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Bonds - Bond that's tying up baseball

April 02, 2006|By JIM SALISBURY - Knight Ridder

With conflicted emotions, Major League Baseball opens another season Sunday night, unsure whether it should celebrate or castigate one of its biggest stars.

For now, it will investigate Barry Bonds.

The San Francisco Giants slugger once again stands at the crossroads of history and controversy as he chases arguably the most romanticized record in sports.

Bonds, 41, has 708 home runs and is poised to move past the legendary Babe Ruth (714) for second place on the all-time list. He needs 48 to break Hank Aaron's record of 755.

As the season begins, Bonds isn't the only player with a revered record in his sights.

Jimmy Rollins, the spirited Phillies shortstop, finished last season with a 36-game hitting streak, the ninth-longest ever, and needs to hit in his first 21 games to break Joe DiMaggio's 65-year-old lifetime record hitting streak of 56 games.

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Rollins' hitting streak has stirred debate among baseball purists, some of whom say he could never match the difficulty of DiMaggio's feat because the former New York Yankees great recorded his in a single season, 1941.

But conversations inspired by Rollins' streak pale in comparison to the arguments that surround Bonds' controversial rise up the home run chart.

Bonds has long been suspected of using illegal steroids to build his muscles and increase his power. He was called to testify by a federal grand jury investigating a California laboratory that was charged with developing and distributing illegal performance enhancing substances in 2003.

Two weeks ago, storm clouds gathered around Bonds again when Game of Shadows, a book written by two San Francisco Chronicle reporters who covered the federal investigation of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, was released. The book offers vivid and troubling details of Bonds' alleged steroid use from 1998 to 2002.

After reading the book and digesting the evidence, baseball commissioner Bud Selig hired former Senate majority leader George Mitchell to lead an independent investigation of past steroid use in the sport.

While Selig said the investigation would be all-encompassing, it clearly will focus on Bonds.

Baseball observers believe steroids fueled a power explosion in the 1990s that reached a climax with Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa hitting 70 and 66 homers, respectively, in 1998. In Game of Shadows, authors Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams write that Bonds became jealous of McGwire and Sosa in 1998, prompting him to use steroids.

In 2001, Bonds hit 73 homers to break McGwire's single-season record.

Now, Bonds is reaching for another record, and Major League Baseball, concerned about the sanctity of its record book, is uncomfortable with that. On Thursday, Selig had no answer to a question about how baseball would celebrate any milestones that Bonds reaches. This coincided with Bank of America, one of MLB's most prominent advertisers and such a San Francisco fixture that it financed the Golden Gate Bridge, saying it wanted no part of sponsoring activities related to Bonds' run at history.

Baseball has not said what it will do with the information Mitchell uncovers. It may have difficulty punishing Bonds because there were no rules against steroid use in the game until 2003. Bonds can play while the investigation goes on. His team opens its season Monday in San Diego.

Ironically, this latest steroid scandal comes as baseball has finally taken serious steps toward curbing the problem. Under the threat of congressional legislation, baseball and the players union agreed on tougher penalties against the use of performance-enhancing substances in the fall. Any player testing positive for steroids this season will receive a 50-game suspension. The penalty rises to 100 games for a second offense and a lifetime ban for a third offense.

Baseball also is testing for amphetamines for the first time, with a second positive test drawing a 25-game suspension.

Even with its problems, baseball brought in $4.8 billion in revenue last season and drew a record 74.9 million fans.

For the second year in a row, a team that had gone decades without winning a World Series was crowned champion as the Chicago White Sox won their first World Series since 1917. The Boston Red Sox won their first World Series since 1918 the previous year.

Meanwhile in New York, the Yankees have not won a World Series since 2000, an unacceptable duration in the eyes of George Steinbrenner, the team's temperamental owner. Once again, Steinbrenner has spent more than $200 million assembling his team. He opened spring training by predicting the club would win the World Series.

Across town, the Mets continued a two-year spending spree and have a star-laden team that now includes former Philadelphia closer Billy Wagner, who was lured to New York with a four-year, $43 million contract.

The free-agent market still has one major talent available in pitcher Roger Clemens, who, at 43, is pondering whether to retire or come back later this summer, most likely with the Yankees, Red Sox, Houston Astros or Texas Rangers.

Monday, the attention of the baseball world will shift to Rollins as he tries to add to his hitting streak, and to San Diego, where, like it or not, Barry Bonds will continue his run at history.

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