Bonds’ ‘flaxseed oil’ defense just might work

Published 8:16 pm Friday, February 6, 2009

Barry Bonds sat at the defense table Thursday surrounded by a handful of lawyers. It may turn out to be small consolation indeed, but sticking to that cockamamie story he told a grand jury in San Francisco some five years ago has at the very least guaranteed him a heck of a legal bill.

The feds have been out to nail Bonds just about every day since, dropping nearly 300 pages of exhibits in U.S. District Judge Susan Illston’s lap to support their contention the disgraced former slugger lied when he said he never knowingly took steroids.

Any sensible person knew Bonds was lying the day his testimony was leaked to the press. So for all the time that’s passed and all the legal wrangling that lies ahead, it’s worth remembering exactly what Bonds told the grand jury in December 2003: that he didn’t know what was in those exotic cocktails that his longtime pal and personal trainer, Greg Anderson, mixed up for him, that he rarely asked about the ingredients and never remembered the names, and couldn’t pronounce several even if someone had bothered to spell them out.

Never mind that Bonds was layering on muscle like Popeye after downing a can of spinach or that his hat size was swelling to the size of Mr. Met’s.

“I thought it was flaxseed oil,” is what Bonds said back then. Crazy as it sounds, that defense might just work.

What prosecutors have collected in the intervening years are drug tests, conversations, calendars and witnesses to implicate Bonds. Illston made no final ruling on how much of that evidence would be admissible at trial, but said she was inclined to exclude three positive drug tests from 2000-2001 and some documents, including a doping calendar, seized from Anderson’s home.

Important as those pieces are to the government’s case, the judge said she wanted direct testimony linking the test results and a doping calendar to Bonds.

The only person who can provide that is Anderson.

Considering he’s already gone to jail for a year after refusing to talk to the grand jury about Bonds there’s every reason to think Anderson — as his attorney, Mark Geragos indicated — is prepared to do so one more time on March 2, when Bonds’ trial is scheduled to begin.

Illston said she might allow the jury to hear a taped conversation in which Anderson discusses steroid use with another member of Bonds’ inner circle. But as far as the jury hearing Anderson’s voice during the trial, that will likely be it.

It seems fair to ask at this point what has really changed. For all the time and expense invested going after Bonds, it’s back to the he-said, he-said dispute that characterized baseball discussions throughout the supersized era. Pitchers and catchers don’t report until next week, but all the headlines the game is generating — between Bonds getting ready for trial and Roger Clemens wondering whether he should — are peppered with the word “steroids.”

Throw in the millions that major league baseball spent to come with the Mitchell Report, and it looks like Bonds is the only person in this whole mess who got some bang for his buck. He extended his career a few seasons longer than logic suggests he could, collected more paychecks than he deserved and thanks to a legal team that hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, Bonds is still walking around a free man,

That could change, of course. Government prosecutors may yet be able to put into evidence a few of the exhibits that Illston looked unfavorably on, and there’s a long list of former players — Jason and Jeremy Giambi, as well as former Bonds’ teammates Bobby Estalella, Benito Santiago and Marvin Benard — prepared to testify about their relationship with Anderson and how it reflects on Bonds.

Illston also could allow testimony from others close to the slugger, including a former girlfriend, about the physical and emotional side effects associated with the use of performance-enhancing drugs. But whether those will directly tie Bonds to actual use of the drugs is no clearer than it was the day he walked into the grand jury room.

A smart man once said a jury is nothing more than 12 people chosen at random to decide which side has the better lawyer. Judging by the way this case started out, you’ve got to like Bonds’ odds.