A New Day Dawning For Baseball

By John Feinstein
Saturday, November 17, 2007

When a federal grand jury indicted Barry Bonds, baseball's all-time home run leader, on Thursday on charges that he lied to a federal grand jury about his use of performance-enhancing steroids, there were cries across the land from baseball people that this was a dark day for the game.

In fact, it was a day of emancipation for all those who love baseball. Bonds has held the sport hostage for years. This summer he broke Henry Aaron's record of 755 career home runs, all the while belligerently denying charges that he is one of baseball's many steroid users.

Bonds's indictment is not the end of Steroidgate, but it is the beginning of the end. Next month, former senator George Mitchell is supposed to release the results of his lengthy investigation into steroid use in baseball. Already, reports are surfacing that dozens of big-name players, perhaps hundreds overall, will be named.

Many in the media reacted to the news that baseball's all-time home run king had been indicted by saying or writing yesterday that this is the beginning of a very dark time for baseball. In fact, the darkest times are now behind baseball. The stonewalling by the owners and the players union that delayed drug testing for years is over. Bonds's angry denials, which cowed Commissioner Bud Selig into traipsing around the country while Bonds pursued Aaron's home run record, are finally a thing of the past. The notion put out by baseball apologists (some of them journalists) that steroid use has been exaggerated is likely to be blown out of the water by the Mitchell report.

All of which is good. You can't get clean until you admit you're dirty. For years, baseball and baseball people have been in denial -- at least publicly -- about steroids. The cop-out always was, "There's no proof."

There's proof now and more coming. Sure, an indictment isn't a conviction, but those still in the "no one has proved Bonds guilty yet" camp might check the record of federal prosecutors when they bring indictments: 95 percent of those indicted are convicted. This is not a two-bit prosecutor in Durham, N.C., trying to get reelected. These are real lawyers, just as the lawyers who indicted Michael Vick on dog-fighting charges are real lawyers. Vick, who before his indictment had repeatedly denied that he was at all involved in dog-fighting, copped a plea in September. He will be sentenced next month and is likely to go to jail soon after.

Whether Bonds goes to jail really isn't important. What's important is that his wish to play another season in order to reach 3,000 hits for his career (he's fewer than 100 away) won't be granted. We have -- at last -- seen the last of Bonds in a baseball uniform. He may be voted into the Hall of Fame someday, but it is far less likely now. A year ago, Mark McGwire, who would have been a shoo-in first-ballot Hall of Famer if not for suspicions about steroid use, came up for election. Needing 75 percent of the vote, he received less than 25 percent. And he's never been charged with a crime. Bonds's statistics are far more impressive than McGwire's, but the indictment -- and a possible conviction or plea -- takes him into Pete Rose territory. Rose, the all-time leader in hits, was banned from the game in 1989 for betting on baseball. He's still not in the Hall of Fame or even on the ballot.

There's another reason the indictment is important: The message that went out to youngsters this summer as Selig and baseball hid under a rock, as ESPN and others glorified Bonds during his pursuit of Aaron's record was this: Cheating pays. Everyone in the game knew that Bonds -- and many, many others -- cheated. But because the evidence was circumstantial, he was treated by far too many as a hero. When Bonds makes his perp walks in the near future, a different message may be sent out: Cheaters do get caught. Last month it was Olympic track star Marion Jones. Next up, Bonds. There will be others.

Which is all good. If you love baseball, Thursday was a day to celebrate. The sport's steroids nightmare isn't over, but the end is getting close. And no one in this saga should be pardoned -- not now, not ever.

John Feinstein's latest book is "Cover-Up: Mystery at the Super Bowl." He is working on a book about major league pitchers Tom Glavine and Mike Mussina.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company