This week's federal indictment against baseball star Barry Bonds was something that prosecutors, Major League Baseball and even Bonds himself seemed to have wanted for years. Now that it has been filed, though, it's not making any of them look good.
The case against Bonds grew out of an investigation into a Bay Area firm called BALCO that allegedly distributed illegal performance-enhancing drugs. Prosecutors granted Bonds immunity to testify in December 2003, only to hear him repeatedly tell a federal grand jury that he never took such drugs, at least knowingly. Four years later, a second grand jury accused Bonds of lying under oath and obstructing justice. But just as with the cases against Martha Stewart and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the indictment's focus on procedural missteps allowed critics to complain of overzealous prosecution.
For the league, meanwhile, the Bonds controversy has been a festering sore. The first reports tying Bonds and other ballplayers to BALCO's drugs came out in 2004, and the accusations against athletes have been matched by harsh criticism of the game's permissive approach to steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs. After months of pummeling by lawmakers, fans and the media, the league and the players union finally agreed to more rigorous testing practices and tougher penalties.
Nevertheless, a cloud continued to hang over Bonds, darkening his pursuit of Hank Aaron's career home-run mark with relentless questions about the integrity of his statistics and the game itself. The indictment will probably sideline Bonds, a free agent, eliminating the distraction of having one of the game's marquee players dogged by steroid rumors. But it also reminds the public how slow and ineffectual the league has been in dealing with the situation.
Bonds has steadfastly maintained that he never knowingly used steroids, and he has complained repeatedly that his achievements have been besmirched by rumors and innuendo. After the indictment became public, his defense lawyer, Michael Rains, welcomed the chance for Bonds to clear his name. "Now the public will get the whole truth, not just selectively leaked fabrications from anonymous sources," Rains said.
Bonds' legacy, however, hangs in the balance. To prove its case, the government will try to show that Bonds knowingly took a regimen of illegal drugs, including steroids and human growth hormone. If it succeeds, Bonds' records will be tainted beyond any reasonable doubt. And even if it fails, he may never play in the major leagues again. What a sad end to the career of arguably the most talented man ever to step up to the plate.