Baseball: How long can baseball remain in denial about the scandal at its heart?

America's national pastime must face up to revelations of steroid abuse

So now it's official, or as near as makes no difference. As anyone who follows baseball has long suspected, Barry Bonds, the biggest star in the game, appears to have been taking steroids - among them the infamous designer drug THG - for at least three years. Another consumer of "the Clear," as THG is known, and the steroid ointment called "the Cream" is Jason Giambi, another slugger once bound for the Hall of Fame. Giambi moreover admitted to taking a cocktail of other substances, both ingested and injected, including the human growth hormones that may have caused a pituitary gland tumour that wrecked his 2004 season, and has probably cost him his contract with the New York Yankees.

So now it's official, or as near as makes no difference. As anyone who follows baseball has long suspected, Barry Bonds, the biggest star in the game, appears to have been taking steroids - among them the infamous designer drug THG - for at least three years. Another consumer of "the Clear," as THG is known, and the steroid ointment called "the Cream" is Jason Giambi, another slugger once bound for the Hall of Fame. Giambi moreover admitted to taking a cocktail of other substances, both ingested and injected, including the human growth hormones that may have caused a pituitary gland tumour that wrecked his 2004 season, and has probably cost him his contract with the New York Yankees.

Bonds, it transpires, admitted before a federal grand jury investigating the Balco scandal last year that he had taken steroids, albeit unknowingly.

Right now, after the publication by the San Francisco Chronicle last week of devastating testimony by the two players to the grand jury, America's national pastime is facing its biggest credibility crisis since the thrown World Series of 1919. Giambi and Bonds are surely but the tip of an iceberg. But unlike the iceberg that sank the Titanic however, the approach of this one has been discernible for years.

In a sense the fall of Bonds and Giambi may be traced to a very different disgrace of baseball a decade ago. The 1994-95 strike was a triumph of shared greed and selfishness. The game's fortunes were only restored by an explosion of home runs, capped by the unforgettable 1998 duel between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa to claim the single season record. The bulked-up McGwire eventually won, but only after admitting he used androstenedione, a steroid precursor legal then but banned now. Barely an eyebrow was raised.

The path was clear for the likes of Giambi and Bonds, who topped McGwire's single season mark just three years later.

Even now, the fans do not seem over-bothered by the latest revelations. The Balco scandal erupted in mid-2003, and the odour of steroids has tainted baseball ever since. But that didn't prevent an all-time attendance record in 2004, with Bonds a sell-out attraction.

So, some argue, why not go with the flow? The fans love home-runs, and however sad, drug use is a fact of life in the sport. So why not acknowledge it, and let players ingest what they will? There are just two problems with this.

The obvious one is the message that would be sent to every child who dreamt of emulating Barry Bonds - take the pills, kid, or forget about being the best. If steroids are OK for the country's high school and college students, then why not marijuana, cocaine and the other drugs? But a subtler, perhaps even more powerful factor is at play. Baseball, as no other sport, is a prisoner of its myth. The game sees itself as repository of what is best and most enduring about America. It prides itself on the timeless purity of its statistics. Compare a hitter from the 1940s or 1950s with one today, and the figures will tell you who was better.

Or rather, they did until drugs came along.

In fact, the truly maddening thing is not that Bonds has taken steroids. (Anyone who has watched his physique and his slugging percentage fatten by the year or who has followed the Balco case, and still believes otherwise, must by now have bought the Brooklyn Bridge three times over). It is the blanket public denials that stick in the craw, and his acknowledgement to the grand jury that he took "the Cream" and "the Clear" on the unquestioning assumption they were, respectively, arthritis cream and flaxseed oil. This from a man who, where his own health and nourishment are concerned, is a control freak without rival.

At 40 and with 703 home runs already under his belt, Bonds was set to overtake Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron within the next 18 months or so to become the all-time career leader. It seems unlikely he can do so now, given the scorn of the cognoscenti who were preparing to crown him the greatest player in history.

As Tom Boswell, the Washington Post columnist put it the day after the Bonds sensation broke: "As for a 715th home run to pass Ruth, much less a 756th to surpass Aaron, the thought of it now is almost too revolting to endure. If nothing else maybe Bonds can find the decency to retire before that." But there is no guarantee the fans feel the same. The surly, narcissistic Bonds is not a lovable character. But he is a phenomenally exciting athlete to watch, with blinding bat speed and awesome, if now suspect, power. And without prodding from the fans, neither the powerful baseball players' union, which met this week to discuss the crisis, nor wealthy owners, can be relied upon to take real action against the steroid abusers.

After all, baseball had to be dragged kicking and screaming to impose its existing and ludicrously feeble drug rules - no surprise off-season testing, mere counselling after a first offence, and only a year's ban after the fifth ed: the ( "fifth") time a player is caught. These compare very unfavourably with the rules imposed by the National Football League, which imposes a mandatory four-game (one-month) suspension without pay for a first positive test, and a full season's ban for a third offence; or with top-flight athletics, where a two-year ban is now standard punishment. There were signs of movement from the baseball players' union this week, but no one is expecting it to radically alter their outlook in the near future.

Nor are Bonds' feats likely to be struck from the record book; it is not even certain they will be accompanied by the dreaded asterisk, denoting that they should be treated with caution. Indeed, the greatest impetus for change comes not from within the game but from Congress, which has the power to strip baseball of the anti-trust exemption permitting the 30 major league owners to run a self-enriching and impregnable cartel.

Senator John McCain, of Arizona, claims wide bipartisan support for a bill he is threatening to introduce next month to clean up the sport if it cannot do so itself. Remember, too, that President Bush - a former owner himself - used his 2004 State of the Union address to demand a crackdown on drugs in sport. This time therefore, something may be done, but not before Bonds, Giambi and the rest have done their best - or rather their worst.

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