Barry Bonds told at least one unmitigated truth in the 2003 grand jury testimony that yielded an obstruction-of-justice conviction against him last week. His experience as the son of a major-leaguer taught him never to trust his employers.
"Because I was born in this game. Believe me," he told a prosecutor. "It's a business. Last time I played baseball was in college. I work for a living now."
He saw that cynicism borne out in 1998, when baseball hailed each home run by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa as its salvation, repairing the damage of the 1994-95 strike. No one seriously questioned McGwire's Popeye physique or Sosa's newly acquired bulk as they took aim at Roger Maris' single-season record and, however incidentally, diminished Bonds' stature by comparison.
If he could have trusted baseball and the media surrounding the game back then, Bonds' place in the sport's history would almost certainly be safe today. He would be considered one of the greatest ever to play the game, a lock for the Hall of Fame in his first year on the ballot and a fixture in the San Francisco Giants' organization in almost any capacity he chose.
But engulfed in cynicism, he joined the crowd of steroid users and from age 36-43 generated statistics so preposterous that they will only weigh against him in any debate about his passport to Cooperstown. If the Hall election in December 2012 goes his way, Bonds' earlier accomplishments will be the reason. He would have been a first-ballot shoo-in based on his performances through 1998, but are those qualifications sufficient to ignore the fact that he helped taint the game later on?
If this trial's outcome left many members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America in doubt about whether Bonds ever juiced, the organization might as well merge with the Flat Earth Society.
The obstruction conviction and three perjury counts that produced hung-jury mistrials did not directly answer that question. The federal case never delved into whether performance-enhancers helped Bonds break the single-season home run record with 73 in 2001, or pass Henry Aaron's all-time total of 755 in 2007, or hit 45 or more home runs for five straight seasons after doing it only once before.
The jurors wouldn't have cared anyway. Interviews with six of them after the trial suggested no doubts that Bonds had taken performance-enhancing drugs. The defense never disputed that point. The jury simply couldn't agree on whether Bonds lied under oath about knowing that he had been taking steroids.
By itself, does a conviction make him a pariah for the Giants and MLB? The shame of indictment in 2007 didn't force Bonds into hiding. He returned for festivities at the Giants' park a few times afterward, and he helped throw out a first pitch in the Giants' postseason run last fall, receiving a big ovation.
But when the trial began 10 days before this season's opener, he had to keep a low profile. He did not turn up when the team accepted its World Series rings earlier this month, handing out copies to some of its most illustrious alumni.
A full reconciliation should occur eventually. Giants management largely escaped accountability for its role in enabling Bonds -- permitting his crew of unaccredited trainers access to the clubhouse even after the head of their own medical staff had sounded an alarm.
The burden of testifying under oath fell to subordinates, such as clubhouse manager Mike Murphy and former trainer Stan Conte. The franchise's ability to move on rather blithely makes it easier to keep Bonds in the loop, especially once the drama of the trial has receded.
Baseball has given no indication whether it will enact any sort of ban on Bonds or Roger Clemens, who faces a similar trial this summer in Washington. But the game would not benefit from penalizing a tangential crime related to steroid use, especially since its guardians preferred a speak-no-evil code on the subject for years.
McGwire returned to the sport as the Cardinals' hitting coach last year despite his "I'm not here to talk about the past" mantra at a congressional steroid hearing. He avoided a perjury charge by humiliating himself that day in 2005 and went into seclusion for almost five years. He came out of exile through a public confession and the devotion of Tony La Russa, whose own baseball legacy has become entangled with McGwire's.
For the moment, Bonds lacks the option of confessing to gain MLB absolution. The perjury charges might be refiled, and his legal team appears prepared to fight the obstruction verdict. He might never have the option of calling on a friendship to regain a place in baseball.
His cynicism about the game got in the way of potential alliances. He had plenty of reason to be distrustful, but in the end, that wariness didn't protect him a bit. It prevented him from having faith in his own abilities, from believing that they would stand on their own as a testament to his greatness as a ballplayer, regardless of what anyone else did.