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Complicit in dirty business

How much better would the Barry Bonds press conference have been if that cellphone call he answered while on the podium had been from God, instead of an unnamed friend?

Why God? Because there's no one else a man of Bonds's ego would listen to (he'd probably call it a conversation between peers) and who else but God could get away with telling Bonds, "Enough already; if you're not going to be answering the questions, then just pick up your bat and go home"?

It should have been an event to kick off a man's pursuit of baseball's most revered status -- Greatest Home Run Hitter Who Ever Lived -- but instead, those who witnessed Bonds's performance for the media Tuesday came away feeling it was a fine time to take a shower.

There's dirt under everybody's fingers here. Bonds, at his churlish best, kicked into attack-dog mode while resisting any link to steroid use. The media haven't asked the right questions about steroid use early and often enough. The fans have bought into this whole charade of the last decade without a moment's pause to ask why so many of their favorites looked like Buzz Lightyear in hose and stirrups. Baseball owners were more concerned about the shot in the arm the big boppers were giving to the box office instead of the injections they were administering into their buttocks. And the players' union was too inclined to ignore the fact that for every up-and-coming slugger like a Mark Teixeira, for whom being clean is a point of professional honor, there were a dozen -- maybe more -- players inventing the rules for performance-enhancing substances on the fly.

This was no time for Bonds to be playing the race card, unless he wanted to talk not about himself but about Henry Aaron, the son of Mobile, Ala., who when breaking Babe Ruth's record three decades ago encountered a level of racial intolerance that Bonds on his worst day never will know.

And it was not for Bonds to arbitrarily label the lies, the lied to, and the liars, at least not as long as he was looking straight into the camera and saying, to the question of whether using steroids was cheating, that he didn't know what cheating was.

Steroids can't help a ballplayer's hand-eye coordination? Well, the experts are divided on that one, but the anecdotal evidence suggests that if steroids can't make a good hitter better, then hitters are dumber than even the most arrogant pitcher would say they were for shooting up.

(God and Barry might actually have agreed on something, though: As reruns go, you could do worse than "Sanford and Son.")

And you could get a whole lot better than a pack of reporters asking a variation of the same question time and again about Bonds's purported steroid use, and coming away with no juice on The Juice.

"This is something we started talking about a long time ago," said San Diego general manager Kevin Towers, whose team was among the first to blow the whistle on steroid use, even as one of the Padres' best, Ken Caminiti, a National League MVP, had begun his death spiral from drug use.

"Some of the stuff Barry said was ridiculous," Towers said. "He ought to be embarrassed. Horrible.

"I'm not a big Jose Canseco fan, by any means, but I would have to say that most of the stuff he's saying is 90 percent accurate."

God, had he made that cellphone call, might have reminded Bonds that hate doesn't have much of a shelf life. Sure, he might have agreed with Bonds that it's incumbent on all of us to look forward, but you won't see far if the windshield is still encrusted with yesterday's dirt.

Jewelry seems to make teams sparkle

The surest way to guarantee a win in the big leagues? Playing on a day when you give your championship team its World Series rings.

Since 1990, 12 of the 14 World Series winners in the previous year have won on the day they were given their rings. The last Series champion to lose was the Florida Marlins, and the Marlins had an excuse in 1998: Owner Wayne Huizenga had blown up the team over the winter, and the champs were missing a dozen players when they lost, 5-2, to the Brewers, their fifth straight loss in what would be a 1-11 start. The Marlins did better last season as defending champs, beating the Phillies, 4-3.

This business of receiving rings at the home opener is overstated. The Yankees didn't get their rings until July 21 in 2001 and until May 29 the previous year. They did a little better in 1999, when they got their rings before the third game of the season, though manager Joe Torre, still recovering from treatment for prostate cancer, missed the game.

In 1997, the Bombers planned to give out rings at the home opener but couldn't decide on a design in time; Torre successfully lobbied for the word "heart" to replace "pride" on the ring in a tribute to his brother, Frank, who had had a heart transplant during the season. New Red Sox lefty David Wells beat the Royals, 3-2, on the day the rings were given out, May 11; Wade Boggs needed his refitted.

The last time rings were given out at a home opener was 1996, when the Braves beat the Giants, 10-8. Greg Maddux was the Braves' starting pitcher that day; his ring was accepted by his father, a card dealer in Las Vegas, while Maddux warmed up. Six years later, Curt Schilling's 6-year-old son, Gehrig, picked up Dad's ring in Arizona while Schilling was in the bullpen; the boy dropped the case on the way back to the dugout but quickly scooped it up.

Blue Jays stars Dave Stewart and Paul Molitor helped design the rings given to the '93 winners, while Jack Morris, who pitched one of the greatest games in Series history in beating the Braves, 1-0, in Game 7 for Minnesota in 1991, lambasted the Twins for not presenting him with a ring for months afterward, after he'd signed with the Tigers. After Morris went public with his complaints, Twins president Andy MacPhail said Morris's ring, along with those of former Twins Dan Gladden and Paul Abbott, had been found in a safe in team offices.

And the '91 Reds were so dissatisfied with their rings (imagine, Marge Schott cheap) that most of the players, taking their cue from Ken Griffey Sr., had them redone with better diamonds.

Hall hopefuls may get a shot in the arm

A sidelight to the steroids controversy is its potential benefit to players whose numbers don't measure up to those produced during the era of blown-up players. One is Jim Rice, who didn't come close to the 500-homer club (382) but was the most feared hitter in Red Sox lineups that boasted Hall of Famers Carl Yastrzemski, Carlton Fisk, and Wade Boggs. Rice's candidacy has picked up some steam in the last couple of years, and in the absence of a consensus choice on the 2006 ballot, the former Sox slugger is looking at maybe his best (last?) chance to get in.

