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

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

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While the baseball world moved quickly to question the legacy of Barry Bonds in the wake of his portrayal as a serial steroid user in the book Game of Shadows (SI, March 13), the revelations immediately brought the professional reputation of another man into sharp focus: Allan H. (Bud) Selig, the commissioner of baseball 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 wild card, interleague play, revenue sharing, the first labor deal without a work stoppage, the growth of advanced media such as MLB.TV and the cool straight-out-of-the-box World Baseball Classic (page 109)--his term will be defined by what he does with Bonds, just as Fay Vincent's was by George Steinbrenner, Bart Giamatti's was by Pete Rose, and Judge Landis's was by the Black Sox.

Selig chafes at the criticism that he and his fellow owners were steroid enablers, prodded to activism only by external forces such as the SI special report steroids in baseball (June 3, 2002), the '03 raid of BALCO and the '05 congressional hearings. Shadows is Selig's latest wake-up call--and the chance for someone who as recently as last month claimed there was nothing to investigate to prove he has the backbone to make the difficult calls. For a commissioner who leads by consensus, the need for such conviction does not play to his strength. Indeed, Selig's first public response to the Bonds bombshell fell flat. He cracked jokes like a bad lounge act during a news conference last week, showing none of his trademark anguish and not once admitting honest concern. He could not bring himself to spit out the word investigation and barely managed to cough up review. Even by Selig standards, the obliqueness in the face of a crisis was uninspiring.

Those close to Selig, however, say he is deeply troubled by the revelations, especially given his meeting with Bonds in 2004 in which he warned the slugger of dire consequences if his denials were insincere. Well, we will find out. Selig said he will vet the information and sources in Shadows. At some point Selig must address the findings; he either acts decisively or risks being forever regarded as soft on steroids.

It seems highly unlikely that Selig would not conclude what any other reasonable reader of Shadows would: that it is built on a solid basis of truth. The book is extensively sourced and annotated. The response from Bonds's lawyer, Michael Rains, neither challenged the facts nor contained a denial. Instead he questioned 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 have reacted largely with the same blue-wall-of-silence mentality that allowed the Steroid Era to fester in the first place. The Cubs' Derrek Lee nearly tore his ACL with this knee-jerk reaction: "He hasn't been caught, so leave it alone. 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 still pursue perjury charges against him, and the IRS could investigate alleged cash payments to his mistress, Kimberly Bell. And one source close to the congressional committee that grilled Mark McGwire and others last spring refuses 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 of batting practice--he refuses to acknowledge the book and clowns for the crew filming Bonds on Bonds, a weekly "documentary" to air on ESPN beginning next month.

What happens after the commissioner reviews the evidence is what defines Selig's conviction. He could suspend Bonds--a possibility, according to those close to Selig--knowing the issue could wind up being decided by arbitrator Shyam Das. That would put the players' association in the position of defending a steroid cheat who dropped out of their licensing program. Bonds, the union would argue, could not be subject to penalties for steroid use before 2003 because no penalties existed, and he could not be subject to any since then without a positive drug test. Selig, however, would be suspending Bonds not for a violation of the drug policy but for conduct detrimental to baseball. Whether Das would uphold the suspension is almost incidental to Selig's establishing an official condemnation of Bonds, tantamount to an asterisk next to his home run total.

Selig knows what is at stake: the integrity of the game, especially when fans already have access to an extensive catalog of performance-enhancing drug use by a player--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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