Baseball's 'Boys of Summer' face third strike in drug probe

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The Independent US

Major League Baseball (MLB) is launching an official investigation into the alleged use of steroids by Barry Bonds and several other top players - potentially the biggest scandal to engulf America's national pastime since the Chicago White Sox threw the World Series in 1919.

The inquiry, which was due to be announced yesterday, will be headed by George Mitchell, the former Democratic Senate majority leader, baseball aficionado and troubleshooter for presidents past in Northern Ireland and the Middle East. But this mission could be his most awkward yet. In Congress, pressure for action has been building for two years, making a whitewash politically impossible. At stake instead is the reputation of America's most tradition-encrusted sport in general, and of its best current practitioner in particular.

Bonds has always denied using steroids, and his supporters - many of whom claim he is being picked upon because he is black - point out that he has not failed a drug test since MLB introduced such testing in 2003.

But a book published this month argues otherwise, claiming that the player was taking a cocktail of steroids, among them preparations called "the Cream" and "the Clear", the latter named thus because it was undetectable in tests. So copious and seemingly irrefutable is the evidence that Bud Selig, baseball's commissioner, had no choice but to act.

Written by two San Francisco Chronicle reporters, Game of Shadows traces the story of BALCO, the Bay area nutritional supplements company that supplied performance-enhancing drugs to sports figures such as the athletes Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery, the British sprinter Dwain Chambers and at least two other baseball stars.

However, it BALCO's client Barry Bonds - notorious for his poor relations with the press, yet arguably the greatest player of his generation - who is at the centre of the storm.

Already Bonds holds the single season home-run record. The season that starts this weekend could see him capture the career record as well, overtaking Babe Ruth in the process. But baseball awaits the feat not with joy, but trepidation.

No sport is more concerned with its history and the sanctity of its statistics. The dreadful realisation is that every statistic of the so-called "steroid era", from 1995 to 2002, may be virtually worthless.

In its desperation to win back public support after the disastrous nine-month strike that destroyedthe 1994 World Series, the MLB turned a blind eye to the increasingly obvious transgressions. All that mattered were crowd-pleasing homers - naturally fuelled or otherwise. Its anti-drug regime was a joke.

Having sown the wind, baseball is reaping the whirlwind. On his travels with his San Francisco Giants team, Bonds is greeted with more boos than cheers. Never loved, he is now openly vilified.

Yet criticism seems only to make him more defiant. "We all make mistakes in life," he said in an interview in the USA-Today newspaper. "But there's only one perfect person in our society and they put him on a cross. For what? For being kind? For loving people?"

And now the official steroid inquiry into his alleged misdeeds. Bonds appears determined to continue his pursuit of the record. For him and some others among America's "Boys of Summer", the 2006 season promises to be a long hot summer indeed.

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