But if Rice warrants consideration, so does Albert Belle, whose antisocial behavior while he was playing shouldn't detract from the fact that he was one of the 1990s' most dangerous sluggers until a degenerative hip condition ended his career after a dozen seasons. Belle hit one fewer home run than Rice but in an inflated offensive era had a higher slugging percentage (.564 to .502) and on-base percentage (.369 to .352). You say he didn't play long enough to warrant consideration? Well, he played as long as Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett, who, like Belle, had his career cut short by medical reasons (glaucoma) but was not penalized for it.

And Belle has an unlikely ally: Jose Canseco, who in his book referred to Belle as "one of the very few superstars of that era who never used steroids."

Apprised of Canseco's remark, Belle told the Arizona Republic, "Great. I have a criminal on my side."

Belle, who lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., has finished his accounting degree since retiring from baseball and has designs on owning a sports franchise, telling the Republic he's investigating an "opportunity" with the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers. He also insists he never used a corked bat, saying he can prove it in court.

As for his reputation as one of the most unapproachable athletes of his time, Belle says, "Looking back at it, I wish I used the media more to my advantage. I was never concerned about the endorsement dollar, but it did affect my relationship with fans."


Radio signals mixed

The Red Sox have had internal discussions about the possibility of owning their own radio network, buying stations throughout New England and controlling the product much as they do on television through NESN. But one highly placed source said he considered the endeavor unlikely because of the capital investment required. WEEI's contract with the club runs through 2006.

Study haul

No one will be cramming more in the coming days than Dave Shea, the Bruins broadcaster hired last week to do radio for the Washington Nationals. With ownership of the team yet to be determined, it's a one-year deal for Shea, whose previous baseball experience includes games for the PawSox.

View from the other side

From the number crunchers at Stats Inc.: David Wells could become the first lefthanded pitcher to start 25 games for the Red Sox since Frank Viola made 29 starts in 1993. In the 11 seasons since then, a total of 239 lefthanders have started at least 25 games for other teams in a season. Every big-league club with the exception of the Sox has had at least two pitchers do so, with the Atlanta Braves leading with 17 such seasons by lefties from 1994 through 2004.

Double the pleasure

John Valentin, beginning his first spring as a hitting instructor for the Double A New Hampshire Fisher Cats, said the Sox offered him a job in rookie ball but he preferred the Blue Jays' offer to begin at a higher level.

Throwing some advice his way

Toronto ace Roy Halladay continues to look to the Sox for help. Last year, Halladay credited Derek Lowe for teaching him how to throw his sinker. This spring, Halladay is giving props to Curt Schilling for his workout routine. "I was kind of curious what guys like that do who go out every year and throw a lot of innings and are still able to pitch," said Halladay, the 2003 AL Cy Young Award winner who was limited by a sore shoulder to 133 innings last season.

Pitching change

The Cardinals toyed with the idea of signing Pedro Martinez, according to the former Sox ace, but the sides were never in the same league financially. The Cardinals instead traded for one of Oakland's Big Three, lefty Mark Mulder, who insisted last week that his horrible finish last season (0-4, 7.27 ERA in his last seven starts) was not due to an injury. "Everybody thought I was hurt," he told reporters in Jupiter. "But I wasn't. I wish I was because that would give an excuse."

A different kettle

Oddest sight in Cardinals camp is Reggie Sanders exercising with what appear to be cannonballs. The official name of the weights are Russian Kettlebells, which originally were old cannonballs first used in the Russian military in 1704. Sanders says he has never felt stronger.

End of the road

Remember Marty Cordova, who thought he had a two-year deal lined up to be the Sox' righthanded DH in 2000 but lost the job to 41-year-old Gary Gaetti? The former AL Rookie of the Year (1995) retired at age 35 rather than report to Devil Rays camp. Cordova, who has had major back problems, hadn't played since 2003.

Delayed reaction

Orioles vice president Mike Flanagan, a former University of Massachusetts baseball and basketball player (point guard for two years), recently was forwarded a letter from one of his old teachers at Memorial High School in Manchester, N.H. The letter, addressed to "Mike Flanagan -- Student," came from a New Hampshire company that runs college scouting camps for basketball players. "Please consider the attached brochure as your invitation to showcase yourself to the colleges in New England," the letter said. Nope, there wasn't another Mike Flanagan at the school; the Baltimore Sun checked. "If you need a 53-year-old point guard," he told the paper, "I'm your man."

Old haunts

It took almost two weeks of camp before Yankees setup man Tom Gordon was willing to talk with reporters about his disastrous performance against his former team, the Red Sox, in the ALCS. Gordon gave up six earned runs, 10 hits (two home runs, including a huge one by David Ortiz in Game 5), and two walks in 6 2/3 innings. Manager Joe Torre said Gordon had trouble controlling his emotions during the series. Said Gordon, "It took awhile for me to get through, to get over it. I still think about it. I want to be past it. I want it to be behind me."

Hamming it up

More signs that the Cubs are putting on the full-court press to keep Nomar Garciaparra beyond this season. First, general manager Jim Hendry tacks on an extra $250,000 to Garciaparra's guaranteed $8 million contract as a goodwill gesture. Then the club announces that it intends to honor Garciaparra's wife, soccer star Mia Hamm, before their July 3 game, giving out 100 of her uniform jerseys. Garciaparra wore a Hamm's beer baseball cap upon his arrival in camp last week, also in tribute to Mia.

Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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