From the start, it was as clear as "the clear" that the feds were only after one man. It was obvious the Bush administration wanted to slap one big, bad face on its campaign to clean up steroid abuse in sports. After all, that dartboard face belongs to the easiest target this side of Osama.
Most fans already consider Barry Bonds an arrogant jerk. Most people outside the Bay Area view him as a muscled-up monster wielding a war club. THG, the name of a new, undetectable steroid, might as well have stood for That Hated Godzilla.
All along, federal agents and prosecutors whispered to reporters that they had enough evidence to take down the San Francisco Giant. Stand-up-in-court evidence. Go-to-jail-for-perjury evidence that Bonds routinely received anabolic steroids supplied by indicted BALCO founder Victor Conte to Bonds' indicted trainer and friend, Greg Anderson.
So for months, reporters anticipated a BALCO trial just before the presidential election. Sure, the Bush administration would turn it into one last political baseball with which to knock some Bonds-hating voters off the fence. But the election came and went without so much as a trial date being set.
However, that didn't plug the illegal leaks to the media. Last week, the biggest bombshell was dropped by the San Francisco Chronicle, right on Bonds' head. The newspaper printed what was supposed to be his sealed testimony to the BALCO grand jury.
That's when this became as clear as shattered glass: The feds have decided their evidence will get them no farther than the court of public opinion. And in that runaway jury of an arena, Bonds quickly was convicted and sentenced to life in baseball's Hall of Shame.
Surely the feds knew exactly what they were doing. They tossed a match in a bone-dry forest of squawk-show hosts and fans dying to bury Bonds. Within hours, most people had leaped, or been yanked, to this conclusion: Bonds finally admitted he uses steroids!
Talk about a crime.
The feds knew most people wouldn't let the facts get in their way. Most people want to believe Bonds' body is chiseled in steroids. But nobody seems to have any of that case-building fuel called proof.
Understand, you're talking to a columnist who has been as publicly suspicious of Bonds' pumped-up physique as any member of the media. Since Bonds hit his record 73 home runs in 2001, I've written that it's virtually impossible to pack on 30 or so pounds of lean muscle mass in your mid-30s -- when the body's muscle-building testosterone naturally wanes -- without some help from performance-enhancing drugs. But I've always concluded that I can't know for sure because, to this day, I have not witnessed Bonds ingesting or injecting steroids and I'm not aware of a single person beyond the shady Anderson (or Bonds himself) who can provide evidence that Bonds "juiced."
But let's be as clear as a magnifying glass about exactly what Bonds told the grand jury. He did not tell them what Jason Giambi told them, according to testimony leaked to the Chronicle the day before the Bonds bombshell. Giambi admitted he had been buying and using traditional black-market steroids and human growth hormone long before he approached Bonds' trainer for tips on how to maintain the physical edge Bonds has sustained through his late 30s.
That, Giambi testified, was when Anderson recommended he use the two forms of THG. "The clear" could be taken orally. "The cream" could be rubbed into the skin like ointment.
Remember, the athletes who testified before the grand jury were granted immunity -- as long as they told the truth. They do not have immunity from perjury.
Yet Bonds told the grand jury basically the same story that his former friend Gary Sheffield did. Sheffield said he trusted Anderson because Bonds had known him since high school, when Bonds and Anderson had been teammates. Sheffield said that, after training with Bonds one offseason, he briefly used some stuff Anderson had recommended. Only later, he said, did he find out it was THG.
True or not, that's a plausible story.
Bonds said he was so run-down following the death of his father during the 2003 season that Anderson recommended a "rubbing balm." Bonds said Anderson compared it to "flaxseed oil." Bonds said it did nothing for him and that he soon stopped using it.
Again, a plausible story.
Yes, reportedly, Anderson kept records of Bond's THG use dating back to 2001. And yes, the feds leaked a phone call they taped of Anderson boasting to an unidentified acquaintance about the steroid program he had designed for Bonds. Yet an ESPN "Outside the Lines" report portrayed Anderson as little more than a small-time pusher who sold and used steroids.
