Because the Giants' decision to bring Barry Bonds out of exile this spring invites over-interpretation, let's review the context.
His role as a spring training instructor will last all of nine days -- March 9 to 17 -- according to Alex Pavlovic of the San Jose Mercury News, who broke the news of the home run king's return to an official role in MLB. Even that short span will be read as excessively permissive by anyone who believes the sport's future generations should not be guided by the superstars who damaged the game and its record book by linking both to illicit hormones.
But once Mark McGwire got a full-time gig as a hitting coach in 2010, and then Roger Clemens started making appearances as a spring-training instructor for the Astros, that point became resoundingly moot. Excluding Bonds from a comparable assignment any longer constituted a double standard.
The primary distinction among the three of them is Bonds' federal felony conviction for obstruction of justice, a crime that baseball should not empower itself to punish. The sport's primary concern has to be the hormonal supplementation, and its Mitchell Report tagged Clemens and McGwire as users, as well as Bonds. It shouldn't matter that Clemens was acquitted of lying to Congress as he defended himself against the report's accusations or that McGwire, when he testified on Capitol Hill, avoided charges for obstruction because he never received immunity, which would have compelled him to answer every question. He was permitted to duck talking about his past.
Bonds did his time in the fall, serving 30 days' home confinement largely because he wanted to move on with his life. For most of us, a month's confinement in a 17,000-square-foot mansion near Beverly Hills would constitute a grand vacation. For an athlete of his stature and general hubris, it was a substantive gesture of humility. Bonds continues to fight the conviction, but when his first appeal was rejected in September, he knew he had to bow to the court in some way, if only to satisfy the Giants' need for an appearance of tidiness.
There's no point in fretting over any message those nine days in March might send. Bonds' return represents absolution no more than the Astros' embrace of Clemens, who did far less for their organization than Bonds accomplished in San Francisco.
If anything, the Giants' invitation to Bonds reinforces their own role in encouraging Bonds to make whatever choices helped transform him into the owner of 762 career home runs. They happily paid him to keep pursuing Hank Aaron's record after he was summoned in front of a grand jury in 2003 to testify about his reliance on trainer Greg Anderson, who later pleaded guilty to distributing performance-enhancing hormones. They had a chance to cut him off before the 2007 season, when he passed Aaron, but signed him to a $15.8 million contract instead.
The leadership of the club has not changed dramatically since that year, so any ongoing efforts to exclude him would have seemed comically hypocritical. Bonds wanted back in and made his desire quite clear. He told reporters in 2012 that he had visited with club president Larry Baer and asked for a place in the organization. He was told that he needed to resolve his legal issues. He complied as much as he could without admitting complete defeat in court.
The Giants' decision won't bring Bonds any closer to Hall of Fame induction. Houston's welcome to Clemens didn't help him in the ballot, where the seven-time Cy Young winner and seven-time MVP have both fallen well short of the necessary votes in their two years of candidacy. The writers who vote have no obligation to honor team hiring decisions, outside of respecting MLB's blanket ban on Pete Rose.
A complaint from Rose on Bonds' nine-day engagement in Scottsdale should be forthcoming any day now. He loves to observe inconsistency in his designation as a gambling pariah by a business that routinely reinstates drug users. The equivalency rings somewhat false; baseball never hedged on its promises to banish gamblers before Rose was caught. He should have known exactly what to expect. Bonds probably could have guessed, but there was no template. Clemens and McGwire carved one out, with help from the teams that sought their services. Bonds, generally a man apart from even his peers in the game, fits right into the mold they cast.