Next Tuesday, Barry Bonds will come to Washington and, for the first time since last December's revelations about "the clear" and "the cream," the San Francisco Giants slugger will face a crowd in a potentially hostile ballpark: RFK Stadium.
Will Bonds need to borrow Rafael Palmeiro's earplugs?
Or will a gentle silence -- the product of fan forgiveness or just forgetfulness -- await the man with 703 home runs? What if Bonds is cheered, or perhaps even given an ovation? Does that amount to an acquittal? The possibilities are almost endless.
Will Nationals Manager Frank Robinson come to home plate with a gigantic eraser so he can start expunging Bonds's records? Frank has already suggested using white-out on Raffy's page in the Baseball Encyclopedia.
Will fans arrive with a vile of clear liquid, plus eyedropper, marked "Flaxseed oil"? Warning label: "Do not exceed two drops of this 'flaxseed oil' per day." Or will they opt for tubes of ointment, marked "definitely not steroids" to rub on their biceps?
Will vendors greet Bonds by yelling, "Get your red beans here!"?
Can the Nats invite Hank Aaron, who hit his 755 home runs the old fashioned way, to throw out the first ball that night?
Perhaps no ballpark has ever been turned into a court of public opinion to the degree that RFK will be for three games next week. To those who believe Bonds took performance-enhancing drugs to help him hit 73 home runs and win four MVP awards from 2001 to 2004, then no better opportunity could possibly be offered to express displeasure or wave "Cheater" signs.
For the more imaginative, a sweatshirt with the letters "HGH" (Human Growth Hormone) might be appropriate. Or a simple "BALCO" hat. Any FBI or Justice Department paraphernalia would suit the occasion, unless you choose to bring a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle, which reported that Bonds told a grand jury that he unknowingly used substances that are believed to be steroids. If nothing else, next week may answer one question: Can 30,000 people boo but claim they didn't do it "knowingly"?
To those who believe that Bonds never took steroids, or at least didn't know that he was taking them, this is your chance to cheer and back your man. Signs like "What Happened to 'Benefit of the Doubt'?" or "Innocent Until Proven Guilty" would do nicely. Of course, a true Bonds fan might choose to sit one row above Frank Howard's white seat in center field with a large sign saying, "Hit It Here."
If you think that almost every slugger of recent times has cheated in some fashion, then you can applaud Bonds's excellence -- excellence, that is, relative to the mores of his era. Baseball fans already do mental gymnastics to adjust historical statistics for the "Dead Ball" and "Lively Ball" ages. Why not the "Juiced Generation," too?
Perhaps we finally have an answer to the inscrutable question, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" Maybe it's our modern halfhearted cheer for a ballplayer who is probably cheating but has never actually been caught red-handed. Yet.
Finally, for those who hate to base their final judgments on grand jury leaks and circumstantial evidence (even copious amounts of it), there is always the option of silence. Of course, such folks probably don't even vote in elections either.
After all, who says Bonds couldn't hit a home run every 16.1 at-bats for the first dozen years of his career, then, after getting a new trainer and quickly gaining 25 pounds of muscle, suddenly average a home run every 7.9 at-bats from the ages of 37 to 40? Hey, it could happen, couldn't it? (Correct answer: "No.") Barry's greeting in RFK may prove to be a litmus test for fan reaction the rest of his career. In fact, it may even have a bearing on whether he chooses to continue to play and for how long. Hostility toward his pursuit of Babe Ruth's 714 home runs is mild. There's no Babe lobby left in baseball. Bonds has already knocked out so many of Ruth's slugging percentage and on-base percentage records in recent years that "714" seems immaterial. But something approaching rage comes into the eyes of many lifelong baseball people when Bonds and the number "756" are mentioned together.
Bonds's absence this season has been seen as such a blessing to baseball that some wondered whether it was an accident. Was Bonds's series of knee surgeries and re-injuries a coincidence? Or did Bonds delay his return until after the BALCO case reached a point where it now appears that it will never go to trial? If BALCO fades away, then all the grand jury testimony that the Chronicle printed will never be unlocked. If Bonds never sues them, he can fall back on "he said, they said." Although, it stretches credulity to think any company, newspaper or otherwise, would essentially bet the business if it didn't have the goods.
The mostly likely scenario is that Bonds's knee has simply taken an eternity to heal. Perhaps the "Curse of the Bambino" has been transferred from Boston to Bonds. About the time the Red Sox won the World Series, Bonds's right knee started hurting.
At any rate, Bonds has lucked out in the timing of his return. If he had faced Giant-hating Dodger fans in Los Angeles last week, or the tough-town boo birds of New York, Chicago or Philadelphia, that would have shown fortitude. But the only cities the Giants have left to visit are Washington, Denver and San Diego. How badly can lobbyists, cattle and sunbathers boo you?
This week in Frisco, Bonds got a free pass from hometown fans. Although, when he took the field for the first time this season on Tuesday, he didn't warm up by playing catch with a teammate. Instead, he brought a child with leukemia onto the field with him as 1) a generous gesture of compassion or 2) a human shield so nobody could boo him without insulting the kid.
If Bonds jogs to left field in RFK surrounded by a phalanx of homeless hurricane survivors, don't be surprised.
We all have our opinions about Bonds, and, next week, we can express those views. It's unlikely that anyone in that crowd will know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, what Bonds has done. But just between us, feel free to go dressed as a syringe.