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Bonkers about BALCO

Keepin' Score, Matt Brown

Perhaps Colorado Rockies pitcher Turk Wendell’s subjective comments about Barry Bonds on Tuesday relieved some collective minds. Wendell made the blatant accusation – basically that Bonds definitely has used steroids in recent years – that has been on the tip of the general population’s tongue amidst the ongoing steroid controversy surrounding Bonds and others.

“I mean, obviously he did it,” Wendell said, according to an article on ESPN.com. “(His trainer) admitted to giving steroids to baseball players. He just doesn’t want to say (Bonds’) name. You don’t have to. It’s clear just seeing his body.”

Greg Anderson, Bonds’ personal trainer and childhood friend, was indicted on Feb. 12 on charges of running an illegal drug distribution operation, along with a track coach and main executives of a San Francisco nutritional supplements lab called Bay Area Lab Co-Operative, or BALCO.

Its easy to do what Wendell did and so many people want to do – connect the dots and accuse Bonds because of his association with Anderson and the fact that his body has visibly morphed to hulk-like proportions in his late 30s (he’s now 39). But the indictment did not name specific players (of course all players have conceded their innocence) because it’s meant to focus on providers of anabolic steroids, human growth hormone and Erythropoietin (EPO) to professional athletes. Bonds is one of the many athletes that testified before a grand jury in December concerning BALCO and its connections.

In Bonds’ scrutinized company are Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield of the New York Yankees, among others. Giambi has been questioned by the media for coming to spring training with a less bulky frame than he has sported in previous years. Giambi met Anderson during a major league tour of Japan after the 2002 campaign. On Wednesday, Sheffield was questioned on ESPN’s SportsCenter because he has been Bonds’ workout partner in the last few seasons. Giambi and Sheffield also appeared before jurors in December.

If the players are charged or they admit guilt it will cause irreparable harm to the game. Feats on the field will be deemed undeserving because steroid users hold an unfair advantage over the common athlete through performance enhancing supplements. The most severe punishment could be not allowing certain players into the Hall of Fame. On a humanized level, it will further diminish a trust in athletes that becomes more sour with each passing day.

Popular basketball star Kobe Bryant continues to battle accusations of raping a young woman (although he’s already admitted adultery). On Tuesday, Baltimore Ravens running back Jamal Lewis, who rushed for the second largest total in NFL history in 2003, was indicted on federal drug charges. Whether or not any of it is true, the fact that fans have to read such things dominating the headlines is sad – a detriment to the “I love this game” attitude that we all want to have.

But the steroid matter is much more complex than just blaming the individuals involved, or in the extreme case, punishing them in a court of law. It’s more complex than stripping them of their rights to enter the Hall. It’s proof that Major League Baseball and other sports have not been stringent enough with their drug policies. It’s proof that competitors will do anything to gain an edge, including using substances that mask steroids during testing. It makes you wonder who is most at fault – the league, the trainers or the players? The trainers are pressing just as hard as the players, and the BALCO case shows a certain naivety on MLB’s part.

Mark McGwire, who was the first player to hit 70 homeruns in 1998, made a similar Bonds-ish transformation in body size from his early playing years. Highlights from his Rookie of the Year performance (49 homers in 1987) show a stick-figure of a man compared to the 1998 version. But fans and media followed McGwire in mostly innocent terms, focusing more on the glory of his accomplishments (and Sammy Sosa’s) than the growth of his muscles (although he was questioned a few years later and admitted to using androstenedione, an over-the-counter supplement that increases testosterone production in the body).

And what a surprise – Bonds has been a client of BALCO since just before 2001, his record setting homerun season in which he blasted 73 long balls that shattered McGwire’s own record. Sosa, the Chicago Cubs slugger who has had three 60-plus homer seasons since 1998, is also constantly bombarded by steroid-related questions.

I think a smarter response from Wendell, instead of focusing on size and association, would have been to simply point out the numbers. Since 1998, Bonds has averaged 47 homeruns per year. In his previous 11, he averaged 35, including a measly 19 homerun performance over 159 games in 1989. Over his final four full seasons, McGwire averaged an astonishing 61 homers a year compared to only 36 from 1987-1992. Since 1998, Sosa has averaged 55 homers over six seasons. In his previous five, he averaged 34 bombs.

The logical comeback would be to argue that these players have just gotten better with age, but you can’t help but wonder when they go from frail rookie to mega-large veteran. But the batter still has to hit the ball, and these players have done a good job of doing that. The ball just happens to fly off the bat a little farther and with a little more gusto, often ending up over the fence.

Should these players be reprimanded, definitely. But I don’t think they’re accomplishments should be marked with a negative asterisk because they still had to hit the best pitching the world has to offer. Ken Caminiti, the 1996 National League MVP, and Jose Canseco, a former Oakland A’s teammate of McGwire’s, have both recently confessed to tampering with steroids during their careers. Canseco hit 462 career homers in an injury plagued career.

But this isn’t strictly a baseball issue; it’s a sports issue; track and field stars and boxers testified in the BALCO hearings and Oakland Raiders football players, namely Bill Romanowski, have also been targeted in the past. Controversy surrounding steroids is nothing new to sports or specifically baseball, and it will probably always be an issue unless the leagues figure out how to prevent it.

One thing I do know is Wendell did nothing to help his team’s cause, a bitter rival of Bonds’ Giants in the National League West.

“I’m not playing with any of these guys out there this year,” Bonds said in the same article. “It’s going to be a battle and a war.”

Wendell may have given Bonds the desire to hit 80 this season. He is currently fourth on the all-time list with 658, behind his godfather Willie Mays, The Babe and Hank Aaron. Juiced up or not, it’s still impressive to watch.

Matt Brown is sports editor at the Sierra Sun.


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