- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants start a three-game series with the Washington Nationals tonight at RFK Stadium. This is the only clear and certain aspect of Bonds’ future. It gets real foggy beyond the next curve.

He says he wants to play next year, but will he? And for whom? Will Bonds, likely the greatest player of his time and certainly the most controversial, be indicted by a federal grand jury? Will his trainer, Greg Anderson, turn on Bonds the way Bonds used to turn on a fastball? If that happens, would Major League Baseball suspend him?

So many questions. And here’s another: What is Bonds’ eventual place in baseball history?

It’s probably time to start asking. He turned 42 yesterday, has battled injuries and had surgeries the last two seasons. Somewhere in the fog, nearby, lies the finish line. And beyond that is posterity.

What will posterity say?

“I would put him in a category with [Babe] Ruth and [Ted] Williams and [Willie] Mays,” said Tim Wiles, research director for the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. “The numbers put him in that category.”

The key numbers are seven, for his record MVP awards, and 722, his career home run total, second only to Hank Aaron’s 755. But the numbers tell just part of the story and maybe not the biggest part.

Even with the legal issues related to the BALCO case unresolved and his indictment on perjury and income tax evasion charges up in the air, there is Bonds’ purported but well-documented use of steroids and other performance-enhancing substances. Most observers, including fans, believe it to be a fact despite his repeated denials. This muddies everything.

“I’m not sure there’s gonna be one universal perception of his place in history,” ESPN commentator and former New York Mets general manager Steve Phillips said. “With Bonds, you’ll have people at both ends of the spectrum and everywhere in-between.”

Said baseball historian and author John Thorn: “People have to bring their own personal interpretation to the historical record.”

What will that be? The careers of Ruth, Williams, Mays, Aaron, Joe DiMaggio and Jackie Robinson and the other great ones are easy to interpret. Some carried baggage, but their careers stood alone and ultimately spoke for them.

Even Ty Cobb sort of gets a pass. Sure, he was a nasty son-of-a-gun and a racist to boot, but could he hit. Pete Rose was ostracized from the game for gambling as a manager. As a player, he remains Charlie Hustle, the all-time hits leader. In the end, it’s all about baseball.

As a player, Bonds is among the greatest. But he presents a historical challenge perhaps unprecedented in this or any other sport. No one as good has been caught up in something as bad. What to do with him after he retires?

“I’m afraid it’s a complicated, bungled legacy that he will leave,” said Thorn, whose statistical bible, “Total Baseball,” is among his many works.

“For historians, it’s a picnic,” Thorn said. “The more complicated the story, the better we like it.”

This is complicated, all right. History? What about right now? While many still cheer Bonds, it is unlikely that so talented a player ever has been booed as lustily, with such passion and rancor.

“You can’t exclusively look at him as a great player without some thought of all the accusations and the cloud of suspicion,” Phillips said. “When you think of Bonds, you think of the numbers, and you also think of the suspicions.”

Some believe it’s too early to make any judgments.

“You have to let time take its toll,” said Jerome Holtzman, a veteran sportswriter honored by the Hall of Fame and the official MLB historian. “You have to let history play out.”

But, he added, “As time goes by, his time with drugs, or whatever you want to call it, will diminish. The home runs will remain.”

If published reports are to be believed, it was the home runs, specifically the ones hit by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa during their epic 1998 chase of Roger Maris’ single-season record, that led Bonds down the illegal path of performance enhancing substances — which may have led to some incredible seasons.

For Thorn, Bonds’ home runs remain.

“His place in history is secure,” he said.

“Even if you argue that somehow his numbers are inflated as if they were blown up by balloon and he made himself larger, you look at the years before that; he was a lock for the Hall of Fame,” Thorn said. “Yes, he was a great player. Was he the best player in the history of the world? No.

“But I’m the last one to jump on the train and run him out of town. Just because you’re a celebrity doesn’t mean you should be deprived of your rights as a U.S. citizen. … Did he hit more home runs because he took steroids? I think it’s debatable. You may not think it’s debatable he took steroids, but it seems to me this is a matter for a court of law. Let’s proceed accordingly, not by innuendo and not by the press.”

Others are not so judicious, which shows just how tricky this is.

“We have more than enough [evidence] on Bonds,” said Harvey Frommer, another historian and writer. He additionally called Bonds “tarnished goods” and said he has “a soiled image.”

Bonds’ records, said Frommer, “are suspect.”

Frommer said he believes Bonds’ sins to be more egregious than those of Joe Jackson, one of the eight Chicago “Black Sox” suspected (but never convicted in court) of fixing the 1919 World Series. Jackson, one of the game’s great hitters, was banned from baseball by commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis and remains absent from the Hall of Fame.

“Bonds is definitely worse,” Frommer said. “Jackson was a scapegoat. With Bonds, there is evidence he took steroids. … He is a major embarrassment.”

One of the ultimate statements about Bonds’ legacy will be made when he becomes eligible for the Hall of Fame, five years after he retires. Does he get in on the first ballot? Does he get in at all?

Considering those numbers of his, it is incredible that it’s even an issue.

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