Lying game

The Baltimore Sun

The final act of the most farcical bit of modern-day sports theater begins with the all-time home run king finally under federal indictment. We don't need to wait for the curtain to rise to realize that the set has changed. The backdrop is no longer a baseball diamond or a locker room. In fact, you could safely suggest that this script moved beyond the sports world long ago.

News that Barry Bonds has been charged with four counts of perjury and one count of obstruction of justice reaches well beyond the sports pages. That was clear yesterday afternoon when the Bush administration raced to the nearest tape recorder to go on record: "The president is very disappointed to hear this," Bush spokesman Tony Fratto said. "As this case is now in the criminal justice system, we will refrain from any further specific comments about it. But clearly this is a sad day for baseball."

Indeed a sad day for baseball; a victorious one, though, for the politically entrenched posse that pursued Bonds over the past four years, never even letting the bloodhounds stop for water.

Before we put both feet through this looking-glass of absurdity, let's go on record with a few things: Bonds is more likely a jerk, not a pariah. I have few doubts that he cheated baseball, baseball fans and baseball's record books. Because of that, I was as eager as the next guy to see him caught. I wanted him exposed in baseball's courtroom for his crimes against the game. The charade that has been played out by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of California is hardly a satisfying substitute.

Catching Bonds is a symbolic victory - for prosecutors, for baseball, for the president - but ultimately, it's also an empty one.

Four years is a long time. Maybe you can justify chasing a mob boss, a corrupt politician or a dirty CEO for that kind of time. But an egomaniacal ballplayer who just wanted to hit a baseball farther than anyone else?

Consider this: The longest-running grand jury investigation into clerical abuse ran for three years. It revealed hundreds of children had been abused by 63 priests over a 35-year period. With yesterday's indictment, in four years' time, all we've learned is that Bonds isn't the best role model and he might not be very truthful. That's not a good return on our investment. In fact, I suspect if you devoted four years to similarly focused crusades, we might learn that much of corporate America, a good chunk of the legal world and many of our elected officials are guilty of similar character crimes.

Because this one is so steeped in questionable intentions, it's worth returning to the beginning and remembering the case has rarely been about sports. Kevin Ryan was the U.S. attorney when the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative case broke in 2002 and was the lead prosecutor until his resignation earlier this year. Ryan is a friend of the president's, a loyal Republican. He was nominated by Bush in 2002, and it's no shock that a month after Bonds spoke to the grand jury in December 2003, the president railed against steroid use in his State of the Union speech. Bonds never stood a chance.

Until yesterday, the investigation had managed to mete out just a smidgen of prison time for supporting cast members, plus some autocratic bullying of a couple of pesky reporters. But now they've got their man. Bonds was charged with four counts of perjury and one count of obstruction of justice. Sound a bit familiar?

It was just eight months ago that Scooter Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, was convicted on four counts of making false statements, perjury and obstruction of justice. But Libby didn't serve any time. The president commuted his sentence.

So what makes Bonds different? From the beginning, Bonds wasn't targeted like any ol' baseball player. And we could presume that he's not about to be treated like any ol' liar either. In the past four years, we've seen other steroid users forgiven. San Diego Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman missed a quarter of the 2006 NFL season after a positive test. Just last month, he was named cover athlete for EA Sports NFL Tour arcade game.

Former Sen. George Mitchell will soon release his report, the result of a 19-month investigation into drug abuse in baseball, which promises to unleash a flood of names who dirtied a needle and soiled a game. Even then, don't expect the spotlight to shift from Bonds. His biggest mistake? Breaking a record. And maybe not looking quite enough like Scooter Libby.

Four years later, Bonds is still the cheater who matters most, and from the get-go, they were going to get him any way they could. He deserved to be exposed as a cheat; it's a shame he's now being cast as a sympathetic figure.

The details and verdicts of any criminal proceeding should spin around the basic tenet of justice. Can anyone suggest with a straight face that justice is being served to Bonds? Perhaps symbolically.

In my eyes, Bonds' biggest crime has always been abusing a system that hinged on trust and rules. Perhaps it's somewhat fitting that a similar abuse of a similar system brought about his downfall. Or perhaps that's just another indictment altogether.

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