Barry Bonds watches the Giants take batting practice before a game against the Philadelphia Phillies on July 11 in San Francisco. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

Barry Bonds watches the Giants take batting practice before a game against the Philadelphia Phillies on July 11 in San Francisco. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

Bonds wins, virtue loses

It looks like a gas station sign, the “756” plaque affixed to the brick wall in right-center field. And if there was any humor in the Barry Bonds saga, we might chuckle about the fuel reference. But what this lonely marker represents is the sad, sordid story of a phony whose tainted achievements have been purposely concealed by the Giants, though they’ll never say so.

You need a searchlight and a Sherpa guide to find other odes to Bonds at AT&T Park, the launching pad he popularized … and scandalized. He is mentioned atop a list of the club’s top home-run hitters, mentioned on a few landmarks on the Port Walk far beyond the outfield wall, mentioned at a Barry Bonds Junior Giants Field nearby. But there is no Bonds Cove, as there is for Willie McCovey. And there’s no Bonds Plaza, as there is for Willie Mays. And there’s no Bonds Statue, as there is for Mays, McCovey, Juan Marichal and Orlando Cepeda. In the biggest snub, 48 men are honored on the Giants Wall of Fame.

Marvin Benard and Kirt Manwaring are among them. Barry Bonds is not.

Which is as it should be, given his permanent attachment to the Steroids Era that we’re all trying to wash away like feces on a San Francisco sidewalk.

But now that the feds officially have dropped their criminal case against the “all-time home run leader,” leaving his record clean, expect a vigorous push by Bonds and his blind followers to recommence his exultant baseball life as if he never left the last 7½ years. Barry will want to be at the ballpark, maybe as an ambassador or a full-time coach. Barry will want to have opinions about the game, maybe as a national commentator in the vein of another disgraced pariah, Pete Rose. And, of course, Barry will resume his campaign for the grandest of plaques, at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

All because federal prosecutors Tuesday — after the huffing and puffing, the taxpayer-fed probes, the potent investigative journalism — chose not to challenge an appellate decision in April to overturn Bonds’ 2011 conviction for obstructing justice. While other big names went down in the BALCO scandal, from Marion Jones to Dana Stubblefield to founder Victor Conte, Barry skated — not because he was found never to have used banned performance-enhancing substances, but because he never answered The Damned Question. With his personal trainer, Greg Anderson, imprisoned for refusing to testify, Bonds was asked by a federal grand jury back in 2003, “Did Greg ever give you anything that required a syringe to inject yourself with?”

Bonds’ direct response, with a nod to his baseball-playing father, Bobby: “That’s what keeps our friendship. I was a celebrity child, not just in baseball by my own instincts. I became a celebrity child with a famous father. I just don’t get into other people’s business because of my father’s situation, you see.”

The non-answer led to his eventual conviction by a jury, which also considered Bonds’ claims that Anderson had given him not PEDs but, ahem, flaxseed oil and an arthritic balm. Of course, he had circumvented the question. Clearly, he had obstructed justice. But in doing so, Bonds never acknowledged using steroids, unlike Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeriro and so many other notables of the era. And now, thanks to a suspicious split by an 11-judge appeals panel that reversed that conviction three months ago — an inside hometown job — Bonds is free after the feds announced Tuesday there will be no appeal to the Supreme Court.

It means the man, technically, is not guilty.

That doesn’t mean he’s innocent, recalling how he looked as a blimp-shaped record-breaker compared to his much thinner appearance years before and after. Be sure to make the distinction next time he’s throwing out a pitch at a playoff game or lobbying for the Hall before an election.

“The finality of today’s decision gives me great peace,” Bonds said. “As I have said before, this outcome is something I have long wished for. I am relieved, humbled and thankful for what this means for me and my family moving forward.”

If he was wise, he’d remain in the shadows, enjoy his newfound obsession with cycling and have a good time living in The City, where he has returned after selling his Beverly Hills mansion. If the Giants were wise, they’d also keep their distance, welcoming him to the ballpark every so often but not too often. Yet CEO Larry Baer, interested in appeasing Bonds’ local following, has said he is exploring ways to weave him into the family.

Why? These Giants are the antithesis of everything this team was in the Bonds era, built with high character and selfless chemistry that led to three World Series titles in five years. If no one should be so naive to think the clubhouse is free of PEDs, the team’s leader and future Hall of Fame candidate, Buster Posey, has decried the previous era. Asked why a youth movement has taken over baseball, he said, “To me, with the game being cleaned up now and the drug-testing being as strenuous as it is, it’s just Father Time. It’s hard to play this game at an extremely high level, and I think you’re just seeing younger players come up that, frankly, do the job better than older players can do it.”

What does Bonds have in common with Buster and the boys? Tim Lincecum, whose career here began when Bonds was still playing, has supported him, but this surely is Lincecum’s final Giants season as he deals with two degenerative hips. The ascent of Bruce Bochy as an elite manager coincided with Bonds’ exit in 2007. And anyone who thinks Bonds would be a better hitting coach than Bam Bam Meulens might want to consider how bosses Brian Sabean and Bobby Evans have built this team: These Giants only occasionally kill you with power, like Tuesday night, and often do it with mere singles.

Besides, can you picture Bonds’ large personality in a clubhouse with quiet, humble cornerstones — Posey, Brandon Crawford, Madison Bumgarner — and a quirky hipster (Hunter Pence)?

For one, I’m satisified that the U.S. government pursued a case against Bonds and declared war on steroids in sports. Without the intervention of Congress and probes against suspected users, Major League Baseball wouldn’t have been forced to clean up its juicefest with the Mitchell Report and a stronger testing program, and the game still would be dirty. Conte, who spent post-BALCO time in prison, ripped the Bonds probe Tuesday as a colossal waste of federal money, telling the Associated Press: “It seems that the government has finally come to their senses. In my opinion, they should have never brought charges against Barry Bonds and wasted tens of millions of taxpayer dollars. … The Bonds case was simply a trophy-hunting expedition by these federal agents and prosecutors, and I believe they need to be held accountable for this waste of federal funds.”

No, if anyone should be held accountable for sins, it is Barry Lamar Bonds. In fact, rather than invite him back to the ballpark, I’d remove the “756” plaque. Like the SPLASH HITS sign, it is a remnant of a seamy past that should remain there, forgotten and not forgiven.AT&T ParkBarry BondsCooperstownJuan MarichalKirk ManwaringMarvin BenardOrlando CepedaPete RoseSan Francisco GiantsWillie MaysWillie McCovey

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