March 31, 2011, 8:30 PM
Dope and GloryBy TIMOTHY EGAN
SAN FRANCISCO — Opening Day of the major league baseball season finds Barry Bonds in criminal court, with the bloated head, a passel of lawyers and testimony about how steroids shrink one part of a man but inflate another.
The spectacle in windowless Courtroom 10 is as tawdry as a spring day on fresh-cut grass is lovely. A few days ago, a former mistress of the home run king testified that his testicles shrank and he experienced what used to be called “loss of essence.”
Another day it was an equipment manager saying, yes, his head did expand in size. This was followed by four players saying they took performance-enhancing drugs linked to Bonds’s former trainer.
All of this is to determine whether Bonds lied to a grand jury about taking steroids while clubbing more home runs than any man ever to play in the bigs. His lawyers claim he did the supplements, but didn’t know what they were. Sort of like what half the baseball world chose to believe during the sport’s equivalent of the housing bubble.
For a fan in need of a fantasy outlet, it’s much better to focus this weekend on the Rams from Virginia Commonwealth. They are in college basketball’s Final Four for all the reasons that Bonds long ago stopped experiencing. If they win it all by Monday, according to the estimable Nate Silver’s modeling, they will become the one — as in 1-in-17,611 chance. Only two people among nearly 6 million correctly picked this Final Four in the ESPN bracket challenge.
On the best days — and Opening Day is one of them — we love sports for the improbable. Everything else in life seems rigged or routine. Those kids from Virginia were not even supposed to be in the tournament — they had to play a “prove it” game just to get into the 68-team dance. Then, they beat University of Southern California, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas to make the Final Four.
One story among many shines from the rise of the Rams: their five-foot-10-inch guard, Joey Rodriguez, said he would probably be working at Home Depot now had Coach Shaka Smart not persuaded him to come back and chase the dream for another year.
By contrast, there is the surly Bonds, who gives nothing to a fan. He has said that the last time he “played” baseball, instead of getting paid to work at the game, was in college. During his joyless march to erase Hank Aaron’s home run record, everyone was in on the charade. He looked the part of an aging athlete who made a pact with his chemist, and played the charmless antihero that jaded lovers of the game find appealing.
This Federal courtroom has heard testimony about “wife cities” and “girlfriend cities” — a place like Miami for the mistress and a less exotic locale for the one who wears the ring. And just how did Bonds finally break up with his mistress, Kimberly Bell? “He told me to disappear,” she testified. Also, he threatened “to cut my head off and leave me in a ditch,” she said.
His trial will not answer the big questions, nor make peace with an ugly past. Why did the baseball nation look the other way while Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa and Alex Rodriguez did the unfathomable? Why did we let idols cheat for so long? The answer, in large part, is in the stands, where it can cost $200 for a family ritual.
The jury here, dressed in West Coast casual, looks alternately bored and riveted. They glance at Bonds, who yawns during the technical testimony, appears fidgety at other times. The glare of high ceiling lights reflects off his shiny bald head, the size of which has already been subject to much expert testimony. Outside of the batter’s box, he could be just another 46-year-old man in need of a nap.
You can wonder if this is the best use of Federal prosecutors, since Bonds, if found guilty, stands to do only a few months’ jail time for perjury, based on prior convictions in this area.
Still to come is Roger Clemens, one of the best ever to throw a baseball, facing charges of perjuring himself before Congress. And Lance Armstrong, the best ever to ride a bike, is a target of a federal grand jury looking at the shadows of doping in cycling.
Bonds and Clemens are hard to love. But Armstrong — that’s a tougher case, even though he too is no family-values role model. He beat cancer, and then got back in the saddle and won one of the most grueling contests in all of sports, repeatedly. His book “It’s Not About the Bike” is a great read, far beyond the quality of the genre.
Whenever I start to drag while slogging up a long hill on my bike, I think of Armstrong beating the Italians in the mountains. As a fighter for cancer patients, he’s circulated more than 70 million Livestrong wristbands.
But some former associates say he cheated, a charge he has repeatedly denied.
This Opening Day, there’s a brighter sports story — just down Market Street from this grim Federal courthouse. The Giants of San Francisco are defending a World Series title. Their ace is Tim Lincecum, a lithe man-boy who looks all of 16 years old, and gets torque for his fastball from a routine his dad taught him back in Seattle. He’s the anti-Bonds, and not just because he’s skinny enough to slip through a sewer grate if he doesn’t watch it.
There’s a saying about myths of the American West, and it applies to sports as well: when truth and legend collide, print the legend. With Bonds, truth from a courtroom may help us see the phony mythology that came out of a down-and-dirty era.
With a straw-thin Giants pitcher and those unlikely hoopsters from Virginia Commonwealth, the truth is the legend — something to believe in on Opening Day.