Feds struck out years ago in case against Barry Bonds

As one of the greatest baseball players who ever lived — with or without doping — Barry Bonds’ career can only be properly assessed with statistics.

And as usual with Bonds, the numbers are eye-popping. The U.S. Attorney’s Office spent upward of $6 million, almost eight years and used enough lawyers to bring down the mob in New Jersey. And all Bonds got was the legal equivalent of a knock-down pitch.

Wednesday, the man who set the record for intentional walks got one last free pass.

If ever there was a monumental waste of money, time and effort to try and disgrace one of the most controversial athletes in the modern era, this was it; an overblown story that somehow convulsed into a federal witch hunt.

No one doubts that Bonds did steroids, and in the eyes of the only jury that really matters to him — the baseball writers who will deny him admission to the Hall of Fame — that was his greatest transgression. Yet the best that federal prosecutors could come up with is that he knowingly lied about using them. And they couldn’t even convince a jury to convict him of that.

Bonds testified in front of the grand jury in 2003, and since that time, federal attorneys had been looking for ways to make him pay for his misdirected arrogance. Yet they only had the flimsiest of evidence, most of it compiled by an overzealous former Internal Revenue Service agent, Jeff Novitzky, whom many legal observers believed lacks credibility.

Despite their inability to mount a strong case against Bonds, the prosecutors persisted, ultimately pinning their hopes on the testimony of a jilted former girlfriend and some business associates, further proof that in the biggest game of your life, you do not start one of your long relievers.

But without an ace, they just shuffled the deck, and to say that the jury was having none of it would be an understatement. The fact that Bonds was convicted of obstruction of justice for providing misleading and evasive testimony is like saying Bonds was guilty of being himself. He doesn’t give straight answers, he hates and baits the press. To him, why should federal prosecutors be any different?

Any case that takes eight years to prepare is probably not worth pursuing. So much time had elapsed that even casual Bonds-haters had lost interest. They were happy when Bonds was run out of baseball (or more like cast aside through organized indifference), but it’s hard to keep up that level of emotion over time. Bonds didn’t really matter to baseball anymore, and the federal government should have taken notice.

But by being cleared of lying about steroid use, Bonds has been given redemption by those who would have liked to have seen him denied it. The greatest home run hitter in the game — and without doubt, one of the top five to ever play it — has all but escaped the asterisk that baseball officials would have loved to put next to his name.

Legal pundits believe he won’t even go to jail on the obstruction charge, and that it could very well be dismissed.

And while it was by no means intentional, Bonds has now raised the stakes for the trials of the next wave of suspected cheaters, including Roger Clemens and Lance Armstrong, who no doubt will be reviewing the court transcripts with renewed vigor. The clamor over ­steroid use is now but a murmur.

The bench of suspected cheaters in sports is deep. Yet no one is suggesting that spitballer supreme Gaylord Perry be voted out of the Hall of Fame. Baseball hyped the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run race to help fans forget that the commissioner canceled the 1994 World Series. It took almost another decade for baseball officials to get real about steroid use. Which group deserves an asterisk more?

I can’t defend Bonds’ actions, but there’s no defense for the government’s, either. Bonds will never get to Cooperstown because he became the face of the steroid era, but the truth is, he deserved admission even before the term human growth hormone became common.

Bonds poked a hole in the theory that baseball teaches failure. Federal prosecutors could have used some of the same discipline.

Ken Garcia appears Thursdays and Sundays in The San Francisco Examiner. Email him at kgarcia@sfexaminer.com.

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