Sympathy for the Slugger

By Buzz Bissinger
Updated: September 13, 2008

PHILADELPHIA — I don’t like Barry Bonds. I don’t like his insouciance and swagger and surliness, his general contempt for anybody who doesn’t share the familial intimacy of his last name.

I prayed that he would not break the single-season record for home runs in 2001 with the San Francisco Giants, just as I also prayed that he would not break Hank Aaron’s record for most homers in the history of baseball last season. By the measures of grace and dignity, Aaron is all class and Bonds all trash.

But the news trickling out of the endless investigation of Barry Bonds has caused me to feel something for him I never thought possible: sympathy. And beyond just sympathy, outrage over what has turned from a prosecution into a venomous persecution of someone who, no offense to the pastime purists, is just a baseball player.

And I am beginning to think that federal authorities in charge of the pending criminal case against him for perjury have exactly the same attitude many sports fans do — we don’t like Barry Bonds, and since we don’t like him, let’s teach him a lesson he won’t forget. Let’s ruin him, which the federal government is fond of doing in all too many instances.

Just for the record, Barry Bonds is not an axe murderer. He is not a rapist or a child molester. He has been charged with 14 counts of lying to a federal grand jury about his alleged use of steroids and human growth hormone (as well as one count of obstruction of justice). He denies such usage. And that’s where the whole mess sits until his trial next March.

The charges themselves are questionable enough, given that Bonds, even if he knowingly took such drugs, was only doing what so many other major league players were doing in an atmosphere that encouraged such usage, given the appalling lack of internal enforcement by the league itself.

If you’re going to indict Barry Bonds for perjury, then aren’t there also some charges on which to indict league commissioner Bud Selig, Major League Players Association head Donald Fehr, every team owner, every general manager, every manager and the legions of others who all hid like quivering cowards when it came to illegal drug use?

Their defense — they had no idea of what was going on — is balderdash and poppycock. They all aided and abetted in the crime through willful and deceitful ignorance.

But what is far more disturbing is the way in which the feds are now conducting the case, with a vindictiveness smacking of unseemly obsession.

A few weeks ago, Duff Wilson and Michael Schmidt of The N.Y. Times reported that federal authorities are considering criminal charges against the wife and mother-in-law of Bonds’ former trainer, Greg Anderson, in an effort to pressure him to testify against Bonds.

According to numerous accounts, it was Anderson who supplied Bonds with the drugs. “I’ve been an attorney for 32 years,” Charles J. Smith, the attorney for Anderson’s wife Nicole Gestas, told the Times. “I was a prosecutor for 10 years. But I have never heard anything like this … It’s mean-spirited. It really is mean-spirited.”

Threatening family members is conduct worthy of the mafia, not the federal government, particularly in a case that is ultimately inconsequential beyond sensational headlines and another round of “I Hate Barry” frenzy. Protecting the sanctity of baseball? Protecting the sanctity of sports?

It’s way too late for any of that self-righteous nonsense in SportsWorld. What Anderson has been forced to go through already, spending more than a year in prison on contempt charges for refusing to testify about Bonds before a grand jury, is sickening in its mercilessness.

Once again, this is not some case involving a drug kingpin smuggling thousands of kilos of cocaine into the country. This is a case hovering around performance enhancers, which dozens if not hundreds of baseball players used.

In the report by the former Senator George Mitchell to Major League Baseball last December, 86 present and former players were named as having used steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs. But how many of them are currently being prosecuted? The answer as far as I know is zero. In fact some of those named, such as Andy Pettitte and Jason Giambi of the Yankees, are still playing.

But the major difference is that Pettitte and Giambi (to some extent) are likeable fellows, whereas Bonds is downright loathsome. Granted, he did nothing to endear himself to anyone. He was surly up until he stopped playing this year. He was arrogant.

He hated the press and often gave the impression that he pretty much hated every fan outside San Francisco. He cocooned himself in a posse big enough for the president. Based upon the account given by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams in their book, “Game of Shadows,” he was taking steroids and other performance enhancers by the bushel when he hit his record-breaking 73 home runs in 2001.

But the very lack of a league testing policy gave Bonds and other baseball players carte blanche. When the league finally put in place a system in 2003, it was a joke in terms of providing any real deterrent.

It wasn’t until November 2005 that year-round testing was finally instituted with penalties ranging from a 50-game suspension for the first positive test to a lifetime ban for the third.

Under such conditions up until 2006, what player in his right mind would not have taken performance enhancers? It potentially meant millions of dollars for each. Money talks and the rest of it walks. That is the American way whether we like it or not.

In the case of Bonds, it also meant tens, if not hundreds, of millions for a league that had become desperate for home runs as a way of continuing to reclaim fans that had become disenfranchised during the hideous strike of 1994 and the cancellation of that year’s World Series.

Bonds did not use the league nearly as much as the league used him. As he made his record march in 2001, ballpark after ballpark was filled to capacity. Reporter after reporter followed his exploits. He was hailed as maybe the greatest player ever in the history of the game, until he became the pariah that he is today.

In fact, more than just pariah: it seems pretty clear that he has been blackballed by the league this year despite statistics last season that included 28 home runs, 132 walks and an on-base percentage of .480 in only 340 at-bats.

In the stretch-run for the playoffs, there isn’t a team that can use him? Of course there is, but his conspicuous absence smacks of collusion by team owners regardless of denials by Commissioner Selig. The players’ union smells stink, and so do I.

Did Bonds lie to the grand jury about using performance-enhancing drugs? If so, he is hardly the first public figure to lie about something. A president named Bill Clinton lied about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. He got impeached, but he remained in office, and to this day is still one of the most beloved political figures in American life.

It is also ridiculous to assume that Bonds would have done anything else but lie, even under oath. He is a professional athlete, not a role model, despite the fact that we continually insist on confusing the two, with our need to put on those rose-colored glasses. If he had taken steroids and told the truth, he would have been ruined.

By not telling the truth, he would have been ruined. He was in a no-win situation. And when it comes to manning up, or more precisely not manning up, he is once again in very plentiful company. Of the 86 players named in the Mitchell Report, how many actually cooperated with the investigation? Precisely one: Jason Giambi.

Obviously, the government’s case against Bonds is weak, or it wouldn’t be embarking on the witch hunt of doing everything possible to squeeze Anderson to testify.

But enough is enough. Leave Anderson alone. Leave Bonds alone. Let them deal privately with what they did or did not do. If the Feds want to earn our taxpayer dollars, they can send a SWAT team to my hometown of Philadelphia to reduce the homicide rate that is turning swaths of the inner city into another Baghdad.

In the hierarchy of issues that are important in this country, steroid use in baseball has become a bottom feeder. And prosecuting someone because you don’t like him isn’t justice but the complete miscarriage of it.