Baseball rascals

In the epic "Black Sox" scandal that broke late in the season of 1920, there would be a sensational trial a year later in Chicago that lit up the headlines all over the land.

The unhappy "eight men out" -- that infamous nucleus of the White Sox accused of fixing the 1919 World Series -- would of course be acquitted on criminal charges, which is largely forgotten. But Judge K. M. Landis, the bigoted cur then posing as commissioner of baseball, still banned them from the game, which he probably wouldn't be able to get way with nowadays.

Anyway, the point is that the whole thing took two years to happen, be revealed, get processed, then acted upon, and adjudicated. It was over and out in two years. Sure it's been well-remembered and well it should be for it was the greatest scandal in the history of sports -- all sport be it here, there or anywhere -- and a dreaded precedent that has pretty much contained the doctoring of games and their outcome at least by the people who play them professional in this country.

The Black Sox scandal was a monumental blight but it didn't haunt the game and those who played it endlessly thereafter, didn't call into question its most precious records and standards, didn't ruin careers by means of mere rumor or inference, didn't leave a whole generation of players suspect, maybe permanently.

All of that ugly stuff is the fallout of the steroid mess -- or more precisely, "the performance enhancement drugs" (PED) issue -- that has crunched the game of baseball over the last decade. While it's the biggest crisis Baseball has faced in contemporary times, it is not comparable or as grave a moral threat to the game that the Black Sox scandal was.

Sure the PED fiasco is all about "cheating" which always needs to be monitored and policed but can never be stamped out. And it's all about health issues and setting the proper example regarding the use of stimulants, though in a country as big and as complex as this one the role of Baseball in such weighty matters is necessarily small. As for the legal question it is hopelessly muddled and always has been. Nor did the game itself fully clarify where it stands on the matter until just four years ago.

The Barry Bonds' trial out in San Francisco was all about what Bonds might have known was going on at a Bay Area sports gym and laboratory he once patronized that allegedly distributed assorted "chemical goodies" to athletes seeking to get bigger, stronger and faster by juicing up. Originally, investigators were after the lab, not Bonds or any other specific athlete. But when the forever arrogant and unlovable Mr. Bonds appeared to give the grand jury what prosecutors suspected was a ''song and dance'' about what he saw and knew they hit him with obstruction of justice and felony charges.

In the trial just concluded Bonds was convicted of one charge of the former but the jury deadlocked on three charges of the latter. He could go to jail, but nobody believes that will happen. He could be re-tried but no one believes the gaggle of prosecutors involved -- which includes some hotshots from the U.S Justice Department led by a guy who thinks he's the Lone Ranger -- will go that far and if they do, it will be pretty dumb.

On the other hand law enforcement is getting a lot of juicy publicity out of this case and it's a lot easier going after Barry Bonds than it is going after hardened criminals who play with guns and do really nasty things like corrupt entire communities with their drug peddling. Some people think Law Enforcement has its priorities out of whack here but after three years of banging on this drum at a cost of several millions of taxpayer funding (no precise figure available) they keep banging away with no end in sight.

But then it's not been the Law that has brought Barry Bonds down as much as it's been Mr. Bonds himself with his egregious pride and insufferable arrogance along with a dash of the usual greed. Bonds has been his own worst enemy.

In 1998 Bonds was finishing up his 13th terrific season and it is utterly clear that to that point of his career he had been perfectly clean, never once stooping to debase himself by using any kind of drug to help him perform. In his unshakable belief in his own other-worldly skills he was much above that. At 34, he was a three-time MVP and the only player in baseball history to have more than 400 homers and 400 stolen bases while widely being considered the finest fielding left-fielder in the game's history. He was in splendid shape with many seasons left to pad his numbers and he was already a lock for the Hall of Fame.

But then in 1998 he had another of his routinely superior seasons -- batting. 303 with 37 homers, 122 RBI, 120 runs, 44 doubles and 28 stolen bases -- and nobody noticed. Because that was the year a pair of chemically bloated charlatans named Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa was conducting their bogus home run hitting contest enchanting all of baseball and charming the nation with the commissioner himself following them around like a little puppy dog as they were making a mockery of his game. It's easy to see now how pathetic it was but at the time it looked wonderful.

By all accounts, Bonds was furious. Like all the other smart guys in the game he knew precisely what Sosa and McGwire were up to. He probably even knew what their dosages were and he found it completely unfair that a couple of relative hotdogs were stealing his thunder and benefiting handsomely from doing so by doing things that were clearly unethical, if not illegal, while millions cheered and the people who ran the game smiled sweetly.

In a sense, Bonds snapped. For a man of his pride, arrogance and greed it was not something he could live with in all of its absurd contradiction. He in effect decided to beat them at their own game and of course he did; most emphatically, much to his eventual destruction.

Can one actually feel sorry for Barry Bonds? It would not be easy and maybe "sympathy" is not the right word for it. Put it this way. One can understand how he was driven to do what he did, however dumb.

Next up in this perverse game is Roger Clemens, erstwhile pal of Red Sox Nation which has totally turned on him and now delights in his misery. His trial on a charge of making false statements under oath begins July 6th in Washington. It could turn out to be a circus and a bigger embarrassment for baseball than the Bonds' business. Clemens' old friend Andy Pettitte, who was driven into retirement by the prospect, has already been subpoenaed to testify.

Like Bonds, Clemens only has himself to blame for his legal pickle. One can quibble -- and many surely do -- about Congress having nothing better to do than immerse itself in Baseball's PED's predicament. But only a spoiled and stubborn jock man-child like the silly old Rocket could believe he could march up to Capitol Hill and expect the nation's lawmakers to roll over and salute every fool thing he said without question.

The astonishing demise of Manny Ramirez who fled from the game on a moment's notice when he learned the PED Police were about to nail him for a second time is yet another element in the equation begging to be explained. Nor is the fact that Manny is inscrutable sufficient.

Who is next? That is the question. Will it be any of the 104 lads on that 2003 secret "Cheater's List" who haven't yet been identified? Will it be all of them? When will the bloody hammer drop? And who will drop it?

There's just no end in sight to baseball's nightmare.