Starr on Barry Bonds and Steroids

Can we join in a rousing "free at last, free at last" in tribute to that humble servant of the Lord, the Rev. Jesse Jackson? With America's civil-rights agenda complete, Jackson is now free to turn his attentions to the rich and mighty whose problems are entirely self-inflicted, most notably San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds.

No doubt Bonds was appreciative last week when Jackson called out Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig for failing to protect the slugger from the wrath of fans in San Diego, who booed and threw objects (including a syringe) at Bonds during the Padres season opener. Then again, Bonds is savvy enough to know that some fresh controversy can boost his new ESPN reality series, "Bonds on Bonds." (What's next for the network, a show starring the Duke lacrosse team called "Animal House"?) Still, the abusive treatment Bonds received from the Padre cadre must have been a wee bit distressing. If that's the reception in laid-back San Diego, what horrors await in New York or, worst of all, Philly, where they devour cheesesteaks and athletes with equal relish? The standing ovation that greeted Bonds as the Giants opened their home season this afternoon may serve as a balm (although he will certainly deny any knowledge of the ingredients contained in that balm). Me, I wonder exactly what those San Fran fans are thinking. Is it "I want my son to grow up just like Barry?" Or "I don't care what he's done, he's a great ballplayer." Or even "I do care what he's done, but my summer will be ruined if the Giants stink, which they would without Bonds." Or most likely "I know he's a cheat and a liar, but he's our cheat and liar." In the interest of fairness, let's make that "alleged cheat and liar." Allegations of cheating and lying are the heart of the new book, "Game of Shadows" by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams. It says that Bonds began using steroids before the 1999 season, an illegal regimen that grew through the years to include multiple steroids as well as human growth hormone. The book argues, with compelling documentation, that these boosts allowed Bonds to make an unprecedented leap from a very good hitter to one that shattered the record for home runs in a season and has now nearly surpassed Hank Aaron as baseball's all-time home-run king. Still, some are worried about fairness when it comes to Bonds. Ken Griffey Jr. has said that, absent a positive drug test, he refuses to believe that his friend did anything wrong until an eyewitness to illegal actions comes forward. Of course, that standard of proof is higher than what is required to convict folks in our courts of murder, rape, terrorism and other high crimes. Somehow, we're asked for more before passing judgment on Bonds surging prowess in his second baseball decade. (In sports like swimming and track and field, dramatic improvement in midcareer is pretty much regarded as a prima facie case for use of performance-enhancing drugs.) Credit Bonds and his attorneys for an aggressive, multifarious defense. He has repeatedly denied any knowing use of illegal drugs, he has played the race card, he has hidden behind his young son while blaming the media for the boy's distress and he has suggested, with surprising success, that he is being singled out. The latter helped prod the clueless Selig into giving MLB's nascent steroids investigation a far broader mandate than the mighty Bonds. At the very least, Bonds should be one of a handful of ballplayers upon whom that investigation focuses. Not because he is African-American and about to surpass that great white icon Babe Ruth. Not because his accomplishments have been singular, somehow dwarfing the prodigious numbers of other steroid suspects like Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Not because Congress is using its bully pulpit. Rather he should be singled out because, unlike McGwire and Sosa, Bonds was actually ensnared in the biggest sports-drug scandal in American history. It was Bonds and his trainer who had ties to BALCO, the Bay Area lab that produced illegal, performance-enhancing drugs for many of the nation's elite athletes. It was Bonds's trainer and longtime pal, Greg Anderson, who has already gone to prison in the BALCO scandal for illegal distribution of anabolic steroids. There are other ballplayers like Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield with ties to BALCO who merit attention, as well. So does Rafael Palmeiro, who, having tested positive for steroids last year, has been effectively exiled from the game. But Bonds should be the principal target because two good reporters have already done baseball's dirty work. In "Game of Shadows," they portrayed Bonds as a man with a relentless appetitie for illegal, performance-enhancing drugs. And they produced transcripts of grand-jury testimony, in which Bonds appears to have lied about his habits, admitting only that he may have unwittingly used some designer steroids. Bonds has stuck to his denials. But few believe that Bonds, long a "my body is a temple" guy, would take steroids--the now-famous "clear" and "cream"--without knowing exactly what they were. For those who think Bonds is being treated unfairly, let's compare his plight with that of another record-setting athlete exposed by the BALCO mess. Like Bonds, sprinter Tim Montgomery has always denied using drugs and, over a long career in a sport where, unlike baseball, there has always been drug testing, never tested positive. But the BALCO records of his drug regimens were sufficient proof for the governing bodies of his sport, as well as the international Court of Arbitration for Sport. Terming the evidence "credible and sufficient" as well as "fatal," the court upheld Montgomery's two-year ban from competition. He was also stripped of Olympic and world-championship medals dating back to March 2001, when the court determined the drug use had begun. His world record of 9.78 in the 100 meters, which was set in 2002 and stood for more than three years, was erased, treated as if it never happened. The bottom line: Montgomery is effectively finished in his sport and, no matter what old newspaper clips may say, was never officially the world's fastest man. They threw the book at Montgomery. Now that Bud Selig and his MLB cronies have read the book on Bonds, it's long past time to throw one at him, too. So he better enjoy the cheers and adulation from the hometown fans today. The road ahead will be rough and, somewhere along the way, a day of reckoning looms.