Commentary

Barry Bonds case moves toward end

Slugger's sentencing Friday all but closes book on sports' dark BALCO years

Updated: December 16, 2011, 10:23 AM ET
By Mark Fainaru-Wada | ESPN.com

SAN FRANCISCO -- When Barry Bonds goes before a federal judge Friday to be sentenced for obstructing justice -- more than eight years after he testified before a grand jury -- it finally will mark the close of the seemingly endless BALCO steroids saga.

Well, maybe.

Bonds, in fact, still can appeal his April 13 felony conviction, regardless of the sentence imposed by Judge Susan Illston when baseball's home run king appears in her courtroom Friday.

As well, the government technically remains able to re-file charges on three deadlocked counts stemming from Bonds' perjury and obstruction of justice trial this past spring. However, that seems unlikely given the amount of time, money, energy and even public disdain it has taken prosecutors to get to this point.

So basically this is the end, and for baseball, it has to have seemed like an eternity. Much has happened in -- and to -- the sport since Bonds spent three hours testifying at the Phillip Burton Federal Building on the afternoon of Dec. 3, 2003. From there, he became the central figure in a case that ultimately ushered performance-enhancing drugs into the consciousness of baseball fans from Fenway Park to Dodger Stadium. To recap, in part:

• Twelve MVPs have been implicated in the use of PEDs, the most recent being this year's National League award winner, Ryan Braun. (The Brewers' four-time All-Star outfielder has professed his innocence and is fighting a positive test that could result in a 50-game suspension.)

• Two Congressional hearings played out before national television audiences -- the first exposing Mark McGwire's record-breaking 1998 season as tainted, the second leaving seven-time Cy Young winner Roger Clemens facing charges he lied before Congress.

• The sport has ratcheted up its testing policy three times now, to the point it legitimately can claim the best anti-doping program in professional sports. (Of course, that's a hollow claim to many anti-doping experts, who believe cheaters remain well ahead of testers and who lament that baseball's policy, like the NFL's, has virtually no transparency.)

• The Mitchell report stands as a historical document, naming more than 80 players as possible drug cheats.

Barry Bonds
Justin Sullivan/Getty ImagesFormer Major League Baseball player Barry Bonds looks on as his attorney, Allen Ruby, speaks to members of the media as they leave federal court last spring after Bonds' perjury and obstruction of justice trial.

The players implicated or accused in the PED swirl over the past decade represent a startling list: McGwire, Clemens, Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, Manny Ramirez, Ken Caminiti, Jose Canseco, Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez, Juan Gonzalez, Miguel Tejada, Rick Ankiel, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, Gary Sheffield, Eric Gagne, Troy Glaus, David Justice, David Ortiz, Andy Pettitte, Mo Vaughn, and many more.

Bonds, though, remains the be-all, end-all in the narrative, a polarizing figure who transformed himself through chemistry from a clear Hall of Famer into one of the greatest players of all time, beginning around the turn of the century.

He emerged as the all-time home run leader, even as his legacy was crumbling amid the revelations of his steroid use. And it only became more complicated for him in November 2007 when prosecutors filed perjury and obstruction of justice charges, alleging Bonds had lied repeatedly about his steroid use during his 2003 testimony before the BALCO grand jury.

The Bonds perjury case finally went to trial in March, lasted 12 days and ended with a whimper -- the jury deadlocked on three counts that he lied to the grand jury about his use of steroids and human growth hormone and about whether he had ever been injected by anyone other than one of his doctors.

The jury did convict on the obstruction of justice charge, suggesting Bonds' often rambling and off-topic responses were part of an effort to mislead the grand jury investigation. Specifically, they cited a response to a question about whether he had ever received from his personal trainer, Greg Anderson, "anything that required a syringe to inject yourself with?"

Bonds offered a 235-word response that described the parameters of his friendship with Anderson, how he grew up as a "celebrity child, not just in baseball but by my own instincts," and the fact that "I have been married to a woman five years, known her 17 years, and I don't even know what's in her purse."

For that, now comes his judgment day. (Another will come one year from now when Bonds' name appears for the first time on a Hall of Fame ballot.) Friday almost certainly will bring one of two outcomes for Bonds: prison or probation with some home confinement.

The sentencing guidelines for his crime call for 15 to 21 months of imprisonment, according to court records. However, those same records suggest that the probation officer who wrote the pre-sentencing report (PSR) recommended no prison time for Bonds. The PSR calls for a "downward departure" from the guidelines because of four factors, including Bonds' philanthropic efforts.

"Most of Mr. Bonds' charitable and civic contributions, financial and otherwise, have taken place away from the public eye," wrote his attorneys. The lawyers also said the PSR suggested the conviction was an "aberration when taken in the context of his entire life."

[+] EnlargeSteroids
Al Bello/Getty ImagesThe sentencing of Barry Bonds all but ends his years-long performance-enhancing drugs saga.

Prosecutors, meanwhile, maintain Bonds should get 15 months in prison for his "calculated plan to obfuscate and distract the grand jury from its role in getting to the truth in the BALCO inquiry. … Bonds' pervasive efforts to testify falsely, to mislead the grand jury, to dodge questions, and to simply refuse to answer questions in the grand jury makes his conduct worthy of a significant jail sentence."

Judge Illston, though, will have the final word, and if her sentencing history is any indication, Bonds is unlikely to serve any prison time. Stemming from BALCO, Illston has heard four other similar, false-statement cases and has ordered no prison time in any of them. In the case of Marion Jones, the former Olympic queen was sentenced by a New York judge to six months in prison, but that was because she also was found guilty of lying to federal agents investigating a check-kiting scheme.

In the three other cases -- former NFL lineman Dana Stubblefield, former Olympic cyclist Tammy Thomas and track coach Trevor Graham -- Illston rejected prosecutors' requests for prison time. Stubblefield received two years' probation; Graham got a year of home confinement and five years' probation; and Thomas was given six months' home confinement along with five years' probation.

Thomas had been found guilty both of making false statements and obstructing justice, but Illston sent a message that seemed to portend well for Bonds when she denied prosecutors' attempts to send Thomas to prison for 30 months. In the BALCO case, Illston noted that the so-called mastermind of the operation, Victor Conte, got just four months in prison and four months of home confinement; Anderson, Bonds' trainer, got three months' prison, three of home confinement; and two other men were given straight probation.

"The drug dealers in this case, which are like, like the pushers in my view, who started this, got sentences much different than the sentence that's urged for Ms. Thomas," Illston said at Thomas' sentencing hearing in April 2008. "… I think it would be inconsistent with my obligations in sentencing to impose a sentence, for example, 10 times longer than Mr. Conte's sentence."

But whatever Illston decides, one thing appears clear: The BALCO investigation -- a federal probe that started with a tip to law enforcement in the summer of 2002 and emerged into one of the biggest sports scandals in history -- is finally about to end.

Mark Fainaru-Wada is an investigative reporter with ESPN's enterprise unit. He can be reached at markfwespn@gmail.com.