SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. ? For seven years, Barry Bonds stayed at arms’ length from baseball, a period spent in almost complete professional exile, save for the rare appearance to throw out a first pitch, take part in a reunion or sit in the front row at a San Francisco Giants game.
Baseball and its all-time home run leader seemed fine without one another. New stars emerged, most of them bereft of links to performance-enhancing drugs, a connection that at times cast a pall over Bonds’ pursuit of his sport’s most exalted record.
Yet today, the national pastime and Bonds will officially reunite when Bonds begins his weeklong stint as a Giants spring training instructor. Bonds is expected to dress alongside Giants coaches in the Scottsdale Stadium clubhouse, endure a news conference with a media contingent he’s clashed with for decades, then take to the fields, bat in hand, imparting knowledge to players who weren’t born when his career began.
This, however, is more the resumption of a complicated relationship ? a reunion many in the game think is long overdue.
“Barry’s got too much to give,” Cleveland Indians slugger Jason Giambi told USA TODAY Sports. “I don’t care what anybody says. He’s one of the greatest players to ever play this game. I don’t really care.
“I think he’s got a lot of teaching in him.”
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Like Bonds, Giambi testified in 2003 before a grand jury investigating BALCO, the Bay Area lab that distributed performance-enhancing drugs to athletes. Grand jury testimony that was leaked in 2004 revealed Giambi admitted to steroid use, and weeks later he issued a non-specific apology that nonetheless boosted his public profile and standing in the sport. Last year, Giambi interviewed for the Colorado Rockies managerial job and is now in his second season with the Indians.
Bonds’ nebulous testimony before the BALCO jury ? he claimed to not knowingly take performance-enhancing substances ? resulted first in scorn, then an indictment, and finally professional limbo. He was acquitted of federal perjury charges, remains in appeal of an obstruction of justice conviction and twice was rejected by baseball’s Hall of Fame voters.
Meanwhile, the game around him changed. Baseball’s drug-testing policy had been significantly strengthened before the 2006 season; Bonds hit 54 home runs over his final two years to pass Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron, finishing with 762 home runs.
Since Bonds’ career ended, the players union has re-opened the collective bargaining agreement twice to give it greater teeth, and a player population that once stonewalled inquiries into steroid use became emboldened to chastise the guilty.
So how, then, does one of the game’s greatest players ? its only seven-time MVP ? fit into this landscape, given his strong circumstantial ties to PED use?
“I wish he worked here,” says Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto, the 2010 National League MVP. “He’s the best hitter I’ve ever seen in my life. No matter what kinds of things people accused him of or what he has admitted ? I’m not really sure the story ? he played in an era when there was a chance that may have been common, what he did or didn’t do.
“He was still the best. And it wasn’t close. And how could you not gain something from that? How could you not learn from such an amazing talent?”
Yet Votto ? who signed a 10-year, $225 million contract extension in April 2012 ? can express his admiration for Bonds and note how Bonds was “very, very nice to me” on the one occasion they met, while still making it clear his era is not the so-called steroid era that Bonds, Giambi and countless others dominated.
“I think that a lot of people are very strongly against drugs in our sport, and I think that’s because most players would like a level playing field,” Votto said. “I think fans want to feel like the salary that they’re giving us ? because we all get paid very well, from the minimum to the maximum ? is right. I think players, in general, feel indebted to the fans a little bit, and want fans to feel like they’re seeing a clean product, seeing natural talent, seeing guys doing their best on their own effort.
“Every era, there’s always going to be guys who figure out ways to get ahead. But in general I think it’s a cleaner sport now. Most important, I think it’s better for players’ long-term health. I’m proud to say I play in that era. I’m proud to say I play in the era afterward.
“It would have been challenging playing during that era, and certainly without using drugs it would have been challenging. Whereas now, if you use drugs you’re kind of the black sheep, it seems like. Who knows how many guys are using something?”
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Arizona Diamondbacks reliever Brad Ziegler, a member of a key players union committee, has been an outspoken critic of PED users. But Ziegler realizes the difficulty of distinguishing this era and Bonds’.
After Jhonny Peralta served a 50-game suspension for his ties to the 2013 Biogenesis doping scandal, then received a four-year, $53 million contract, Ziegler tweeted that owners were encouraging PED use, and that it “pays to cheat.”
So what to make of Bonds’ return?
“His situation is kind of an enigma in itself,” he said. “There was never anything where he was properly accused and convicted of anything. He was accused of perjury, obstruction of justice, but that’s just because he didn’t talk. Whereas the actual evidence of him doing something wrong as far as PEDs, there’s a lot of guys where there’s speculation, there’s a lot of guys convicted in the minds of the public.”
Ziegler’s clubhouse presents a diverse range of PED outlooks. Diamondbacks infielder Eric Chavez, 36, debuted in 1998, when the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run duel captivated the country and helped pull baseball further out of its nadir ? the cancellation of the 1994 World Series because of a work stoppage.
In 1995, industry revenues were $1.5 billion, according to Forbes. In 2013, they exceeded $8billion, and could top $9 billion this year. Chavez has banked some $81 million in his career, and he realizes much of that came on the muscular shoulders of steroid users.
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“A lot of players are outspoken about it,” Chavez said. “They just forget how many riches, for lack of a better word, that all of us have enjoyed. Ownership, MLB, those guys brought baseball to a whole new level as far as popularity is concerned. That’s something I’ll never forget.
“It’s unfortunate the way things happened. I think we all wish it could have been different. But we all enjoyed that ride to the top. All of us. They kick-started that whole thing. For good or for bad. Personally, I want to thank them.”
Chavez also doesn’t deem it necessary that Bonds issue an apology or mea culpa, as McGwire did before he was hired as the St. Louis Cardinals batting instructor in 2010. McGwire now holds the same position with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“Barry has a lot to offer young kids,” Chavez said. “And maybe he can touch on some of those subjects, what players should be cognizant of and choices they should make going forward.”
Since the Giants announced in February that Bonds would appear in camp, their players have expressed excitement about learning from him. Only pitchers Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain were on the roster when Bonds concluded his career. Former managing general partner Peter Magowan told the San Francisco Chronicle that the club did not tell Bonds to stay away, that Bonds “had to want to come.”
Today, he’ll put on the uniform again, which is more than he did on his final day as a Giant ? Sept. 30, 2007. Bonds said his goodbyes in the Dodger Stadium clubhouse, never changing out of street clothes, and was gone by the time the game ended.
He’ll return to a sport that’s undergone a face lift but might be more welcoming to him than many could have imagined.
“You can say steroids this, that or whatever,” says Chicago White Sox slugger Adam Dunn, “whatever black cloud Barry has on himself ? I’m not going to speak on that. Whatever.
“He’s one of the best players ? with, without, whatever ? to play the game, ever,” Chicago White Sox slugger Adam Dunn says. “When you’re one of the best of the best, that’s naturally who everybody’s eyes will focus on.”
Follow MLB editor Gabe Lacques on Twitter at @GabeLacques.
What to make of Barry Bonds’ return to baseball? – USA TODAY