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Bonds Still Has Some Questions to Answer

Slugger to testify soon about BALCO, steroids. Public opinion concerns his attorney.

November 20, 2003|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

In two weeks, Barry Bonds is scheduled to appear at a federal courthouse in San Francisco, where he will face questions that have nothing to do with the most-valuable-player award.

The San Francisco Giant slugger will become the most prominent in a procession of famous athletes who have gone before a grand jury to discuss their possible connection to a nutritional supplement company suspected of dealing steroids.

Even as Bonds won a record sixth National League MVP award this week, his attorney talked about the court appearance scheduled for Dec. 4 and, to some extent, the answers his client might give.

"We can guess [the grand jury] will ask questions about whether he has ever gotten illegal stuff or stuff he thought was illegal," attorney Michael Rains said. "He's got to be ready for that."It is possible Bonds took steroids unwittingly, mixed into a supplement or nutritional shake without his knowledge, Rains said.

"I think anything's possible," he said. "Do I think it's likely? No."

Bonds has, for the most part, declined to comment on the case. After winning the MVP award Tuesday, he talked about Major League Baseball's new steroid testing program that begins in March.

"I'm glad there is going to be testing," he said in a conference call with reporters. "Hopefully, it will diminish a lot of everyone's speculation and everyone can move on."

The man who holds the record for most home runs in a season finds himself in the middle of this controversy because of his association with a company called Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, or BALCO.

The grand jury is looking into whether the company, apart from its line of supplements, distributed a new and illegal steroid called tetrahydrogestrinone, or THG, sources familiar with the case say.

While the probe has also touched upon possible tax fraud and money laundering, Rains said, "I have the sense that this is pretty much a drug case more than a money case."

Steroids help build muscle mass and are used to treat patients with various ailments. Medical experts say that when they are taken improperly by athletes, these drugs can pose long-term health risks.

The independent U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which polices Olympic sports in America, has asserted that BALCO is the source of THG. The company's owner, Victor Conte, has denied wrongdoing.

The grand jury has subpoenaed dozens of athletes thought to be BALCO customers.

So far, five-time Olympic medalist Marion Jones and a handful of NFL players have testified. Boxing champion Shane Mosley is scheduled to appear on the same day as Bonds.

The witness list has also included some of the four Oakland Raiders and five track and field athletes who have tested positive for THG.

The athletes have been asked about steroid use. As witnesses rather than targets of the probe, some have been granted limited immunity from prosecution in exchange for their testimony, sources said.

Rains said he and Bonds have discussed their concern that all of the subpoenaed athletes are under suspicion in the "court of public opinion."

But Bonds, with his hallowed records, might face even greater scrutiny.

"Barry's situation is unique," Rains said. "There are some people who don't know anything but who are probably going to assume he's done well because he's taken that stuff."

Bonds has used BALCO supplements for several years and, as recently as last summer, praised the company in a fitness magazine.

According to Rains, the player received the products free through his personal strength trainer, Greg Anderson. The trainer's home was searched in September, when investigators raided BALCO. Anderson has been informed he is a target of the probe, according to William Rapoport, his attorney, who declined further comment.

Bonds said Tuesday: "We are friends and we have always been friends since we were kids. But I don't know what a person does after they leave me. ... I know a lot of people, but that doesn't mean I'm involved in anything. And I don't think it's fair to single out me or any other people."

As the court date approaches, Rains has been trying to glean information about the closed sessions, talking to attorneys whose clients have appeared.

"Grand juries are fishing expeditions," he said. "They're going to ask all sorts of things."

The proceedings have sent shock waves through the sports world, said Steven Ungerleider, whose book "Faust's Gold" chronicled the state-sponsored doping of East German athletes a generation ago.

Subpoenaed athletes who have used banned substances are "going to be nervous because you don't want to be lying to a federal grand jury," Ungerleider said.

Fans, meanwhile, "are very angry and feel betrayed," he said. "Sure, they want to see homers and big plays, but they want to see athletes competing clean."

Rains said he and Bonds have talked about the fact that the superstar went from being a lanky rookie in 1986 to a muscular power hitter late in his career.

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