Baseball Looks for Evidence to Bounce Bonds

The Commissioner of Baseball, Bud Selig, called for an official investigation into steroid use last week, dredging up the usual dull choruses of indignation from experts who've covered the game f

Apr 12, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Jerry Dowling

The Commissioner of Baseball, Bud Selig, called for an official investigation into steroid use last week, dredging up the usual dull choruses of indignation from experts who've covered the game for years and still haven't figured out how he works.

Selig tabbed former Maine Sen. George Mitchell to follow the investigation wherever the evidence leads him, even if it goes past 2002, when the basic agreement with the players first called for testing. If it goes back to 2001, when Barry Bonds hit 73 homers, so much the better. If it goes back to the phony summer of 1998, that's terrific.

But make no mistake about it: This investigation is all about Barry Bonds and the stain he will place on the great game if and when he breaks the immortal Henry Aaron's career home run record of 755.

If and when? There's not going to be a when. That's what this investigation is about.

Selig's style, and the general mode of operation in baseball, is to never bring the big hammer down when the threat of a big hammer can make an antagonist go away quietly. It's all about politics and negotiation.

It's even-handedness and pressure. It's clean and civil. It's legal expedience.

Sometimes, like the Pete Rose case, baseball's desire for legal expedience leaves big questions hanging in the air to promote a decade's worth of controversy. Which isn't a problem. As Selig well knows and has said, "Controversy is good."

Bonds entered the 2006 season with 708 home runs, 209 of which came after age 35. We've all witnessed the unusual vigor of his aging, the increasing size of his body and head, the lurid accounts of steroid use, the grand jury leak in which he all but admitted using steroids and his association with a convicted steroid broker who served as his personal trainer.

Few are so blind that they can't see it. A dubious assault on a symbolically important career record is near completion, and Selig can do nothing because he doesn't have the evidence.

Doubtless, persuasion would be Selig's preferred mechanism to take out Bonds. When MLB runs into deep trouble with one of its personalities, that's the path. If baseball takes a firm action, it risks a legal challenge. When the accused simply agrees to go away, expensive lawsuits are avoided.

Baseball pundits greeted Selig's announcement Thursday with questions. See if this helps:

Q. What does Selig expect to find that two new investigative books about Bonds and a federal grand jury investigation into the notorious BALCO Laboratory can't?

A. It doesn't matter. What matters is that baseball conduct its own investigation and develop its own findings, even if those findings no more than corroborate the evidence developed by others. It's not enough for investigative reporters and grand juries to develop facts, because Selig can't use their facts to act against Bonds. He's not going to suspend Bonds over grand jury leaks or the contents of a book. He needs the goods in his own hands, developed by his own office.

Q. Why is Selig going after Bonds and not going after Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro?

A. Bonds is an active player going after one of baseball's most cherished records, while the other three are out of the game. But they're all under suspicion for polluting the record books with home run feats way out of historic context. If we find out that McGwire, Sosa, Palmeiro and others did it with steroids, baseball fans deserve to know so we can properly assess their performances.

Furthermore, a lot of these players are up for the Hall of Fame within the next few years. If it can be found that players compromised the game by using steroids, that would be useful information for voters, who have broad discretion to consider it. In 50 years of baseball before the 1994 players' strike, hitters bashed as many as 50 homers in a season 16 times. From 1995 through 2002, 14 hitters reached or exceeded 50 homers, and a good many others hit 49. Many factors are involved, such as expansion and smaller stadiums. But those are legitimate reasons. Steroid use is not.

Q. How can you go after players going back to the mid-1990s if there was no enforcement against steroids?

A. It's true that MLB had no complete policy against steroid use before 2002, when a new labor agreement included testing provisions beginning in 2003. However, steroid use without a prescription has been illegal since a 1991 federal omnibus crime bill. Furthermore, Fay Vincent, as baseball commissioner in 1991, sent a memo to the clubs saying any baseball personnel involved in the possession, sale or use of any illegal drug or controlled substance was subject to discipline from the commissioner's office, up to and including permanent expulsion from the game. But the commissioner's office lacked the teeth to take action without testing provisions in the labor agreement.

The mere fact that no testing or enforcement provisions were in place before 2003 does not make the use of steroids before then any less illegal or any less prohibited — if it can be established in some other way besides. If Selig is going to run into any trouble on this, it's going to come from the players union or the courts. Unless Bonds goes away on his own.

Q. Isn't it hypocritical of baseball to take this action on steroids when it looked the other way during the "steroid era?"

A. To believe baseball is hypocritical, one would have to believe MLB knew about players taking steroids in 1998. Really knew. Because baseball still doesn't have facts establishing that key players took steroids in 1998, it's a stretch to think baseball had that knowledge in 1998.

But you can't say MLB isn't trying to be tough on drugs. The new policy says the first offense for steroid use results in a 50-game suspension. Baseball is testing this year for amphetamines, which could have an interesting effect on the game come August. Why can't we just say MLB finally sees the error of its ways and is taking steps to clean up the game for good?

Because there's more to it. There's Bonds.