With Bonds and Clemens, Steroids Era is on trial

Feb 26 2011 - 4:48pm

NEW YORK -- They stood as pillars of baseball for much of their careers. Now, they are about to stand trial.

Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, baseball's biggest stars implicated in steroids use, will face juries on opposite ends of the country.

"They're almost bookended," broadcaster Bob Costas said. "Seven MVPs. Seven Cy Youngs. The greatest pitcher. Certainly greatest player."

Bonds is scheduled for trial in U.S. District Court in San Francisco starting March 21 on four counts of making false statements to a grand jury and one count of obstruction of justice.

Clemens is set to be judged in federal court in Washington, D.C., starting July 6 on three counts of making false statements, two counts of perjury and one count of obstruction of Congress.

While baseball Commissioner Bud Selig would like to put steroids behind his sport, baseball can't escape the shadow of performance-enhancing drugs until it gets past the trials, which would lead many to conclude the most outstanding players of their age were chemically enhanced.

The impact of the cases could be felt for years, especially on Hall of Fame ballots. Already, the drug cloud has taken a toll as neither Mark McGwire nor Rafael Palmeiro has come close to being elected to Cooperstown.

No telling whether Alex Rodriguez or Sammy Sosa will fare any better when their time comes.

In the court of public opinion, many already have convicted Bonds of boosting his performance with the use of steroids.

"There is no more doubt that Barry Bonds used steroids than there is that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West," Costas said. "And there is absolutely no doubt that he wasn't just enhanced by his steroid use, he was transformed. He was transformed from a truly all-time great player, to a superhuman otherworldly, interplanetary player."

Babe Ruth hit 60 homers over a scheduled 154-game season in 1927, and Roger Maris broke that hallowed figure when he hit 61 in 1961 over a season slated for 162 games. That stood until 1998, when McGwire hit 70 -- with the help, he admitted last year, of steroids and HGH.

Bonds topped that with 73 in 2001, and his 762 home runs in a career that stretched from 1986-2007 bettered both Ruth's 714 and Hank Aaron's 755.

Aaron does not think the steroids furor will overshadow the upcoming season.

"I think people have completely forgotten about it, really, to be honest with you," Hammerin' Hank recently told The Associated Press. "I think that if you talk to most young kids or players today, especially young kids that are playing for the first time or second-year players, they don't even think about it, they just think about what the future holds for them."

Clemens pitched from 1994-2007 and his 4,672 strikeouts trail only Nolan Ryan (5,714) and Randy Johnson (4,875). He struck out 218 batters at 42, an age when nearly all of his contemporaries had retired.

"Without the steroids scandal, we would be arguing about whether Bonds was the greatest player of all time -- and still a legitimate argument -- and we'd be arguing legitimately about whether Roger Clemens was the best pitcher of all time," baseball historian Ken Burns said. "So steroids complicates essentially the personal immortality of two I find endlessly fascinating figures in baseball. And what the trial does is it just recalls all of this bifurcation."

Bonds is not on trial for using steroids, but for lying when he denied knowingly using drugs.

The four counts of making false statements stem from his December 2003 testimony in the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) case, when Bonds denied that Greg Anderson, his friend and personal trainer, had provided him with drugs.

Prosecutors will attempt to show Bonds lied when he said he didn't take steroids Anderson gave him, never received human growth hormone from Anderson, never took anything Anderson asked him to take before the 2003 season other than vitamins, and never allowed anyone to inject him other than physicians.

For some of Bonds' supporters, not guilty verdicts will be equal to vindication on allegations of drug use.

"I think if they're acquitted, it goes a very long way toward helping them both in their ultimate careers and with the Hall of Fame," former baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent said. "I think if they are convicted, neither one of them will be elected to the Hall of Fame and I think they will suffer very, very great deprivation in the commercial world."

Costas sees a distinction between Bonds and Clemens. Bonds had a .298 career average, finished first in career homers, walks (2,558) and intentional walks (668) and was an eight-time Gold Glove outfielder.

