as he did with New York Yankees slugger Jason Giambi.
It has been nearly 2 1/2 years since baseball's darkest moment in the steroid scandal -- the March 2005 appearance before the House Government Reform Committee, which featured legacy-staining performances under oath by sluggers McGwire, Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro.
And while Bonds's ascension to the top of the list of all-time home run hitters will end the most visible episode of the steroid saga, the larger story is far from finished, and baseball officials understand their every move is being watched.
"We'll see what Senator Mitchell comes up with," said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the ranking minority member of the committee in March 2005, and now its chairman. "The whole world is watching not just what he's doing, but the Barry Bonds issue and certainly the other examples of the [steroid] problem that have come up. We will see how baseball deals with this issue further. . . . The reason Congress got involved in this [the last time] was we didn't see Major League Baseball dealing with it."
Staff writer Amy Shipley contributed to this report from Washington and Miami.