- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Barry Bonds will find out Friday whether he will go to prison for his conviction in the BALCO steroids case. The feeling in legal circles is he won’t, though prosecutors still hope a federal judge will see things their way and put him behind bars for up to 15 months.

That Bonds is a convicted felon should be victory enough for the investigators and attorneys who built the case against him. They finally got the biggest name in baseball, a slugger whose home run totals seemed to rise exponentially with the size of his head.

That they didn’t get Bonds for actually using steroids doesn’t really matter. His conviction on an obstruction of justice count wrapped a tidy bow on the entire BALCO investigation, nearly a decade after a determined investigator began digging into garbage cans outside of Victor Conte’s Bay Area offices.

Now Bonds will stand before a federal judge in the same city where he hit so many of his massive home runs and get his punishment. Not for cheating the game of baseball but for playing games with a grand jury investigating his use of the “cream” and the “clear.”

It’s a good time to declare the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative case officially closed. An even better time to declare the steroid era in baseball finally over.

If only it were that easy.

The startling revelation that reigning National League MVP Ryan Braun tested positive for a banned substance isn’t just evidence that baseball’s toughened drug testing is working. It’s evidence that _ assuming the test is accurate _ players are still trying to get better through modern science.

Hard to blame them. The payoffs for a few more home runs are so great that it has to be tempting for almost any player to take a chance on performance-enhancing drugs and hope testing doesn’t nail them.

Yes, things have changed since Bonds testified before a federal grand jury investigating steroid distribution in 2003, when baseball had just announced the start of testing with penalties for steroid use.

But, more than two decades after players first started juicing, they’re still at it. The threat of regular testing and lengthy suspensions hasn’t eliminated the use of PEDs, even while anecdotal evidence seems to show steroid use is declining.

Braun’s case is somewhat shocking if only because he was one of the few power hitters in recent times who hadn’t come under suspicion. Though he has unusual bat speed, he’s not particularly muscular or bloated like most of the cheating sluggers we have seen over the years. About the only thing he would seem to have in common with Bonds is an ability to hit long home runs and score big contracts _ $141.5 million over the next nine years for Braun from the Milwaukee Brewers.

Though Major League Baseball does not confirm initial positive tests until the arbitration process is complete, ESPN cited two sources as saying he tested positive for elevated levels of testosterone. A later test by the World Anti-Doping Agency lab in Montreal determined that the testosterone was synthetic, the network reported.

A spokesman for Braun denies it all and says the slugger was outraged by what he believes is a false positive test. The player’s union also weighed in on his behalf, cautioning against a “rush to judgment” until the process plays out. And Brewers owner Mark Attanasio praised Braun as “a model citizen in every sense of the word” and “a person of character and integrity.”

Whatever. A lot of people supported Bonds, too, even when logic told them it was impossible to hit 73 home runs in a season while playing in a pitcher’s ballpark.

Braun’s positive test had to be particularly embarrassing to baseball, even if commissioner Bud Selig no longer owns the Brewers. It came just a few weeks after Braun was voted National League MVP and after a season in which just two players _ Manny Ramirez and Colorado catcher Eliezer Alfonzo _ were suspended for using performance-enhancing substances.

Still, a sport that had to be dragged kicking and screaming into any kind of testing is now leading the way in trying to keep players clean. There are harsh penalties for getting caught _ Braun will be suspended 50 games if his test is upheld _ and there soon will be blood testing for HGH in spring training and the offseason.

That doesn’t mean players won’t keep trying to cheat. They will, because the rewards are still greater than the risks.

Credit Jeff Novitzky and his fellow BALCO investigators for at least trying to stem the tide. At a time when baseball and its union were paralyzed by the issue of steroids, they attacked from the legal front and ultimately may have saved the game from itself.

Surely, U.S. District Judge Susan Illston will take that into consideration when the BALCO era comes to an end with the sentencing of its poster child. But there’s something else she should be thinking about, too.

Watching Bonds hit mammoth home runs undoubtedly led others to use steroids.

Watching him get sent to prison might lead a new generation of players to think twice.


Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or https://twitter.com/timdahlberg

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