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THE END . (OR JUST THE BEGINNING?)

The Baltimore Sun

Baseball was forced to confront its steroid nightmare four years ago when federal prosecutors subpoenaed Barry Bonds and other stars in their efforts to bust a San Francisco drug lab. In the time since, the city has remained the capital and Bonds the chief face of the game's drug problem.

But with the news Thursday that Bonds was indicted on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice, is baseball about to awaken to a better day? Or are the dual prospects of a Bonds trial and former senator George Mitchell's report on steroids enough to ensure many fitful times ahead?

No one thinks the steroid issue will disappear with Bonds, who holds one of sports' most hallowed records with 762 home runs.

But some observers think the worst drug sins are in the past and that once they are revealed, the game will be healthier.

"I think we're on the other side of the hill," former Major League Baseball commissioner Fay Vincent said.

Still, the Bonds saga must play out. Bonds faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted on all counts; his legacy has been damaged, as have his Hall of Fame chances.

Vincent regards the Bonds indictment as only tangentially related to baseball's drug problem. But he said he believes the Mitchell report, which is expected to be released before the end of the year, will be a bombshell and help the game reckon with a past that might have included hundreds of players abusing performance enhancers.

"I think the Mitchell report will drown this story out," he said. "I think it will tell us a lot about what went on."

What will also become apparent, Vincent said, is that baseball already is moving toward a better future under the stronger testing policy that took effect in 2005. Former Orioles vice president Jim Duquette, who previously spent 14 years in the New York Mets organization, agrees and welcomes the unveiling of the Mitchell report. While he called the indictment of Bonds a shame, he said he feels it could morph into a positive.

"I think it's a good day because it's a start of the kind of full disclosure that everybody's been looking for," said Duquette, who resigned from the Orioles last month. "To me, that plus the Mitchell investigation are the start of putting this whole cloud behind us. It's time to move forward. I view it as a positive, and I'm not even in the majority of people that think that Bonds is necessarily guilty right now. I'm in the category of we still need to wait to see the evidence, though it sure seems we're headed in that direction."

Though speculation about perjury charges against Bonds had swirled for more than a year, some in baseball were taken aback by Thursday's news.

"I don't think anybody can really be surprised to find out he lied about steroids, especially inside the game, but the fact that anybody would want to take it that far that they'd want to put him in jail, or the threat of putting in jail, that's a surprise," former Orioles catcher Rick Dempsey said.

"It's a black eye and a half," he said. "The guy just set the all-time home run record and then is indicted and maybe put in jail. Along with the O.J. [Simpson] thing and everything else that's going on in sports, baseball doesn't need this. That's really sad to hear."

For steroid watchdogs who have spent decades preaching about the proliferation of performance enhancers, the Bonds indictment was another sign that federal prosecutors take the issue seriously.

In the past year, federal officials had already busted an Internet steroid ring that allegedly included pharmacies in Orlando, Fla., and Birmingham, Ala., and cracked down on a pipeline of human growth hormone from China. In the Bonds proceedings, prosecutors took the unusual step of handing the case to a second grand jury after the first jury's 18-month term expired.

"I think this all shows the degree to which this is not just a drug-testing issue but a law enforcement issue," said Dr. Gary Wadler, a professor at New York University and a member of the committee that determines banned substances for the World Anti-Doping Agency. "And in that sense, it's encouraging."

Vincent agreed and said American society has begun to view steroids as a serious problem.

"I think there's a recognition of the wider cheating phenomenon and the lack of a national standard of right and wrong," he said. "We're moving in the right direction in that people are talking about the risks when you have 300-pound linemen in Division III football and Congress is looking at the dangers posed to high schools."

Polls have shown that most baseball fans already believe Bonds cheated, but Bonds biographer Jeff Pearlman said the indictment will solidify those feelings. He called the news a "sledgehammer to the head" for San Francisco fans who remained loyal to Bonds during his home run chase.

"How can you still support him at this point?" he wondered.

Vincent said he can't imagine fans being jolted by the indictment.

"I think the American public has already digested the Bonds trauma," he said. 'This doesn't taint his performance any more. It just deepens the color of the clouds."

Bonds' Hall of Fame case was a popular source of debate before the indictment. His offensive statistics rank among the best ever, but he has played under steroid suspicions for years.

Mark McGwire, who was a lesser player but never faced any tangible charges related to drugs, fell far short of entering the Hall on the first ballot this year. Many blamed his uncomfortable performance before a congressional panel on steroids in the game.

Vincent was reluctant to assess Bonds' chances when his legal fate is uncertain.

"But if I had to predict, I would say the indictment hurts his chances of being a first-ballot choice," the former commissioner said.

Duquette pointed out that it is a legitimate possibility that baseball's all-time home run king and its all-time hit leader - Pete Rose, who was given a lifetime ban for betting on baseball - will not be enshrined in Cooperstown.

But one thing that he was more sure of is that people probably have seen the last of Bonds in a major league uniform.

"I'm afraid that's the case, and I think it's a shame because in the past 15 to 20 years, he's been the best player in the game, bar none," Duquette said.

Bonds, who played the past 15 seasons with the San Francisco Giants, became a free agent after the season.

"He's such a lightning rod when he travels out of the San Francisco area, of boos and criticism. I just don't see how a general manager could convince his owner to bring in such a controversial figure," Duquette said. "He might be a box office draw, but for all the wrong reasons. I just don't even see the most renegade general manager or the renegade owner, like the Al Davis of baseball, going out on a plank and saying, 'Let's sign Barry Bonds.'"

Bonds' legal fate probably will remain in question for many months. He's scheduled to be arraigned in a San Francisco court Dec. 7 with a trial likely next year.

Whether commissioner Bud Selig would punish Bonds if he is convicted is also unclear. Selig said Thursday that he took the charges seriously and would follow the case, but he gave no other indications of what he's considering.

"I think you have to wait," Vincent said. "But I think it will be very difficult for baseball to punish him."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

Sun reporters Roch Kubatko and Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this article.

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