The next grand syzygy, a moment when the eight planets will be aligned on the same side of the sun, will occur in 2161, or 179 years after the most recent one. What happened in the baseball universe on April 8, 2011, a day of equally freakish rarity, amounted to a steroidal syzygy.
In a span of about five hours Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire, the past two holders of the single-season home run record, were in San Francisco—Bonds in a federal building awaiting a verdict on whether he lied about his steroid use, and McGwire, the Cardinals' hitting coach and an admitted steroid user, 2.7 miles away at AT&T Park watching Bonds's former team, the Giants, raise their first world championship flag since moving to the Bay Area; Alex Rodriguez, the heir apparent to Bonds as the steroid-aided home run king, hit the 616th of his career in Boston; Jason Giambi, who testified at Bonds's trial about his own steroid use, hit home run number 416 in Pittsburgh; and Manny Ramirez, upon becoming the first major leaguer to face a 100-game ban for a second drug-related offense, retired from baseball rather than serve the suspension.
The alignment of Bonds, McGwire, Rodriguez, Giambi and Ramirez (all of them All-Stars in 2000) just so happened to take place on the 37th anniversary of the last time the career home run record was broken with authenticity: the 1974 night when Hank Aaron hit home run number 715 to pass Babe Ruth.
As with the last rare alignment of planets, in 1982, the Earth and the sport somehow survived this freaky Friday. Though baseball instituted drug testing with penalties for major leaguers in 2004, this inharmonious convergence was a reminder that the Steroid Era never really ends. It lingers in courtrooms, in record books and, with players such as Ramirez, the first star drummed out of the game for PEDs, in legacies of infamy. As Ted Williams established the standard of how to exit the game gloriously with his last-at-bat home run in 1960, Ramirez, another former Red Sox leftfielder, plumbed a new depth in how to leave it in disgrace. Hub fans bid Manny bon débarras.
Boston manager Terry Francona, who won two World Series with Ramirez in the middle of his lineup, took one day to think about Ramirez's retirement and then practically snarled, "I really don't have a comment. He's not our player."
Ramirez's retirement briefly drew attention away from Bonds, who faced three counts of perjury for lying to a grand jury in 2003 and one count of obstruction of justice. If convicted he could receive up to 21 months in prison under federal sentencing guidelines, though most legal experts predict he will serve far less, if any, jail time. (A verdict was expected this week, though a sentence isn't likely to be handed down for several months.) Bonds's legal saga may finally be winding down, but there's another diminished star waiting on the steroid docket: Roger Clemens. The trial of the seven-time Cy Young Award winner, charged with making false statements to Congress in 2008 when he denied using steroids, is scheduled to begin on July 6 in Washington, D.C.
The day before the baseball world shook, in courtroom 10 on the 19th floor of the Phillip Burton Federal Building in San Francisco, a lawyer for Bonds named Cris Arguedas gestured toward assistant U.S. attorneys Matthew Parrella and Jeffrey Nedrow and said, "They have the power to end careers and ruin lives."
But players whose greatness was fueled by PEDs were doomed by choices of their own making, according to the most recent inductee into the Hall of Fame—an honor that has remained out of reach for known steroid users. Andre Dawson used the platform of his induction speech last summer to remind us that "individuals have chosen the wrong road, and they're choosing that as their legacy. Those mistakes have hurt the game and taken a toll on all of us. Others still have a chance to choose theirs. Do not be lured to the dark side. It's a stain on the game, a stain gradually being removed."
Parrella, in his closing arguments last Thursday, offered his own coda to the Bonds case. "There's a real irony to this case," he told the courtroom. "These substances that the defendant took to make himself strong—he wasn't strong. He was weak. He was too weak to tell the truth despite all the anabolic steroids."
There was weakness in the way Ramirez, a formerly sublime slugger, left the game. He up and departed without apology, explanation or accountability, not even bothering to tell his employer, the Rays, that he was quitting. Instead he left it to the commissioner's office to inform the club that he was done.