An Asterisk Looms Over Baseball

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 16, 2007

As swiftly as an indictment was unsealed yesterday by a grand jury in San Francisco, the questions rose again, questions of history and perspective, of right and wrong. They are the same questions that have surrounded Barry Bonds since he began launching baseballs out of ballparks more frequently than anyone before him.

They are here now in full, with the possibility Bonds will be jailed, baseball's new home run king serving as a symbol of a sport whose reputation has been sullied by what many believe was widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs from a generation of players.

Long before yesterday's indictment, Bonds, 43, had become the face of what is widely known as "The Steroids Era." But the criminal charges brought a stark reality to the situation, particularly because some observers believed that, after a four-year investigation, federal prosecutors would never be able to indict the former San Francisco Giant.

Now, with former Senate majority leader George J. Mitchell leading an investigation into baseball's abuses of steroids and other banned substances, there is a feeling that Bonds might merely be the most prominent in a string of names that will be publicly embarrassed in coming weeks.

"Baseball's much bigger than this case," former commissioner Fay Vincent said last night in a telephone interview. "The Mitchell investigation will tell us what's been going on over the last 10-15 years. I don't think any of it's going to be pretty."

The future for Bonds -- charged with perjury and obstruction of justice -- will now play out in court. There, a black-and-white answer -- guilty or innocent -- could eventually be delivered.

Baseball, though, romanticizes its history and records more than any other American sport. On Aug. 7, Bonds sent a fastball from Washington Nationals left-hander Mike Bacsik over the center field fence at AT&T Park in San Francisco for his 756th career home run. With that, he surpassed Hank Aaron. He has, indisputably, more home runs than anyone else.

But with the federal government accusing Bonds of lying to a grand jury when he said he never knowingly used performance-enhancing drugs, there is the possibility it will be proven -- rather than merely suspected -- that Bonds received artificial help along the way. In that case, should the mark stand?

After Bonds set the record, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., displayed a collection of items from his run to history -- the helmets Bonds wore when he hit Nos. 755 and 756, a scorecard, Bacsik's cap. There was no mention of Bonds's legal troubles, or of the suspicions surrounding the mark.

Hall spokesman Brad Horn said last night there were no plans "at this time" to change the display. Bonds would be eligible to be elected to the Hall five years after retirement, though Mark McGwire -- with no criminal charges or proof he cheated -- was roundly rejected in this, his first year of eligibility. But even with an indictment, Bonds's record remains.

"You don't answer hypotheticals," Vincent said. "I think you have to wait."

There is, too, the question of how the record would be changed even with a guilty verdict or an admission from Bonds that he cheated.

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