It's certainly possible that Bonds is guilty only of trusting the wrong "friend." It's possible Anderson, in the taped call, was merely trying to impress a buddy with exaggerated claims that he created Barry Bonds, robo-slugger. I must admit: It is still possible that Bonds, with the all-time great genetics passed down from his father Bobby, a five-tool star, was able to turn himself into a late-30s record-breaker by taking nothing more than legal supplements and eating and training with severe discipline.
This, remember, isn't track and field. That sport long ago ruled out the "I didn't know" defense from athletes who tested positive. In international track and field, competitors are held solely responsible for what they put into their bodies. The dog cannot eat their homework.
But baseball remains in its steroid-abusing infancy. This is the first time star players have claimed they were duped into using performance-enhancers. This was a "designer" steroid that didn't require a needle and syringe. Hypothetically, if Anderson had said, "Hey, just try shooting this stuff in your butt," Bonds surely would have been more suspicious.
Bonds and Sheffield could become baseball's first cautionary tales -- and the last players given a reprieve for not finding out exactly what they were putting into their bodies.
Either way, I need proof.
I've spent enough time around Bonds to tell you he's a maddeningly elusive blend of naive and sly. There's the Bonds who was born with a Silver Slugger in his mouth, the privileged son of a star and the godson of a superstar, Willie Mays. Barry Lamar Bonds was spoiled rotten and often shielded from an outside world he was taught not to trust. He can be blindly, childishly loyal to the few in his inner circle he thinks are his friends.
But Barry Bonds, baseball player, is as wise as a serpent. He's the first hitter who has ever had the advantage over most pitchers because he knows them better than they know themselves. Because of a long-ago injury, he's still allowed to wear a hard-plastic protector on the arm exposed to the pitcher. But would he resort to, say, using a corked bat? No way. Too proud. Too good.
To using steroids? I can't be sure.
Bonds was taught by his father to despise the media. He has admitted to reporters that "you guys shouldn't believe half the stuff I tell you." But does that prove he lied when he told HBO's Bob Costas in 2002 that he "has never used" steroids?
Giambi didn't incriminate Bonds. No other player did, that we know. In interviews with ESPN The Magazine and ABC's "20/20," Conte ratted out sprinters Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery -- and in turn incriminated himself, much to his lawyers' shock. But Conte admitted only to supplying Anderson with THG. Conte said he had no idea if Anderson was giving it to "Barry or Gary."
Several Bay Area media members I respect -- guys who knew Bobby Bonds -- believe Barry was taught far too much respect for the game to stoop to steroids. For sure, he's the most gifted player I've seen. No hitter has ever been more disciplined or made consistently better contact while swinging with such perfect balance and mechanics at so few pitches. For me, Bonds is in a league with Michael Jordan for performing on cue. The more Bonds has been criticized, the mentally tougher he has become under pressure.
You can argue that steroids might have boosted Bonds' confidence and made his trigger a little quicker, allowing him a split-second longer to recognize a pitch. But he would have had my Hall of Fame vote before he got big.
And while it might not be probable, it's still possible Bonds jumped from 49 homers in 2000 to 73 the next season simply because he discovered the late-career wonders of nutrition, supplements and weight-training. It's also possible he has perjured himself and will go to jail.
But spring training draws nearer without anything but leaks.
Bonds will still pack The House that Barry Built -- SBC Park. A Bonds at-bat will remain the most riveting moment in sports. People who wouldn't have watched before will want to see how far those "mutant muscles" can send a ball into the bay.
And for the rest of my days, I might wonder if, just maybe, Barry Bonds was wrongly convicted in the court of public opinion.
Skip Bayless joined ESPN after a career as a sports columnist that includes stops in Miami, Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago and San Jose. He can be seen Monday through Friday on "Cold Pizza," ESPN2's morning show, and at 4 p.m., ET, on ESPN's "1st & 10." His column will appear weekly on Page 2. You can e-mail Skip here.