Be Careful What You Wish For

By David Steele
Updated: May 3, 2008

BALTIMORE — Somewhere, Barry Bonds is laughing. He’s not working, but he’s got to be laughing.

Bonds, stuck in baseball limbo, probably is following the latest round of unsavory reports about Roger Clemens, this time involving — yuck — an underage girl.

Bonds’ sport rejoiced as it washed its hands of him last offseason, even though he escaped with the all-time home run mark. Still, it was supposed to have been that simple: Out goes Bonds, out goes our “problem.”

Now, a fresh dump truck-load of dirt lands on Clemens every other week, and as it does, it also lands on baseball. No one factored that in when the baseball world perpetrated the idea that the evil of performance-enhancing drugs in the national pastime began and ended with Bonds.

You might say this is baseball’s chickens coming home to roost. But that analogy might get you “denounced and rejected” by certain presidential candidates. Let’s just say it’s an extreme version of the adage, “Be careful what you wish for.”

The wish was for one unpleasant, uncooperative anti-hero to disappear and take his tainted records with him. If demonizing him as a steroid cheat did the job, then everything else would be worth it.

“Everything else” included 24/7 coverage of everything related to him, endless commentary in print, on air and online shredding his character, and fans crisscrossing the country and packing stadiums to wave asterisk signs, dress as syringes and throw objects at him.

And commissioners insolently shoving hands into pockets when records are broken.

Problem is, “everything else” also included congressional hearings, books, investigations, the Mitchell Report and the takedown of hero after hero, from Mark McGwire to Rafael Palmeiro to Rick Ankiel.

And, eventually, the one who sold America an image of the rugged, John Wayne-style, all-American, clean-cut, family-first, rough-and-tumble Texan defying Father Time and extending his brilliant career on sheer grit.

That was Roger Clemens and the image he created for himself – which, in his defense, was too easy for America to drink in without questioning. America made it so easy, he got comfortable, then arrogant, then started tilting toward impenetrable.

Thus, the hubris of challenging the Mitchell Report and its chief informant on Clemens, Brian McNamee. And thus the resulting tales of hooking up with a teenage country star wannabe, ones that included references to Monica Lewinsky and cigars. (To reiterate — yuck.)

Clemens cashed in big, in reputation, money and extra chances to keep pitching, with his good-ol’-hard-workin’-country-boy image. If all of the reports about his steroid and human growth hormone use are true, he also made a killing with his silence. That is, his silence while Bonds was basted and rotated over an open flame for the latter stages of his career.

All those in baseball, whether named in the Mitchell Report, in other investigations or who still haven’t been caught, benefited from having Bonds around to act as a human shield.

Any of them, at anytime during the five years Bonds was hounded by every corner of the sport, could have stepped up and said: “Look, the home run records may be a big deal, but he’s not the only one indulging. We all had choices to make.”

But why do that when you never fear for your own career, when you never sense that the assault on performance-enhancers is directed toward anyone else besides that one lightning-rod player? What incentive was there for any of them to say anything besides, “It’s every man for himself – better him than me”?

Clemens got so enamored with himself and so secure in the idea that it was all about Bonds, he hoodwinked the game and the public long enough to sign some of the most outlandish contracts in history and still heard far more admiration than condemnation for it.

Now he, like Bonds, is no longer an active player. Unlike Bonds, he’ll live with no threat of an official sanction from baseball. He’ll see only a handful of grim analyses, a few scathing remarks, mainly from the blogosphere.

He’ll face no daily reminders of his sins, no strident demands that his entire career and legacy be declared invalid. If he ever has to duck a tube of cream hurled in anger, it’s more likely to be in his own bedroom from his humiliated wife than in a public place with tens of thousands of enemies.

On second thought, maybe Bonds doesn’t find it all very funny after all.