Everyone knows the disgraced baseball superstar used steroids, but his trial is a travesty, fuelled by Bonds’ unpopularity and one man’s zealotry, writes Buzz Bissinger.It was only fitting that the opening of the baseball season last week arrived in tandem with the criminal perjury case of Barry Bonds in federal court for the Northern District of California.
On the surface, which is exactly why it is called the surface, the events represented the best of baseball and the worst—the giddy feeling of that first game where every team goes in with the same record and for a day at least has the same chance, versus the trial of a man who set single-season and career home run records while using steroids and then gave the cockeyed explanation to the grand jury that he had no idea what he was taking.
It is true that the case of Barry Bonds does hit a new low, a new low in the waste of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money, a new low in the witch hunt of a player who, because he was considered surly and arrogant and unlikable, is now having intimate details of his life revealed (such as testicle shrinkage), a new low in outrageous abuse of government power.
Given the millions and tens of millions and in some cases hundreds of millions on the line, not to mention a deliberate don’t-want-to-know policy by league owners that until a few years ago encouraged steroid use, how many Major League Baseball players do you actually think did not take steroids to improve their performance?
Two? Three? Five is as high as I will go.
They would have been foolish not to, just as a writer would be foolish not to inject himself in the butt if it would make him the next Hemingway, or the same with an accountant if it could make him a highly paid insurance agent.
I had a friend once who went to prison on charges of tax evasion. When he got there, he met a jockey who was in prison for fixing trotter races. “Tommy,” said the jockey, “If there’s humans involved, it’s fixed.”
It is the human condition. But in America, morality is always used as a crutch for our constant misdeeds. We like to think we are more pure than any other country, that we honour with righteous rigidity the difference between right and wrong. We conveniently forget we are the only country in the world that dropped two atomic bombs on innocent civilians. We forget about the heads of state of other countries we had killed. We just keep on trucking with the National Anthem.
If the federal government wants to waste millions of our dollars on meaningless charges, that is revolting enough. What is just as bad is the completely selective prosecution.
If Barry Bonds is going to trial for steroid use and perjuring himself before a grand jury, why not Mark McGwire? McGwire didn’t technically lie when he appeared before a congressional hearing in 2005 to discuss steroid use in baseball. He just obfuscated, avoided direct questions and was even more of an obvious liar than Bill Clinton. The only person who was a greater farce that day was Sammy Sosa, who suddenly decided that he had forgotten English.
Everybody knew McGwire used steroids. It was the worst-kept secret in baseball. He may well have used them when he was with the Oakland A’s in the late 1980s and early 1990s. And he certainly used them in 1998 with the St. Louis Cardinals when he became the first to break Roger Maris’ record of 61 home runs, with 70. He looked like a supersized Shrek. But McGwire, unlike Bonds, played journalists like the marionettes they are. He showed requisite humility in interviews. He spoke appreciatively of Maris. In truth, McGwire could be aloof and arrogant in the clubhouse. A budding rookie pitcher went up to McGwire at one point and suggested they go to dinner together. McGwire looked at him and said, “Why?”
Yes, McGwire did finally fess up during an interview with Bob Costas in 2010. Sort of. Not really. Not at all. He said he used them for health reasons because of repeated injuries. When Costas asked in the direct but non-confrontational style that is his trademark if McGwire thought his records were still legitimate, he answered with an emphatic “yes” and for extra measure invoked God. He also shed tears, and America likes nothing better than an athlete who gets those eyes watering and that chin trembling. Before the obvious admission, he had already been named the Cardinals’ hitting coach last season. After the revelation, the Cardinal organisation basically said he should be a candidate for sainthood because of his brave admission.
Only in America.
The one prominent white player who has been indicted is Roger Clemens. Like Bonds, Clemens was not liked around the league, particularly because of his reputation as a headhunter and propensity to hit batters who thought they could command the inside of the plate. He too was surly.
The villain in all of this is not Barry Bonds, but a former IRS agent named Jeff Novitzky, since transferred to the Food and Drug Administration. He is a zealot in the worst form of zealotry, getting his rocks off by trying to nail professional athletes who God forbid took something to make them better in an era of rampant abuse. It is a malicious pursuit and a silly one. How his superiors let him loose should have been cause for their firing.
In September 2003, according to a recent piece in The New Yorker by Ben McGrath, Novitzky spearheaded a raid on the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (known as BALCO), considered to be a distribution centre for athletes believed to be taking illegal performance enhancers. Bonds was one of those athletes and made it no secret that he went to BALCO every couple of months, although he claimed he never knew that the cream and supposed flaxseed oil he was given by a trainer were in fact “designer” steroids immune to detection.
The media reacted with typical rush-hour frenzy. But 40 of the 42 charges were dropped, according to The New Yorker, and the executive director of BALCO, Victor Conte, was sentenced to four months in a Club Fed prison for one count of money laundering that amounted to several hundred dollars. Hardly the stuff of investigative greatness.
There are estimates that between the investigations of BALCO and Bonds, the federal government has spent as much as $55 million. It is our money. We deserve it back.
As for Bonds, he is the ultimate cautionary tale of what happens when you don’t care if you are liked and go against the grain of the Field of Dreams image of baseball, which has as much merit as heavily recruited high-school football players going to college because they want to major in molecular biology. Baseball the game is beautiful, but baseball players are not. Among the four major sports they are considered the most unfriendly, the most difficult, the most suspicious and the most adept at speaking in worthless sound bites.
Leave Barry Bonds alone, federal prosecutors. Withdraw the charges even at this late date during trial. And maybe do something worthwhile, like pursuing crooked financiers who turned America into a second-rate country with their funny money thievery into the billions.
Buzz Bissinger, a sports columnist for The Daily Beast, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of Friday Night Lights and Three Nights in August. He is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.
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