Barry Bonds was 37 when he swatted his 73rd home run of 2001 onto a ledge overlooking San Francisco Bay, leaving baseball fans marveling at his prowess, even as they bristled about the enormous changes in his physique.
Was he on steroids? They couldn't be sure.
Bonds kept swatting home runs into the Bay and kept winning Most Valuable Player awards, defying the notion that players slow down once they get old. This year, at age 40, Bonds hit his 703rd career home run and won his fourth consecutive Most Valuable Player award.
Had he ever used steroids? Turns out, the answer is yes, according to a report in yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle, which obtained grand jury testimony from December 2003 with Bonds admitting that he used steroids, albeit unknowingly. Bonds testified he used steroids during the 2003 season, but denied federal prosecutors' allegations that he also used steroids and human growth hormone during the 2001 and 2002 seasons, according to the Chronicle.
One day after shaking the baseball industry with Jason Giambi's admission in grand jury testimony that he knowingly injected steroids, the Chronicle revealed the Bonds admission, which led commissioner Bud Selig to make yet another call for the players' union to accept stiffer drug testing.
The newspaper said Bonds testified that he used a clear substance and a cream that were given to him by his personal trainer, Greg Anderson, who has been indicted in the federal Bay Area Laboratories Co-Operative [BALCO] investigation.
Bonds told the grand jury he thought the clear substance was the nutritional supplement flaxseed oil and thought the cream was a rubbing balm for arthritis. In fact, they were synthetic steroids known as "the clear" and "the cream," which have been at the center of the BALCO scandal.
"I never asked Greg" what the products contained, Bonds testified. "When he said it was flaxseed oil, I just said, 'Whatever.' "
Bonds attorney, Michael Rains, yesterday called the grand jury leaks an attempt to smear his client.
"Greg knew what Barry's demands were; nothing illegal," Rains said at a news conference in Oakland. "This is Barry's best friend in the world. Barry trusted him. He trusts him today. He trusts that he never got anything illegal from Greg Anderson."
Rains also stressed that Bonds said he felt he was taking natural substances that hadn't been banned from baseball and said the slugger didn't feel they helped his performance.
"Barry was tested several times this year, and the results of those tests were negative," Bonds' agent, Jeff Borris, told the Associated Press. "He put together statistically one of the most remarkable seasons ever. There are people in this world whose sole purpose is to try and figure out ways on how to undermine the accomplishments of others."
But as the New York Yankees continued to ponder how to rid themselves of the $82 million they have remaining on Giambi's contract, the rest of the sport was left wrestling with Bonds' legacy.
In San Francisco, the reaction was mixed.
"I think it's part confusion, part giving him the benefit of the doubt," said Vernon Glenn, a sportscaster for KRON-TV in San Francisco. "People are saying, 'OK, he took [steroids], but he didn't know they were steroids. And part of it is cynicism, like, 'Come on. How does an athlete put something in his body and he doesn't know what it is?' "
Glynn, who worked for WBAL-TV in Baltimore for three years before moving to San Francisco in 1990, said he was also preparing to ask viewers a tough question: Do you put an asterisk next to everything Bonds has done? Bonds has won seven MVP awards; no other player has won more than three. He needs 11 more home runs to match Babe Ruth for second on the all-time list, and 52 to match Hank Aaron's all-time record.
Jerome Holtzman, who started covering baseball in 1957 - first for the Chicago Sun-Times and then for the Chicago Tribune - before becoming Major League Baseball's chief historian, said yesterday's news didn't change his views on Bonds' accomplishments.
"I don't think it's something the record books need to acknowledge," Holtzman said. "Babe Ruth had whatever he had in his day. I see steroids as an extension of the training table."
Holtzman, who has an annual Hall of Fame vote, said he would still put Bonds in on the first ballot.
"I just don't see how you can say, 'Barry Bonds hit 700 home runs, and 250 when he was on steroids.' How would you know?" he said. "And even if you did know what all these guys did, they were just taking advantage of the performance-enhancing stuff that was available."
It is illegal to take steroids, but MLB didn't begin testing for them until 2003, and players didn't face potential penalties for taking them until this year.
"As I have repeatedly stated, I am fully committed to the goal of immediately ridding our great game of illegal performance-enhancing substances," Selig said in a statement. "The use of these substances continues to raise issues regarding the game's integrity and raises serious concerns about the health and well-being of our players.
"I am aware the Major League Baseball Players Association is having its annual meeting with its Executive Board of player representatives next week. I urge the players and their association to emerge from this meeting ready to join me in adopting a new, stronger drug testing policy modeled after our minor league program that will once and for all rid the game of the scourge of illegal drugs."
The MLBPA declined to comment, as did Giambi and the Yankees, while the Giants referred all questions to the commissioner's office.
Yankees officials went directly to the commissioner's office on Thursday to weigh their options on how to rid themselves of Giambi's contract.
Testifying in the BALCO investigation, Giambi told the grand jury he obtained various steroids from Anderson and described how he used a syringe to inject a human growth hormone into his stomach and testosterone into his buttocks. Giambi said Anderson also gave him "the cream" and "the clear."
Giambi admitted to taking those steroids in 2003, when a knee injury led to a steep decline in his production. After batting .314, his first year in New York, Giambi finished at .250 in 2003.
This year, he developed a tumor of his pituitary gland and was limited to 80 games, as he hit .208.
If the Yankees decide to void the contract, they could cite Paragraph 3 (a), titled "Loyalty," which says, "The player agrees to perform his services hereunder diligently and faithfully, to keep himself in first-class physical condition and to obey the club's training rules and pledges himself to the American public and to the club to conform to high standards of personal conduct, fair play and good sportsmanship."
Orioles owner Peter Angelos threatened to use that clause to void Sidney Ponson's contract this year after Ponson reported to camp 15 pounds heavier than he did in 2003. Ponson started losing the weight and pitching better, so the Orioles backed away from their threat.
Naturally, the top lawyers in the players union would rise to Giambi's defense if the Yankees try to void his contract. Yesterday, a union source said he didn't think the Yankees would stand a chance if they tried.
For now, the decision would be based on Giambi's secret grand jury testimony, which is supposed to be sealed. But the Yankees could void the deal, forcing Giambi to sue them and take the stand to defend his training methods.
Partial text of the statement issued yesterday by baseball commissioner Bud Selig:
"As I have repeatedly stated, I am fully committed to the goal of immediately ridding our great game of illegal performance-enhancing substances. The use of these substances continues to raise issues regarding the game's integrity and raises serious concerns about the health and well-being of our players."