Government May Play Harball With Bonds

By CBS Senior Writer Stephen Smith

Now it's hardball. No more soft-toss, coach-pitch or any other game rigged in the slugger's favor.

Barry Bonds can deny and obfuscate all he wants. But if the government wants him, and it appears that it does, then a life that he recently described as being "in shambles" might be on the verge of smashing into a million little pieces.

The stakes have soared even higher if reports are accurate that a federal grand jury is investigating whether Bonds committed perjury when he testified in 2003 that he never used steroids.

It's one thing to be an alleged cheater.

It's quite another to become a criminal.

Experienced lawyers will tell you that one of the first things they learn is, if they presume someone is guilty for something major and yet they don't have the goods to nail him, then you change the strategy and pursue other charges. Charges such as cheating on taxes... and perjury.

When the government finally put mobster Al Capone behind bars all those year ago, it wasn't for gangland killings, masterminding the St. Valentine's Day Massacre or any other bloody charge. It was for tax evasion.

People also forget and think that Pete Rose was jailed for gambling. Wrong. The government nailed him for ... tax evasion.

Right now, it is perjury with Bonds, but don't assume that tax evasion isn't warming up out in the bullpen.

The IRS already has spent time digging into Bonds' background after a jilted mistress, Kimberly Bell, told of him funding some of her expenses throughout their secret relationship. The money, Bonds allegedly told Bell, came from the sale of autographed memorabilia. If true, tax evasion charges still could be in play for Bonds as well.

That this story will continue to mar the twilight years of the man's once storybook and now tumultuous career has never been clearer. Maybe he could skate under baseball's steroid testing. Perhaps he was too smart and too careful to be cornered by the barking pack that has been nipping at his heels over the past several years.

But if the lead investigator has changed from baseball's guy, George Mitchell, to the government's guys, then that, as they say, is a whole new ballgame. Forget baseball's investigation. Mitchell will be put on hold so as to not interfere with the government's work -- which temporarily could be good news for past steroid users in the game who might find that the investigation into their past will be delayed.

Until now, the biggest thing Bonds had going for him was this:

If what he's alleged to have done was so wrong, and if he didn't tell the whole truth and nothing but at his grand jury hearing, then why did the BALCO case never come to trial?

And why did it seem as if the federal government's attack dogs had suddenly lost interest and moved on to the next dark alley?

The answer came back into sharp focus Thursday night when the news was leaked to CNN: They haven't.

This doesn't mean that Bonds is doomed. Lots of people thought former President Bill Clinton would be nailed on perjury charges at one time, too, but he wasn't. Perjury -- in Bonds' case, that he knowingly took steroids and then lied about it -- is very difficult to prove.

Besides, the history of this country remains that if you're rich and powerful enough, and if you know the right people, you often can get away with a slap on the wrist and no hard time.

But if Bonds has angered the wrong people with continued denials that have been both arrogant and brazen, then this story could have an entirely different cliff-hanger of an ending.

With the publication of Game of Shadows last month -- the book detailing Bonds' persistent and systematic use of steroids and human growth hormone over a span of several years -- the government has no other choice than to investigate whether Bonds perjured himself.

Because if the book is even 75 percent accurate -- and it should be noted that Bonds and his people have yet to deny any of the specific charges detailed by authors Mark Fainaru-Wade and Lance Williams, or sue them for libel -- then Bonds was playing the grand jury for fools during the 2003 hearing.

It's one thing to stonewall the government.

It's quite another to stonewall when there are still enough tracks to lead right back to your front door. Treat enough people like disposable wrappers and, eventually, one of them is going to circle back around and get you.
None of us has any idea yet how this will play out. But one thing we do know beyond a reasonable doubt is this:

It will be much more difficult to break Hank Aaron's all-time home run record from behind bars than it would be from the batter's box of any National League park.
By Scott Miller
CBS Senior Writer