Closing Arguments Delivered In Barry Bonds Trial

Bonds Trial Update: It’s now in the jury’s hands

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Closing statements were made at the Barry Bonds trial yesterday. And while closings aren’t evidence — and while in my view they aren’t nearly as important as openings — they always feel like a high point.  The final opportunity to pound the theme of the case home. But they also serve as something of a tell in which the lawyers reveal, whether they intend to or not, what the weakest parts of their case are.

I’ve been in a courtroom (as an observer) for one perjury case in my life and in that one, like Bonds’, the first words out of the prosecutor’s mouth were exactly the same: “All he had to do was tell the truth.”  Maybe there’s a trial advocacy book that talks about using that one, but it’s pretty effective even if it’s common. The jury, especially in this case, can get pretty bogged down in some of the details that formed the basis for the alleged lie, but it’s pretty helpful to remind them that at the end of the day they really are deciding something simple and understandable. Something with which every person has experience and a firm set of moral convictions: lying. In putting it this way, the prosecutors are helping them remove doubt from their heads because we all think — or at least like to think — that we know when we’ve been lied to.

At the same time, the prosecution’s closing underscored the fact that, with the exception of the single charge relating to injections, there was no one who got on the stand who could themselves say “Barry lied, and here’s why.” The prosecutor started a lot of questions with “ask yourself …” making it clear that the jury needs to make inferences based on circumstantial evidence in order to conclude that the grand jury had been lied to. Maybe that makes things easier for them. Maybe, however, it makes them wonder why, if Barry Bonds was a rampant steroids user, no one came into court and said it in plain terms.

I can’t say that I was particularly impressed with what I can gather from reports about the defense’s theme. Bonds’ lawyers argued that the prosecution was a vendetta against Bonds by a government that was angry with him for not being intimidated and subservient in front of the grand jury. Because Bonds refused to say, “Yes, sir,” which irked the government. They said that the main witnesses against him were friends or lovers scorned and that, armed with immunity themselves, were out to get Bonds.  As a proponent of Occam’s Razor, any conspiracy theory is dubious to me, and I wonder if the jury feels the same way. I mean, yes, I think Bonds was singled out, but I don’t think it was a personal thing. It was more about careerism and perpetuating a big investigation that served a lot of purposes, be they legitimate and righteous or not (mostly not). But spite? Eh, tough sell for me.

The defense was on firmer ground when they argued — for really the first time in the case — that even if there were lies told by Barry Bonds, they are not worthy of a guilty verdict because they were not, to use the legal term, material. They did not negatively impact the grand jury as it tried to do its job back in 2003, Bonds’ lawyers argued, nor could they have given how inconsequential and ultimately silly his alleged lies were. The defense noted that the prosecution put no one on the stand who said otherwise. This is not quite true — agent Novitzky said the grand jury was negatively impacted — but Novitzky’s own success in going after BALCO may work against him here. They got convictions of everyone they targeted, most without a trial. If Bonds was truly screwing the legal system with his testimony, the jury may very well wonder why there was no seeming injustice done as a result. No criminals who went free.

The defense likewise did a good job highlighting where the government’s evidence was light and where the witnesses testimony was specifically deficient or contradicted. Their toughest task was to poke holes in Kathy Hoskins’ story about seeing Bonds injected. They tried, but observers in the courtroom thought her credible when she testified and weren’t particularly impressed with the defense’s handling of her testimony in closing arguments.  Unless the jury decides that Bonds’ lie about injections was immaterial — and given how small and silly it seems compared to the other charges which themselves seem rather minor in the grand scheme, it’s entirely possible they could decide that — there’s a good chance Bonds gets nailed on that charge. If he doesn’t, it will be because of the jury’s disdain for the prosecution’s case as a whole, not because of the actual evidence at trial.

And with that, it’s in the jury’s hands. They will deliberate today. We’ll certainly have a reaction when they reach a verdict.

Video: Minor leaguer dives over the wall to rob a home run

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Meanwhile, in Tulsa, Zach Welz of the visiting Arkansas Travelers made a spectacular catch. It was the catch Torii Hunter tried to make on that famous David Ortiz homer in the playoffs a few years back except Welz made it.

Watch as he topples over the wall to come up with the would-be dinger off the bat of Tulsa Drillers first baseman Cody Bellinger:

MLB, MLBPA move to help baseball in Puerto Rico. After hurting baseball in Puerto Rico.

