Baseball: Backlash starts early for 'cheater' Bonds

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The 2006 baseball season has begun; with a barrage of home runs and a Presidential appearance in Cincinnati - but most heavily symbolic of all, with a giant syringe.

The medical implement in question, apparently lacking a needle, was hurled in the direction of San Francisco's superstar outfielder Barry Bonds by a mocking fan during the Giant's opening game in San Diego.

Bonds fastidiously picked up the offending object and took it from the field, "so that nobody would get hurt". But for the player it was a taste of things to come, as he stands at the intersection of two huge baseball stories - the BALCO steroids scandal, and his quest for the sport's most celebrated record.

Last month a new book, Game of Shadows, provided a surely irrefutable wealth of detail that since 1999 Bonds had used steroids provided by the BALCO supplements company to aid his chase for the career home runs record.

He now has 708 homers, just six fewer than Babe Ruth, and 47 behind Hank Aaron's total of 755.

If he avoids injury, Bonds is certain to overtake Ruth this year, and has an outside chance of catching Aaron. But the price will be an unrelenting gauntlet of criticism and abuse at ball parks across the country. "Cheaters never prosper," proclaimed a banner in the crowd as Bonds patrolled left field.

Syringes apart, however, the rituals of Opening Day were preserved. President George W Bush threw out the first pitch in the Cincinnati Reds game against the Chicago Cubs, in front of a sell-out crowd of 43,000.

But the regular season finishing line is six months and 161 games away - games that, for better or worse, will be played in the shadow of Barry Bonds.