WASHINGTON -- By now even Barry Bonds, although notably thick-skinned regarding public obloquy, might wish he had retired after the 1998 season, his 13th, when his achievements included 411 home runs, 445 stolen bases -- he is still the only "400/400'' player in baseball history -- eight All-Star selections and eight Gold Glove awards. He had already won three MVP awards and deserved a fourth, which was given to a lesser but less-obnoxious player. After the required five-year retirement, Bonds would have become a Hall of Famer.
Today, his numbers are much more gaudy. Before 1999, he hit a home run every 16.1 at bats and his highest home run total was 46. Since then he has averaged a home run every 8.5 at bats and had a season high of 73.
Those numbers are why most people who care about baseball wish Bonds had never played, and hope he never does again. The numbers, examined in the lurid light of what is known about the recent role of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs in sports, and about Bonds' character and associations, invite suspicion and perhaps compel invidious conclusions.
Last week, on the day when this inaugural season of the World Baseball Classic produced two especially fine games for exuberantly festive fans (the Dominican Republic beat Venezuela 11-5; the United States beat Mexico, 2-0), the dark cloud of the Bonds saga yet again blotted out the sunshine. Sports Illustrated released excerpts of a new book, "Game of Shadows,'' by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, two tenacious and respected reporters for the San Francisco Chronicle.
It is no reflection on them to say that their book poses the kind of problem that ordinary people frequently face reading political journalism. Judging the accuracy of their conclusions requires weighing the veracity of their sources. That is problematic because many sources are not identified. An important one, Bonds' ex-mistress, may have an ax to grind, money to make and legal jeopardy to deflect. Some other sources are low-lifes who, in the initial frenzy surrounding this matter, faced federal charges involving, cumulatively, scores of years in prison, but when the dust settled only two people went to jail, and for a total of just seven months.
Even the most responsible journalism sometimes cannot do more than provide evidence to sustain inferences, and sometimes that is quite enough to validate journalistic craftsmanship. Inferences unfavorable to Bonds are encouraged by the fact that he chose to associate with the low-lifes. When Pete Rose sank into trouble, he correctly said that some of the sources of evidence against him were unsavory. But he had immersed himself in their milieu and chose them for associates.
Pending some definitive judicial finding, which is hardly guaranteed, what is a responsible judgment? Begin with the spring of 1999, the year after Bonds, according to Fainaru-Wada and Williams, became obsessively jealous of the adulation accorded Mark McGwire as he hit 70 home runs.
When Bonds reported to spring training in 1999, jaws dropped because he was suddenly so huge. And this very intelligent player was unintelligently huge. For many years, baseball discouraged strength training with weights because of fears that players would become "muscle-bound,'' losing their flexibility. Jon Miller, the Giants broadcaster, remembers that in 1999, Bonds, for the first time in his career, had trouble turning on an inside pitch. His manager, Dusty Baker, expressed worries to Bonds.
In 2000, in the first inning of the Giants' first spring training game, an opposing player hit a shallow fly ball to left field. Miller grabbed his binoculars to confirm that the left fielder actually was Bonds, who, perhaps because he was doing more judiciously whatever he was doing, looked somewhat less inflated than he had the previous spring. In 2000, Bonds hit 49 home runs.
It is still unclear if there will be judicially imposed punishment in this matter. But condign punishment for a man as proud as Bonds would be administered by the court of public opinion, and exclusion from the Hall of Fame.
In any case, Bonds' records must remain part of baseball's history. His hits happened. Erase them and there will be discrepancies in baseball's bookkeeping about the records of the pitchers who gave them up. George Orwell said that in totalitarian societies, yesterday's weather could be changed by decree. Baseball, indeed America, is not like that.
Besides, the people who care about the record book -- serious fans -- will know how to read it. That may be Bonds' biggest worry.