Barry Bonds was walked more than any hitter in baseball history. On Wednesday, he appeared to walk on the last criminal charge levied against him by the United States government.
A federal appeals court tossed the 2011 obstruction of justice conviction hanging around Bonds’ neck – the only charge federal prosecutors had been able to stick Bonds with after years of prosecuting him.
Four counts of perjury in a steroids investigation of BALCO labs already had garnered nothing for the feds in their multimillion dollar pursuit of Bonds.
Now, 10 judges from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that his rambling statements in his obstruction case did not actually obstruct the government – even though a jury ruled that it had.
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When Bonds walked 2,558 times in a storied and infamous career, he swaggered to first base from the place in baseball he ruled: the batter’s box.
Where will Bonds travel after this walk over the government? To the Hall of Fame? To having his No. 25 finally retired by the Giants? To a full embrace from a baseball community that has shunned him since his last game in 2007?
If it were up to me, the answer to all those questions would be yes – but it’s not up to me.
First, we don’t know yet if the government will ask the 9th Circuit to reconsider the case or whether the feds will petition to the U.S. Solicitor General to take Bonds’ case to the US Supreme Court. The possibility of that happening is probably keeping Bonds – or at least it’s keeping his lawyers – from popping the champagne following his undeniably big win in court.
But even more relevant to Bonds’ baseball life is that he remains on the outs with most Hall of Fame voters.
There is precedent in baseball history of fallen heroes being found not guilty by the courts and still facing harsh judgments by the baseball community. “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and his Chicago White Sox teammates accused of throwing the 1919 World Series were acquitted by a Chicago jury – but banned for life from baseball.
Baseball has not officially banned Bonds from the game. His exile is more like an unwritten rule.
Like Roger Clemens, Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell and other players who have not been convicted of anything, Bonds remains estranged from the game by the whiff of the steroid scandal. The age of information has erected an invisible wall keeping Bonds out of the game.
The book “Game of Shadows” covers Bonds’ steroid use in voluminous detail. We know that Bonds’ trainer – Greg Anderson – sat in a jail cell for a year rather than testify against Bonds.
Without Anderson verifying the steroid paraphernalia the government claimed to have against Bonds, he walked. Curiously, Bonds wasn’t even the focal point of the feds’ interest. They wanted to break up BALCO lab, the Burlingame outfit known as the steroid producer to star athletes.
Most BALCO clients ensnared in the investigation – including Olympic sprinter Marion Jones – had their reputations tarnished in some way.
But the feds could not touch Bonds. Anderson kept his mouth shut and Bonds’ evasive answers to the feds turned to nothing. The 9th Circuit judges ruled that just because Bonds was evasive, it didn’t mean he obstructed the government from doing its job.
It was a painful rebuke of government officials who spent years chasing Bonds when he didn’t cooperate in the way they wanted. After all the steroid hysteria, the government expense, the scathing books and years of negativity, it all adds up to nothing tangible in the way of punishment.
One could easily ask: What has all this steroid business been about?
The answer is that the case against Bonds and other players forced baseball to confront steroids and establish testing and punishment – something that didn’t exist for most of Bonds’ career.
Along with hits to his reputation, Bonds’ punishment has been exclusion from the Hall of Fame – despite the lack of criminal charges sticking to him.
How will Wednesday’s decision affect that? Here is what I hope: That the baseball community, with the benefit of time, will come to realize that a lot players used steroids but that not all steroid players were equal.
Plenty of guys like Bobby Estalella, a backup catcher for the Giants in 2001, used performance-enhancing drugs and reaped few benefits on the field. Average players were average players.
Bonds was a superstar – no matter what.
He makes a strong argument for being the greatest hitter of all time and is certainly the greatest I have seen in my 40 years as a fan.
Did Bonds use steroids? I believe he did. Should that keep him out of the Hall of Fame?
It probably will for the short term, as older voters who didn’t like Bonds rule the day. But Wednesday’s decision could become one of several factors newer, younger voters use in the future to finally put Bonds where he belongs: In Cooperstown, N.Y., with the other immortals of baseball.
Call The Bee’s Marcos Breton, (916) 321-1096