From Balco to Bonds, Baseball's asterisk era
A quarter of a century ago, Barry Bonds hit his first home run for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
He had only been a first-team player for a week but great feats were expected of this 21-year-old prodigy. The son of a famous player, Bonds had been on Major League Baseball's radar ever since high school.
A superb athlete blessed with coordination, speed and strength, Bonds had it all. And he used it. A long and lucrative career in the majors saw Bonds break some of baseball's most hallowed records, including the holiest of holies, the all-time home run record.
But now - 25 years after that first beautifully-timed combination of hand, eye and muscle - Bonds has a record he did not desire: a criminal record for obstructing justice in a federal inquiry into the use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs.
Bonds began his career with Pittsburgh in 1986 and ended it with San Francisco in 2007
To explain every step of how he morphed from the golden boy of America's game to its most compromised superstar would challenge War and Peace in the word count stakes. But it is worth retelling how it started.
The year is 2002 and Bonds is in the midst of another stunning season for the San Francisco Giants, the team he joined for huge money (a record, naturally) in 1993.
He would finish the campaign with a career-high batting average and major-league records for walks and on-base percentage, two key measures of offensive production. He also hit his 600th home run. He was by some margin the best player in the game.
But 30 minutes' drive from the Giants' new stadium (built to house the new fans his exploits were attracting) federal investigators were starting an inquiry into the affairs of an unheralded sports supplement business with a grand name but nondescript premises.
That company was the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative, or Balco for short, and the investigation would light a bonfire under US sport, torching reputations and consigning decades of complacent thinking about doping to the ashes.
The next three years would see the investigation progress from sifting through Balco's bins to gaining convictions for the company's top staff. What had started as a fishing trip for tax evasion was now reeling in some of the biggest names in professional sport.
The biggest of those was Bonds (although fellow Balco ambassador Marion Jones would give him a run for his money outside the US). His face was plastered all over Balco's website and the home runs kept disappearing over the fence.
By the time those first Balco sentences were dished out, Bonds was within 50 home runs of Hank Aaron's all-time record of 756. But any chance of him being cheered every blow of the way towards that total had long gone.
The myth that baseball players did not use steroids because they would not help had been exploded. It now dawned on America there was more to the recent clattering of records than the clever-sounding combinations of proteins and vitamins that Balco was selling to the public.
The speed of that realisation, however, was painfully slow and a share of the opprobrium now dumped on Bonds and baseball's numerous other fallen idols should be spared for the bosses.
They wilfully ignored the evidence in front of their noses - the circus strongmen masquerading as players, the distances the ball was flying and, most damningly, the anonymous results of their early experiments with a drug-testing regime - and counted the money.
Finally, in early 2006, MLB was shamed into action by the publication of a coruscating book, Game of Shadows.
Fans display an asterisk in protest against Bonds' records. Photo: Getty
The cast of characters includes Britain's Dwain Chambers, former 100m record-holder Tim Montgomery and double world sprint champion Kelli White, but it is Bonds who dominates.
To his dwindling number of supporters, Game of Shadows was a hatchet-job and Bonds was the meal ticket. To almost everybody else, including MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, it was the last straw.
Baseball's chief called in George Mitchell, the distinguished former senator who had helped broker Northern Ireland's "Good Friday Agreement", to conduct a forensic review of the sport's relationship with drugs.
Mitchell did not pull his punches. He described a sport "rife" with steroids and human growth hormone and criticised MLB's "slow and ineffective" adoption of anti-doping measures.
When he visited the UK in 2008, Mitchell told me he had been shocked at how widespread the problem was - "there were many, many rotten apples in that barrel" - and he referred to an entire era in the sport's history that will forever be tainted.
Bonds' part in that history is already tainted. Game of Shadows, almost a decade of negative headlines and the acrimonious final years of his playing career took the sheen off what he achieved with bat and glove. But this week's guilty verdict has sealed it: his stats will forever be followed by an asterisk.
This was, however, a verdict of shadows.
At one point in 2008, Bonds was facing 15 "felony counts" related to drug use, obstructing justice and perjury. And when he entered a federal courtroom in San Francisco last month, he was still looking at five charges.
One of those was thrown out by US District Judge Susan Illston and after three weeks of testimony and deliberation three more - all those related to perjury - were rejected by the eight women and four men of the jury. They could only agree that Bonds obstructed justice with his evasive answers when questioned back in 2003.
For the prosecution this is a qualified win. It has been a long haul and if they hoped for a Marion Jones moment (a tearful confession on the courtroom's steps) this was an expensive defeat.
That is certainly the defence's take on events and they are promising to appeal the guilty verdict when Illston brings them back for sentencing on 20 May.
The prosecution, meanwhile, will have to consider if it is worth trying again. The closeness of one of the perjury votes (11-1 in favour of conviction) may tempt them.
But the votes on the other two charges were stacked the other way, so perhaps the wisest course would be to settle for what they have.
If the verdict stands Bonds is probably looking at a short period of house arrest, although typical sentences for obstruction are 15-21 months in prison. But his real punishment is a sentence that will go beyond the grave.
His father, Bobby Bonds, died in 2003 as one of the most popular players in San Francisco Giants history. Barry will forever be remembered as the man who had it all but took more.