Stand and Deliver

Commissioner Bud Selig knows that his legacy may be defined by the way he handles Barry Bonds. His next moves will be telling
March 20, 2006

While thebaseball world moved quickly to question the legacy of Barry Bonds in the wakeof his portrayal as a serial steroid user in the book Game of Shadows (SI,March 13), the revelations immediately brought the professional reputation ofanother man into sharp focus: Allan H. (Bud) Selig, the commissioner ofbaseball and the man who presided over the Steroid Era. Because of Shadows,Selig must finally deal with Bonds. For all the good Selig has sowed--the wildcard, interleague play, revenue sharing, the first labor deal without a workstoppage, the growth of advanced media such as MLB.TV and the coolstraight-out-of-the-box World Baseball Classic (page 109)--his term will bedefined by what he does with Bonds, just as Fay Vincent's was by GeorgeSteinbrenner, Bart Giamatti's was by Pete Rose, and Judge Landis's was by theBlack Sox.

Selig chafes atthe criticism that he and his fellow owners were steroid enablers, prodded toactivism only by external forces such as the SI special report steroids inbaseball (June 3, 2002), the '03 raid of BALCO and the '05 congressionalhearings. Shadows is Selig's latest wake-up call--and the chance for someonewho as recently as last month claimed there was nothing to investigate to provehe has the backbone to make the difficult calls. For a commissioner who leadsby consensus, the need for such conviction does not play to his strength.Indeed, Selig's first public response to the Bonds bombshell fell flat. Hecracked jokes like a bad lounge act during a news conference last week, showingnone of his trademark anguish and not once admitting honest concern. He couldnot bring himself to spit out the word investigation and barely managed tocough up review. Even by Selig standards, the obliqueness in the face of acrisis was uninspiring.

Those close toSelig, however, say he is deeply troubled by the revelations, especially givenhis meeting with Bonds in 2004 in which he warned the slugger of direconsequences if his denials were insincere. Well, we will find out. Selig saidhe will vet the information and sources in Shadows. At some point Selig mustaddress the findings; he either acts decisively or risks being forever regardedas soft on steroids.

It seems highlyunlikely that Selig would not conclude what any other reasonable reader ofShadows would: that it is built on a solid basis of truth. The book isextensively sourced and annotated. The response from Bonds's lawyer, MichaelRains, neither challenged the facts nor contained a denial. Instead hequestioned the motives of the authors and their sources and called the book"an unfortunate distraction," a semantic tap dance that outdoes"wardrobe malfunction" in absurdity. (True to form, fellow players havereacted largely with the same blue-wall-of-silence mentality that allowed theSteroid Era to fester in the first place. The Cubs' Derrek Lee nearly tore hisACL with this knee-jerk reaction: "He hasn't been caught, so leave italone. I don't think it's a story." Thank you, Mr. Murrow.)

Bonds, meanwhile,seems to have more to worry about than just Selig. Prosecutors could stillpursue perjury charges against him, and the IRS could investigate alleged cashpayments to his mistress, Kimberly Bell. And one source close to thecongressional committee that grilled Mark McGwire and others last springrefuses to rule out new hearings if Selig doesn't adequately deal with Bonds.As for the hobbling slugger--he rests on a folding chair between rounds ofbatting practice--he refuses to acknowledge the book and clowns for the crewfilming Bonds on Bonds, a weekly "documentary" to air on ESPN beginningnext month.

What happensafter the commissioner reviews the evidence is what defines Selig's conviction.He could suspend Bonds--a possibility, according to those close toSelig--knowing the issue could wind up being decided by arbitrator Shyam Das.That would put the players' association in the position of defending a steroidcheat who dropped out of their licensing program. Bonds, the union would argue,could not be subject to penalties for steroid use before 2003 because nopenalties existed, and he could not be subject to any since then without apositive drug test. Selig, however, would be suspending Bonds not for aviolation of the drug policy but for conduct detrimental to baseball. WhetherDas would uphold the suspension is almost incidental to Selig's establishing anofficial condemnation of Bonds, tantamount to an asterisk next to his home runtotal.

Selig knows whatis at stake: the integrity of the game, especially when fans already haveaccess to an extensive catalog of performance-enhancing drug use by aplayer--one who happens to be challenging the game's most hallowed record.Selig told associates last week, "I must and I will do what's right."Bonds's problem is now Selig's problem. The reckoning is here.

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