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - JUNE 30:  A Puerto Rican flag flies from a building a day after the speech Puerto Rican Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla gave regarding the government's $72 billion debt on June 30, 2015 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  The Governor said in his speech that the people will have to sacrifice and share in the responsibilities for pulling the island out of debt.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
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Yesterday Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Union announced that they will play games in Puerto Rico as part of a plan to develop and support baseball on the island. They likewise pledged $5 million for the creation of development programs in Puerto Rico and plan to stage special events there.

The press release about this made mention of Puerto Rico’s undeniably outstanding baseball tradition. What it did not mention is that, in the view of many, Major League Baseball itself harmed that tradition significantly when it decided to subject Puerto Rican players to the draft in 1990. A move that the MLBPA signed off on too, of course. Indeed, there’s a pretty strong argument that, if it were not for MLB and the MLBPA’s own acts, there would be no need to “develop and support” baseball in Puerto Rico like this at all.

An exploration of this can be read in this 2012 article from The New York Times. The article (and many, many others like it which have been written over the years) notes the sharp decline of Puerto Rico’s professional and amateur baseball leagues and observes that the once steady flow of players making their way from the island to the major leagues being reduced to a trickle.* (see update below) Why?

No one here disputes the diminished stature of baseball in Puerto Rico, and most agree on the culprit: Major League Baseball’s decision, in 1990, to include Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the United States, in its first-year player draft. This means Puerto Rican players must wait until they have completed high school to sign a professional contract, and then they are going up against players from the United States and Canada in the draft.

Perhaps more important, major league teams have less incentive to cultivate talent in Puerto Rico because those players may end up with another team through the draft.

Sandy Alderson is quoted in that article dismissing the notion that the draft was to blame, but even his dodge is couched in basic economic incentives. He claims that, hey, there is stuff that is more financially lucrative for people to do in Puerto Rico than play baseball now. Well, sure. I’d just like him to explain how radically reducing the amount of money a kid can get from playing baseball due to taking away his right to sign with the highest bidder and by utterly killing the incentives for clubs to invest in developing players doesn’t enter into that calculus. Alderson doesn’t explain that one.

No matter what Major League Baseball might say on the record about all of this now, the fact remains that no one spent the past 26 years building academies in Puerto Rico like they have in Venezuela or the Dominican Republic. No one has an incentive to turn a 12-year-old with promise into a 16-year-old prospect like they do in those countries because there is no longer any way for a teenager to sign for life-changing money like they can elsewhere. The draft has saved Major League Baseball hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses to Puerto Rican players over the past 26 years and it has reduced the number of prospects who may push high-salaried MLBPA members out of work, but has done tremendous damage to the baseball tradition to which Major League Baseball and the MLBPA now pay lip service.

I’m glad that MLB and the MLBPA are doing something about baseball in Puerto Rico. But $5 million over the course of four or five years, which is what this plan involves, a couple of games (if they’re even played), doesn’t even represent a fraction of the damage that the league and the union inflicted when they imposed the draft.

UPDATE: A couple of people who know a hell of a lot about this stuff have pushed back against my post on Twitter:

Marcano has written a book about the excesses and abuses involved in the development of baseball talent in Latin America. He is 100% right about this and, to the extent my writing above made it sound like I was endorsing the model in place in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic on its own terms, I want to be clear that I am not. There is a lot of bad stuff that goes on there and for every kids signing a million dollar bonus, there are hundreds who find themselves at a professional dead end or far, far worse.

That said: Major League Baseball has no problem exploiting that system in those countries and its move to impose the draft in Puerto Rico was not born of some principled stand against those excesses. It was to be a foothold for an international draft which is primarily about cost savings. It would be quite possible to have a system in place that both (a) protects kids from abuses; but (b) provides the sorts of financial incentives to make baseball a worthwhile pursuit for those with the talent to play it.

Also:

Cooper, the managing editor of Baseball America, so he knows of what he speaks, notes that from 1987-1990, before the draft was imposed, 19 Puerto Ricans made their Major League debut. From 2000-03, 23 made their debuts. From 2013-16, 22 made their debuts.

That certainly blows my above comment about “reducing the flow of players to the majors to a trickle” out of the water. That said, Major League Baseball’s move yesterday was not just about the pipeline to the majors. It’s about baseball overall in Puerto Rico. Those numbers reflecting that the top eschelon of talent is still making it to the majors are undeniable, but the Times article from 2012 talks about the erosion of amateur leagues, Puerto Rico’s diminished standing in international tournaments and the reduction in size of the Puerto Rican winter league.

So, OK, I’ll walk back my comments about just how much the imposition of the draft in 1990 damaged baseball in Puerto Rico, but I maintain that it’s hard to argue that it did not do some damage.