Anything to move the merchandise

Posted: Thursday, November 20, 2003

Anything to help move the merchandise. Two years ago, as Barry Bonds zeroed in on the single-season home-run mark, someone asked whether the fans' appreciation of him would ever catch up to his already considerable achievements.

Bonds said he didn't know, but if it happened, it would happen on his terms. He was headed for the Hall of Fame either way, and he'd already penned the opening line of his induction speech with his critics in mind.

''You,'' he was going to say, ''missed the show.''

Contrast that with Tuesday, when fresh off his third straight MVP award, an unprecedented six total, Bonds insisted it was time to set the record straight.

''I felt I've really been misrepresented throughout my career as a bad guy, bad person,'' he said.

History is clearly weighing on his mind. Bonds lost his father, Bobby, over the summer, a powerful reminder that at age 39, he is much closer to the end of his career than the beginning. In the fall, his San Francisco Giants were knocked out of the postseason in the opening round, making the crowning achievement of a World Series championship seem as elusive as ever.

The timing could be that simple.

Or not.

Bonds, with 658 career home runs, is just beginning the stretch run in pursuit of Hank Aaron's total of 755. Coincidentally, or not, he's also just gone into the licensing business for himself, withdrawing from the Major League Baseball Players' Association's program that pools all the revenue from merchandise sold and shares it equally among the rank and file.

Instead, starting next season, Bonds will control which products his likeness gets stamped on and take a cut for every piece sold. He said he was doing it not to enrich himself, but to be able to give back to the community and the game itself.

''This gives the licensees an opportunity to really know me,'' Bonds said, ''to show the fans who I really am.''

And move lots of merchandise in the bargain.

This is a tough time not to be cynical about baseball. Evidence of how the game got supersized in the aftermath of the 1994 strike arrives with alarming regularity. None of it has convicted Bonds. But neither has it cleared him of suspicions that in getting so much bigger and stronger so late in his career, he violated the spirit of the rules, if not the rules themselves.

Last week, we learned that even with six months advance warning, enough players came up positive for steroids last season to trigger a testing program for next season that actually includes some punishment. Last month, Bonds was one of several players subpoenaed as part of a federal grand jury probe into a Bay Area nutritional supplement firm, BALCO, suspected of concocting the designer steroid THG. A condo raided recently by IRS agents is owned by Bonds' childhood friend, trainer Greg Anderson, who acknowledged through a lawyer that he is a target of the investigation.

Bonds became a client of BALCO owner Victor Conte in the winter of 2000. The next summer, he clubbed his way past Mark McGwire, whose own home-run binge in 1998 was fueled by androstenedione, a muscle-building supplement that just about every other sports league had already added to banned substance list.

Undaunted, the suits who ran baseball then and now reasoned that if one home-run race sold lots of tickets, each repeat performance would sell more.

What followed were hitters bulked up like linebackers, waivers from MLB to build ballparks with short home-run porches, NASA-quality video machines and batting-practice cages, plus state-of-the-art weight rooms and protein shakes the size of buckets. Strike zones became no bigger than shoeboxes and expansion diluted the pitching.

Still, cynics said all those factors combined didn't explain the quantum leap in power over the last few years. Bonds needed 14 seasons to hit 445 home runs, and just four to collect the next 213. On every side of him, the only thing that inflated faster than the record books and the players' biceps were their bank accounts. Bonds apparently didn't notice.

''I am glad there is going to be testing,'' he said. ''I am glad that, hopefully, hopefully, it will diminish a lot of everyone's speculation, and everyone can just move on.''

A lot of people have a lot of money invested in just such an outcome, maybe none more deeply invested than Bonds. All of them would like to get on with business as usual, turn the page on a chapter that produced more questions than answers, if only so the rest of us can rush out and buy T-shirts to commemorate it.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org



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