James Lawton: OJ nation of baseball fans live the big lie

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The Independent Online

At the dawn of the great baseball steroid scandal Barry Bonds, the man now at the heart of it, was approached by the colourful boxing character and former editor of Ring Magazine, Bert Randolph Sugar.

At the dawn of the great baseball steroid scandal Barry Bonds, the man now at the heart of it, was approached by the colourful boxing character and former editor of Ring Magazine, Bert Randolph Sugar.

The San Francisco Giants slugger, who if he keeps his head above the waves of controversy currently lapping over all of American sport is a certainty to pass the legendary batting marks of Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron, was no doubt a little startled by the appearance of Sugar in his trademarked fedora, check trousers and massive cigar. Nevertheless, the answer he provided to an extremely blunt question arguably becomes a little more revealing by the day.

This is not just in terms of Bonds' part in the bulking up of America's once most romantic game but the way a sports-obsessed public see - or rather don't see - the issue. Sugar flicked away the ash from his cigar and said: "Barry, what's all this with the steroid crap?".

Rather than issue a standard denial, Bonds replied: "The thing to remember, my friend, is that as far as the baseball fan is concerned the number one thing he sees in a slugger is hand-to-eye co-ordination. That will always be the number one issue."

Bonds, given the depth of his implication, along with Jason Giambi, who is currently fretting over the fate of an $81m (£42m) contract with the New York Yankees, in the Balco case which has already brought down so may leading track and field figures, probably would say that.

Unfortunately, though, and despite the pious sentiments expressed in certain opinion polls, the evidence is that the majority of the sport's followers go along with the Bonds' perspective.

This is certainly indicated by the fact that as the evidence against Bonds accumulated in the summer, baseball fans voted with their feet. They went to the ball park in record numbers, not bathed in the rosy glow of American sentiment, not putting the popcorn on one side and holding hands with their wives and sweethearts while singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Park", but with the raw and cynical desire to see their team win - and their sluggers hit the ball more regularly, and further, than ever before.

Sugar, reflecting on his exchange with Bonds, says: "In my guts I suspect the big guy is right. Everything changes, including the sports fans. My hunch is that most of them are putting aside the headlines and saying, 'What the hell, they juiced up the ball in the Twenties [by replacing the cork core with rubber]... now they're juicing up the players. Where's the big difference?"

An amoral view, at best, no doubt, but this is the nation which 10 years ago cheered the fleeing OJ Simpson from freeway bridges after the brutal murder of his wife and a friend with the cry, "Way to go, OJ."

In the last few days the Sugar perspective has been powerfully backed by a leading American academic and co-author of the shattering study, The Steroids Game. Says Penn State University professor Charles Yesalis: "I haven't seen anything that shows me the customers really care. Baseball just had a stellar financial year, and if your IQ was at or near room temperature you didn't need to hear Jason Giambi's testimony [to a grand jury] to know these guys are using drugs."

Even more worryingly, Yesalis argues that the uncovering of the Balco steroid operation was a freak, the result of a rogue syringe being sent to the authorities, that the cheats remain well ahead of the testers and that it is a situation he cannot see changing quickly, if ever.

"I've been around this for a quarter of a century," adds Yesalis, "and I just don't see any reason to be optimistic. I earn my living with the scientific method and I'm proud of being a scientist, but I've learned that if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks, you have a duck."

The professor thinks that the Beijing Olympics in four years' time will see an explosion of designer drug-taking, a view confirmed from within the anti-drug army. Researcher Gary Wadler, a New York based member of the World Anti-Doping Agency, told USA Today: "Without the syringe we wouldn't have known about THG [the designer drug at the heart of the crisis] and the fact that it happened with one synthetic steroid that was previously undetectable indicates to me that there are others. Whether it's one, 10 or 20, no one knows."

Meanwhile, Oakland's pitcher Tim Hudson is said to be a target for the Yankees, the Baltimore Orioles, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the St Louis Cardinals and the Boston Red Sox. This provokes two passing questions: is he clean and does anyone really care?

Old Yogi Berra, the great old Yankee who played alongside Micky Mantle and Joe DiMaggio, offered a flicker of concern the other day when he was asked if players like Bonds and Giambi should be driven out of the game. "Maybe they should," said Yogi. "You can die taking that stuff."

But then you can do it rich and famous and maybe with a better batting record than Ruth or Aaron. It makes you think of the bartender in the ski resort of Aspen, Colorado, who was told by a customer making small talk: "I hear you have a big drug problem here."

"Not true," said the barman. "What do you need, buddy?" If a real war against drugs in sports ever gets under way, don't bet that it will start in America.