ABOUT TWO HOURS after news hit last Thursday that baseball's alltime home run champion was indicted on federal perjury and obstruction of justice charges, word broke that his successor to the record had agreed, with an air of humility, to the richest contract in baseball history. It was a historic day, on which baseball turned a corner wickedly fast. Unsigned and under indictment at age 43, Barry Bonds is likely finished in baseball with 762 home runs. Soon to be signed for 10 more years with the Yankees, Alex Rodriguez, at age 32 needs 245 home runs to render 762, however tainted already, obsolete. The record may fall sometime in the summer of 2013, just as the first Hall of Fame induction for which Bonds will be eligible goes off without him.
No sport likes to see one of its greatest players hauled into court. But given the controversy generated by Bonds, whose notoriety, record performance and active status made him the face of The Steroid Era, and given the four years of anticipation that preceded the indictment, baseball was not entirely displeased to see Bonds pass from its jurisdiction to that of the federal government. Anyone expecting commissioner Bud Selig to slap Bonds with a punishment similar to the one Jason Grimsley received—the former Diamondbacks pitcher was suspended for 50 games in 2006, less than a week after federal agents raided his house as part of an investigation into performance-enhancing drugs—is waiting in vain. Grimsley was an active player at the time. Bonds, baseball hopes, is yesterday's news, and he will not be disciplined by the commissioner's office. "We're thinking about him as a former player," said one baseball official. "The guy's radioactive. No [club] is going to touch him."
Had Bonds been indicted during the season, especially during his chase of Hank Aaron's 755 home runs, Selig would have been under pressure to act. (The eight players in the 1919 Black Sox scandal were suspended indefinitely upon their indictment in 1920.) Now with Bonds off the field and the special report into steroids by former senator George Mitchell expected before the end of the year, baseball believes The Steroid Era is being perceived by the public as a thing of the past, even if in truth the problem of performance-enhancing drugs is ongoing and increasingly complicated.
Bonds is scheduled to appear in court at 9:30 a.m. on Dec. 7, the start of what figures to be a long, costly legal battle. The indictment charges that Bonds perjured himself four times in front of a 2003 grand jury, referring to Bonds's claims that 1) he did not use steroids in 2000 and '01; 2) his trainer, Greg Anderson, or any other associate never injected him with drugs; 3) Anderson never gave him human growth hormone; and 4) he did not use the cream and the clear, the designer steroids from the BALCO lab, before the 2003 season. The obstruction of justice charge refers to what the government said is a pattern of giving knowingly false statements.
According to the indictment, "evidence was obtained including positive tests for the presence of anabolic steroids." The evidence includes what agents describe as a doping calendar for Bonds and a November 2000 test, apparently commissioned by BALCO, that came back positive for two anabolic steroids. The validity of that test figures to be a centerpiece of a trial.
Unlike Bonds, Rodriguez has never played under suspicion that his performance was enhanced by drugs, and he is not expected to be named as part of the Mitchell Report. The knock on Rodriguez was one of far less substance: that the 10-year, $252 million contract Texas gave him seven years ago made him a mercenary, a reputation his agent, Scott Boras, enhanced when he announced during Game 4 of the World Series that Rodriguez was opting out of that contract with the Yankees.
Hank Steinbrenner, son of Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, vowed New York would not pursue A-Rod as a free agent if he opted out. Steinbrenner so brilliantly outflanked Boras with his stance (and Boras so badly overestimated the market for his client) that Rodriguez—acting on the advice of his friend billionaire investor Warren Buffett, according to The Wall Street Journal—came crawling back without his agent, using two executives with the investment firm Goldman Sachs to reopen dialogue with Steinbrenner.
Rodriguez's initiative won him praise from Yankees fans and allows him to create a legacy in New York rather than jump to a fourth team in eight years. It also demonstrated his growth from 2000, when he wound up taking the money from Texas after negotiations between Boras and his first choice, the Mets, blew up. This time Rodriguez and his wife, Cynthia, who is expecting the couple's second child, stepped in and honored the roots they have put down in New York.
Rodriguez's popularity should soar with his decision, even if his new contract is hardly a concession. The Yankees would have been paying Rodriguez $50.7 million over the next three seasons if he hadn't ripped up his contract (the Rangers were responsible for $21.3 million plus $9 million in signing bonus money), so they effectively added a seven-year, $224.3 million extension.
Moreover, the Yankees are negotiating approximately $25 million in bonus money for Rodriguez to reflect the additional revenue he will generate if—or when—he chases and breaks Bonds's record. Let the anticipation (and the home run countdown) officially begin. As The United States of America v. Barry Lamar Bonds became a reality, so too did baseball officials' hopes for a new face of the game. In A-Rod they trust.
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"We're thinking of Bonds as a former player," said one official. "THE GUY'S RADIOACTIVE."
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN UELAND