With peers, mostly praise for Bonds

The Baltimore Sun

For the eclectic masses that make up America, defining the legacy of San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds is a challenge. Is he cheating pariah, baseball royalty, the quintessential spoiled athlete or a combination of all of the above?

To most of the men who play the game at the highest level, however, Bonds is a co-worker and peer. Consequently, to most major leaguers, Bonds is an absolute marvel.

"In my mind, he is the best player of the modern era," Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder and former Oriole Eric Byrnes said. "I think Babe Ruth is the best player of all time, but for my generation and for what I have seen ... Barry Bonds is the best player by far."

How good is Bonds? And how amazing is the record 756 home run plateau he is nearing?

Put it this way: Even the active player with the second-most career home runs is in awe of Bonds.

"I remember a lot of people saying that they played with Babe Ruth or other legends that were the best in their era," said Texas Rangers designated hitter and former Oriole Sammy Sosa, fifth all-time with 604 home runs. "Well, in my era right now, I can say I had the opportunity to play with Barry Bonds and to see how good of a player he is. He may not be friendly to a lot of people, but to me he is a hero."

There is irony in Sosa's adulation.

According to the book Game of Shadows, Bonds' alleged dalliance with performance-enhancing drugs began after the 1998 season - when Sosa, then of the Chicago Cubs, and the St. Louis Cardinals' Mark McGwire staged a nation-enthralling dual assault on Roger Maris' single-season home run record of 61.

It overshadowed another consistently strong season by Bonds, who, according to the expose written by two San Francisco Chronicle reporters, decided he needed to look into performance enhancers to keep up with the surging sluggers.

Three years later, Bonds became the single-season home run king, hitting 73 to pass McGwire's 70 and Sosa's 66.

But when federal investigators began probing into the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, to which Bonds was linked, and Bonds' subsequent grand jury testimony was leaked to the Chronicle, his reputation and accomplishments became suspect in the court of public opinion.

Now, as he is likely about to pass Hank Aaron's record of 755 homers, Bonds has become one of the most scrutinized athletes in the world. Many major leaguers say that is unfair. "They have tried everything to bring him down," Sosa said, "but he is still on the mountain."

Major leaguers cite that Bonds, unlike former Oriole Rafael Palmeiro, has never failed a drug test. And, no matter the evidence uncovered by Game of Shadows, he has never been charged with or convicted of anything. So, his peers say, he needs to be left alone.

"He hasn't been proven guilty, and I think he should be celebrated," Minnesota Twins center fielder Torii Hunter said. "Hank Aaron should be there. [Commissioner] Bud Selig should be there. Everybody should be there when he breaks that record. You prove that he is guilty, that is different."

Few players have spoken out publicly against Bonds and his pursuit of the record, partially because Major League Baseball is a large fraternity and because players consciously try to avoid talking about the steroids issue.

But even a tight-knit community such as the majors mirrors the country as a whole. There have been dissenters echoing the feelings of fans who feel duped by the so-called Steroids Era.

In May 2006, then-Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Cory Lidle said that if Bonds broke Aaron's record, it would "be a shame."

"I'm not a player hater," Lidle said several months before he died in a plane crash in New York. "I like to see players get paid as much as they can. But without ... cheating."

More recently, outspoken Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling ripped Bonds for a multitude of transgressions.

"I mean, he admitted he used steroids. I mean, there's no gray area," Schilling said this season. "He admitted cheating on his wife, cheating on his taxes and cheating on the game. ... There's good people and there are bad people. It's unfortunate that it's happening the way it's happening."

Some, however, such as Giants play-by-play broadcaster Jon Miller, say the original facts of the grand jury testimony in the BALCO case have been distorted so much that comments such as Schilling's are accepted without scrutiny.

But Miller said he pored over the original leaked testimony and contends Bonds never admitted to using steroids purposely or inadvertently - as is often reported. Bonds, Miller said, told the grand jury he used flaxseed oil and arthritis balm given to him by his trainer. Those substances, federal investigators believe, were topical steroid solutions known as "the cream" and "the clear," but Bonds never confirmed that connection, Miller said.

"I think that part of the coverage of Barry has been unfair," said Miller, who offered a solution to the "gray area" surrounding steroid use:

"I want everybody who played in the last 20 years to be put under oath and go before a grand jury or Congress. Every one of them. I want them to be asked if they used performance enhancers. And then I want all of the testimony be made public."

One player with a unique perspective is former Orioles reliever Steve Kline, who is in his second year with the Giants. He has played with the Mount Rushmore of accused steroid users: Bonds, McGwire (2001 in St. Louis) and Sosa and Palmeiro (2005 with the Orioles).

Because Palmeiro failed a drug test, Kline said, it is difficult to defend him. As for McGwire and Sosa, "they saved baseball in 1998, and now they are getting witch hunts."

But Bonds is in a class by himself on the field and in the public eye, Kline said. "There's been more of a witch hunt for him than there was for anybody else," he said.

Of the four sluggers, Kline was closest to McGwire. But he said the Bonds he has known since 2006 is much friendlier to his teammates than the media has portrayed.

"He is great. He is nice to all the players," Kline said. "He likes to yell and have fun. But when the media comes out, he doesn't say a word. He kind of just does his thing and gets prepared for the game."

Most major leaguers see Bonds for his incomparable talent and his accomplishments. The negatives get brushed aside.

"Of course, [steroids] should matter," Byrnes said. "But I think baseball and its fans should recognize this for what it is, the greatest record in any sport. And it is about to be broken, so I think it is important baseball recognizes that."

The players are observing Bonds and his pursuit with great interest.

"You want to watch it. It may never happen again," Cleveland Indians outfielder Grady Sizemore said. "The home run record is talked about more than any other stat in baseball in any other category. So I am excited to see it happen."

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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