Starr: Bonds, Steroids and Guilt

In September 2003 federal agents raided a San Francisco–area enterprise called BALCO, which had billed itself as the cutting edge of "high tech" nutrition for elite athletes. But the company was also providing them with a far bigger boost: steroids and other illegal performance-enhancing drugs. Three months later Barry Bonds, who—along with Olympic queen Marion Jones—was the company's most famous client, appeared before a federal grand jury in San Francisco to testify about his BALCO connection.

When he arrived at the Federal Building that December morning, Bonds brushed past reporters quickly and without comment. But when he left—after more than five hours behind closed doors—he paused long enough to tell the press that things had gone fine and that he was relieved that the matter was over. It did not prove to be the most prescient of assessments. For Bonds, it was just beginning, and no matter how his BALCO tale finally plays out, nobody could suggest that his grand-jury appearance had gone well.

This Monday, the 44-year-old Bonds, the No. 1 home-run hitter in baseball history, will go on trial, charged with 10 counts of perjury, stemming from that 2003 testimony that he had never knowingly used performance-enhancing drugs. And as the case of Barry Bonds winds its way to some overdue conclusion, this country may be headed for another conspicuous collision between law and justice.

The prosecution has already seen the trial judge bar critical evidence seized during the BALCO raid, including three urine samples from 2000-01 that tested positive for steroids and other written materials that, prosecutors argued, linked Bonds directly to illegal drugs. Last week Judge Susan Illston ruled that evidence inadmissible unless Greg Anderson, Bonds's former personal trainer who pleaded guilty to money-laundering charges and conspiracy to distribute steroids in the BALCO case, testifies about the documents and samples. Anderson, however, has become the modern face of omerta, refusing to testify against the sports hero who employed him. After serving his sentence, Anderson returned to jail for more than a year on a contempt citation for refusing to testify to the grand jury. And he has remained steadfast in his silence despite the threat that he may be sent back to jail and despite prosecutorial pressure on both his wife and his mother-in-law.

Without Bonds's trainer, the test results and these assorted documents, prosecutors will parade several dozen witnesses—including some notable athletes, who will testify about their own experience with BALCO—before the jury in an attempt to prove that Bonds is a liar. Still, regardless of the verdict, there is now a public consensus—that I share—that Bonds cheated and lied.

The Bonds saga has been a long, strange trip for all of us. Not long after the BALCO raid, when I first shared my conviction that Bonds had used illegal drugs, I was relying on common sense. That belief met the "duck" standard: if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck and looks like a duck, it must be a duck. Bonds looked like a man who was using performance-enhancing drugs, he performed like a man using those drugs, and he was a client of a company that was dealing those drugs. It would be revealed later that Bonds admitted to the grand jury that he apparently used steroids—the now famous "cream" and "clear"—but said that he did not knowingly use them. That a brilliant and disciplined athlete could use steroids or any other drug without knowing exactly what was going into his body or how he would be affected is preposterous.

I got more mail on my Bonds columns than on any subject I've ever written about. Some of it was hateful, a lot of it was nasty, and many quite reasonable folks expressed bafflement as to how I could reach that conclusion when there was no proof beyond a shadow of a doubt. That's where folks confuse sportswriters with juries and courts of law. Concern yourself with courtroom principles like "beyond a reasonable doubt" and most anything can seem a muddle.

There have been a lot of steroids under the bridge since then. Folks read or at least read about "Game of Shadows," the brilliant book chronicling Bonds's crossover to the dark side. Folks read or read about the Mitchell Report, Major League Baseball's attempt to elucidate the steroids epidemic. Folks watched Mark McGwire and Roger Clemens bumble in testimony before Congress. And just last week folks heard Alex Rodriguez deliver his own version of cheating by virtue of ignorance, delivered not behind closed doors, but in front of microphones, so we got to hear just how ridiculous it sounded.

We now have the evidence of the failed drug tests as well as the drug calendars and ledgers that the judge has booted from the proceedings. They can toss evidence from the courtroom but they can't scrub it from our minds. And there's the loyal trainer. Who believes that Anderson won't testify because the truth would help Bonds? The truth seems obvious to anyone willing to open his eyes. But I also understand that this truth is not necessarily incompatible with acquittal.

We may just have to live with that. Regardless of the trial's outcome, Bonds has shamed himself and endured considerable punishment in the one realm that I suspect matters to him most—his legacy, his once lofty perch in the game's pantheon. Look at him and you no longer see the greatest slugger in baseball history. Now he is eternally B*arry B*onds.