Clemens was 354-184 with a 3.12 ERA, ninth in victories. He won 20 or more games in a season six times, and his season strikeout high was 292 in 1997, well short of Ryan's post-1900 record of 383.

"Clemens clearly extended not only the length of his career but the period where he was a dominant pitcher," Costas said. "He extended that while using performance-enhancing drugs. But he did not exceed his previous best levels of performance or the previous best known levels of pitching performance in the history of the game by leaps and bounds, as did Bonds and other steroid guys.

"That is not to be construed as a defense of Clemens or a belief in his innocence. It's a baseball distinction. Bonds and Sosa and McGwire did things that never had been done before and absent performance-enhancing drugs never will be done again. Clemens did things that were unlikely, highly unlikely that someone at that stage of his career would do, but his individual seasons did not exceed his previous peaks or the previous established peaks of baseball history, even allowing for differences in eras."

While prosecutors came upon evidence of Bonds' alleged drug use during the BALCO raids, Clemens pretty much brought prosecution upon himself. After Brian McNamee, his former personal trainer, became known to federal investigators through their investigation of former New York Mets clubhouse attendant Kirk Radomski, McNamee agreed to cooperate with federal agents and baseball investigator George Mitchell in exchange for not getting prosecuted.

Mitchell went public with McNamee's allegations in his December 2007 report to Selig. Clemens vehemently denied the allegations, and repeated those denials in February 2008 before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Clemens is charged with lying when he denied using HGH, denied using steroids, said his strength coach never gave him steroids and said his strength coach injected him with vitamin B12.

Burns, known for his 1994 documentary "Baseball," tried to evaluate the Steroids Era in last year's update "10th Inning." The latest undertaking forced him to attempt to try to place the impact of drugs in baseball history with the other great upheavals.

"Because we're close to it inflates its importance," he said. "I place it barely third. I think the single-most biggest scandal in the history of baseball is the exclusion of Africa-Americans systematically for decades and decades and decades. ... The second is gambling. And now we always just put it on the Black Sox. That's the largest and most obvious manifestation. But gambling was a fact for almost all the decades of baseball after it became a professional game in 1869.

"So really what the Black Sox represent is the just visible manifestation of what is an ongoing struggle to keep the game free of gambling. So that to me is an inexcusable scandal that is above steroids. And then you also make as a subset of that Pete Rose's unbelievable betrayal of the game in the more modern era," he said.

Bonds and Clemens are both eligible for the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time in 2013. Based on how McGwire has fared, they are likely to fall far short of the necessary 75 percent. McGwire, 10th on the career home run list with 583, got 19.8 percent of the votes in January on his fifth try on the ballot.

"I think that the reasonable assessment is that on their natural merits they were each among the all-time best at their positions, surefire, first-ballot, near-unanimous Hall of Famers if neither one of them had never touched anything stronger than a protein shake and both had retired in the late '90s," Costas said.

And in baseball, he said, "it matters more" than in the other sports.

"If somebody found out that half the roster of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers were using HGH or some other performance-enhancing drug, that might be disappointing," Costas said, "but it has almost no historical application. It just doesn't resonate the same way. There's no parallel in other sports. There's just no parallel."

For Vincent, the commissioner during the dawn of the Steroids Era from 1989-92, the trials will cast a cloud over the season, but he also thinks many fans don't care about Bonds and Clemens all that much because they no longer are active players.

"I think it is bad for baseball, but it's not serious," he said. "I think it's a sad commentary. The legal system has to count on people telling the truth and therefore the government will take seriously charges of lying to federal organizations."

Burns thinks it will take until 2025 and 2030 before the Steroids Era can be put in perspective.

"Steroids will be an important part of our pop cultural history of baseball and we'll continue to grapple with them," he said. "Someone will make a deathbed confession and that will alter things, and it will be on the front page of The New York Times when that person passes away, and other people will take to their graves the arrogance that had kept them from owning up to indiscretions they had committed as understandable young men trying to just stay in one of the most elite clubs on Earth."

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