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He steps up to the plate
now with infinite slowness, the gait of a man overwhelmingly conscious of his own mastery, and also the gait of a man whose knees have gone.

It was Wednesday, a languid San Francisco afternoon, and the great man wasn’t even playing. At 41, he doesn’t normally bother with matinée performances, especially after a hard game the night before, an indulgence granted only to the greatest of stars.

But the situation was dire. The San Francisco Giants were 7-5 down to the New York Mets, with only one out left in the final inning. The stage was set for the kind of greatness that, in modern baseball, only Barry Bonds can supply.

Roared on by 30,000 Giants fans, Bonds took the stage. After a couple of sighters, he got a fastball he fancied. Inelegantly, seemingly off-balance, but with utter certainty, he plunked it into the seats behind left-centre field to tie the game.

It was the 711th home run of his career. Within weeks – maybe days – he will surpass one of the most resonant figures of even this statistic-packed sport: the 714 homers struck by Babe Ruth.

But this ain’t no fairy story. Well before Bonds has the chance to beat the only other man ahead of him, Hank Aaron on 755, baseball may have decided once
and for all that he is
really the big bad wolf. As Bonds closes in on Ruth, the investigators are closing in
on Bonds.

In the 1990s, baseball was losing its grip on the American public after years of debilitating contract disputes between players and owners. It was revived by one sensational season, 1998, when two big sluggers, Mark McGwire of the St Louis Cardinals, and Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs, battled each other and all baseball history to beat the other great home-run stat: Roger Maris’s 61 in a season.

McGwire blew that away: he hit 70. But he did it with the help of a then legal steroid-like substance called androstenedione. Bonds, reduced to irrelevance, was infuriated. The next season he returned to the Giants about 30lb heavier, and it wasn’t flab. He had turned himself into a bulked-out power machine: like a wrestler, some thought, or a

Three years later, he beat McGwire, with 73. Night after night, crowds packed San Francisco’s beautiful bayside stadium to watch heroism and history.

But you did not need to
be an expert on the murkier side of sport to be suspicious. Bonds acquired that bulk after becoming involved with the Bay
Area Laboratory Company, mentors of banned athletes
Tim Montgomery and Dwain Chambers, and an organisation whose involvement in the distribution of anabolic steroids is beyond dispute. Bonds’ own weight trainer, Greg Anderson, has been jailed for distributing steroids.

Bonds admits using mysterious ointments (“the cream” and “the clear”) given to him by Anderson. He says he has no idea what they were and has repeatedly denied using steroids knowingly, not least to a federal grand jury.

That has led to an even more serious allegation. Hours before home run number 711 flew towards San Francisco Bay, Anderson was subpoenaed to answer whether Bonds himself lied under oath. The question now is whether Bonds might be heading, not to the Hall of Fame, but to jail for perjury.

But if Bonds is guilty, he is by no means alone. Baseball’s drug culture is so ingrained that it has only just banned amphetamines, the ball-player’s little helpers that have got them through long, hard seasons since Ruth’s time.

More than a decade ago, fans were chanting “Ste-ROIDS, Ste-ROIDS” at a freakish-looking slugger called Jose Canseco, who has now produced an autobiography admitting everything. The owners, the public, the press and – perhaps above all – the mighty players’ union shut their ears.

And this, for crying out loud, is San Francisco, a city where no one is naive about drugs. The suspicions were obvious.

On top of everything, Bonds is a surly, arrogant man with rages as towering as his home runs, another known effect of steroids. He has infuriated many people on the way up, including teammates and a former
girlfriend who is one of
the chief witnesses against him. There will be plenty happy to kick him on the way down.

Yet amid it all, there remains this astounding spectacle. Opposing managers are so fearful of Bonds’ power that they regularly instruct their pitchers not
to give him a chance: they brave the boos and walk him to first base intentionally.

This tactic, and his knees, and his 41 years, and the swirling allegations mean that he might never break Aaron’s record. On Wednesday, Bonds’ homer took the game to extra innings. But when he attempted to repeat the blow, he fell just short – and the Mets won 9-7. Somehow, this whole story doesn’t seem destined for a happy ending.

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