I read the San Francisco Chronicle today with the blaring headline "What Bonds told BALCO grand jury," and I just smiled. They haven't gotten him yet. Somebody in the Justice Department is illegally leaking grand jury testimony to try to bring down Bonds, but they still haven't landed the knockout punch.
According to the Chronicle, Bonds testified that sure, he used substances now infamously known as "the cream" and "the clear" provided by trainer Greg Anderson, but he didn't know they included steroids. He thought "the clear" was a version of flaxseed oil that was supposed to ease his arthritis, and he didn't ask too many questions about "the cream." He insisted his trainer hadn't given him banned drugs secretly, saying Anderson "wouldn't jeopardize our friendship" by doing that.
"I never asked Greg" what the products contained, Bonds testified, according to the Chronicle. "When he said it was flaxseed oil, I just said, 'Whatever.'"
Maybe you have to like Bonds -- and I do -- to feel the Chronicle story missed its mark. But whatever it was intended to do, the story's depiction of Bonds' rambling testimony captured the odd mix of arrogance, self-pity and occasional inadvertent candor that have marked Bonds' interactions with the world. He complained about his arthritis, his troubles dealing with his father's cancer and ultimate death. He defended Anderson as a loyal friend: "This is the same guy that goes over to our friend's mom's house and massages her leg because she has cancer, and she swells up every night for months. Spends time next to my dad, rubbing his feet every night."
And in the end, he insisted, nothing Anderson gave him really helped.
"And I was like, to me, it didn't even work," he told the grand jury. "You know me, I'm 39 years old. I'm dealing with pain. All I want is the pain relief, you know? And you know, to recover, you know, night games to day games. That's it.
"And I didn't think the stuff worked. I was like, 'Dude, whatever,' but he's my friend." Bonds stopped using the products, he told the grand jury: "If it's a steroid, it's not working."
My favorite part of the story was when a juror asked why Bonds hadn't bought his loyal friend and trainer a "mansion."
"One, I'm black, and I'm keeping my money. And there's not too many rich black people in this world. There's more wealthy Asian people and Caucasian and white. And I ain't giving my money up." Bonds can play the race card at dumb times -- to defend his ex-friend Gary Sheffield, who tried to implicate Bonds in his own BALCO troubles -- but that made me laugh.
I believe Bonds used any means necessary to achieve his amazing feats over the last few years, as he closed in on a painful 40. Maybe he didn't probe Anderson so he could preserve deniability about whether his trainer's not-so-magic formula crossed the banned-substances line. But the fact is an astonishing number of players have experimented with banned substances, and they can't approach Bonds' numbers. San Francisco Giants fans get a particular chuckle over the fact that Bonds' teammates Marvin Benard, Armando Rios and Bobby Estalella all stand accused of using BALCO-supplied banned formulas; all three are either out of baseball now or about to be. Bonds' singular gifts can never be dismissed as better living through chemistry.
I admit I have some stake in disbelieving that Bonds knowingly cheated. I'm a Giants fan and that requires a lot of willing suspension of disbelief -- that team management fired Dusty Baker, that with a packed new stadium they can't afford to compete in the free agent market ... don't get me started. Bonds is my last link to the magic years, from 1997 to 2002, when the team had a chemistry and synergy it's lacked in the years since.
And while I don't know Bonds personally, in the one conversation we ever had, a very strange dugout interaction in 2001, he was endearingly vulnerable and human. I asked how he was feeling -- he was in an early-season funk, having been hit in the hand by a pitch -- and he took off his batting glove to show me all the tape he was wearing on the injured fingers, as if grateful for the attention. Then he shrugged. "I'm always in pain," he told me. "I'm getting old." I told him I was older, and he feigned a gentlemanly shock. We commiserated about aging, as though my aches and pains mattered as much as his.
So I don't judge Bonds, really, for trusting his trainer to make the pain of aging go away so he could still aim for the record books. It's the way of the immortals. If someone proves he knew the mystery balms were steroids, well, I might change my mind, but I'm not there yet. We're all looking for something to salve our aches and pains and hold back the years while we swing for our personal fences.