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Baseball's Barry Bonds Problem

Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants looks on from the dugout, June 20, 2006 in San Francisco. Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images hide caption

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Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Bud Selig tells USA Today he believes Major League Baseball has the right to suspend Barry Bonds if he is indicted by a grand jury. According to published reports, Bonds may be indicted this week on perjury charges for allegedly lying about steroid use and for tax evasion as well. Selig says there's precedent for suspending a player who has been charged, but not convicted. It happened to pitcher Ferguson Jenkins after his 1980 arrest on drug possession charges in Canada. But the suspension was overturned by an arbitrator after a couple of weeks.

Baseball is in a difficult spot when it comes to Barry Bonds — one that is largely of its own making. Selig is trying very hard to appear tough on steroid use. Doping penalties have been increased twice by MLB over the past two years and Selig has appointed former Sen. George Mitchell to conduct a comprehensive investigation into the use of performance enhancing drugs by players. Suspending Bonds if he is indicted would be yet another way for baseball to look tough.

But in reality, the bulked up Barry Bonds is probably a byproduct of baseball's laissez-faire doping attitude of a decade ago. In 1998, two muscle-bound sluggers, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, staged an epic home run race that helped baseball recover from a dip in the game's popularity. Fans cheered, the commissioner's office basked in the increased TV ratings and Barry Bonds watched very closely as McGwire set a new home run record. The following year, according to the book Game of Shadows by two San Francisco Chronicle reporters, Barry Bonds decided he would start taking steroids to increase his home run output. At the time, baseball had no drug testing, no enforceable rules against steroids. Commissioner Selig didn't talk about doping in baseball back then.

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Two years later, in 2001, Bonds hit 73 home runs to shatter McGwire's record. With home run records falling like dominoes, even casual fans suspected something fishy was going on. But Selig still didn't talk about doping in baseball.

Baseball finally started testing for steroids in 2003: first with a laughably weak policy and now, finally, with a more credible program to catch cheaters. But Selig didn't get really serious until members of Congress ridiculed his sport's drug testing efforts. And until the two Chronicle reporters provided hard evidence of doping by superstars. Before that shock treatment, baseball didn't do anything to air its dirty laundry.

So now Bud Selig says baseball has the right to suspend Barry Bonds if he is indicted. Maybe so. But as he seeks to root out cheating in his game, maybe it's time for Selig to do something else. Maybe he should look in the mirror.