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BALCO scandal claims its biggest star

| Friday, Nov. 16, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO - The stable of disgraced sports heroes groomed by Victor Conte welcomed its biggest star Thursday as home run king Barry Bonds joined Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery and other standout performers who were built up, and ultimately let down, by BALCO.

Conte's now-defunct Northern California lab supplied performance-enhancing drugs to some of the sports world's biggest names during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Before federal agents raided the facility in 2003, only a small cadre of coaches, trainers and athletes who wanted to know as little as possible about what they were getting knew that.

As the U.S. government, World Anti-Doping Agency and Major League Baseball have been trying to rid sports of drugs, Bonds remained a prime, if elusive, target for federal prosecutors who kept impaneling grand juries to indict him.

"I believe if I wasn't going for records, it would be a nullified situation," Bonds said as the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative investigation started heating up in early 2004. "If you want to be at the top, you've got to have broad shoulders. ... I know who I am. I know what I stand for. I know what kind of ballplayer I am."

About BALCO, Bonds would say only at the time: "There's nothing I can do about it right now. I have to go out and play baseball and, hopefully, it will blow over."

Conte, who served four months in federal prison for dealing steroids, talked openly, almost with pride, about his famous former clients. He went on television to say he had seen three-time Olympic medalist Jones inject herself with human growth hormone, but always stopped short of implicating the Giants slugger.

The ongoing probe, meanwhile, ended or tarnished the careers of many, including New York Yankee Jason Giambi, football player Bill Romanowski, sprinter Kelli White and Olympic cyclist Tammy Thomas.

Conte's former lawyer, Troy Ellermen, resigned as commissioner of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for leaking Bonds' grand jury testimony to a newspaper reporter.

Like Jones, who last month pleaded guilty to lying to about her doping, Bonds has insisted he thought the substance he got through BALCO was flaxseed oil. His personal trainer, Greg Anderson, chose to go to prison rather than testify about whether his childhood friend was lying.

Bonds did visit BALCO in November 2000 and went through a series of urine and drug tests conducted on every athlete who went through the lab. But Conte continued Thursday to deny any direct knowledge of Bonds' steroid use.

"I'm very surprised by the indictment," Conte said. "I certainly haven't seen all of the evidence in Barry's case. However, I've seen a lot of it, and I just don't think there's enough to meet the standard of beyond a reasonable doubt. They say it's possible to 'indict a ham sandwich,' and unfortunately I think it's going to take a very long time for us to find out if that's what they've done."

The steroids suspicions clouded Bonds' pursuit of Hank Aaron's all-time home run record this summer, muting the congratulations when he broke it on Aug. 7. The collector who bought the record-setting ball for $752,467 decided to send it to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown branded with an asterisk, to mark the uncertainty over whether chemicals or Bonds deserved the credit.

Conte has continued to talk openly about his famous clientele since he went back into the nutritional supplements business this year. He has Bonds' picture on his company's Web site, and continues to insist he has no idea whether Anderson ever gave designer steroids to Bonds.

Before he went to prison, before the body count in the BALCO probe got so high, he expressed remorse that a project that started so promisingly had gone so awry.

"It was all my fault," he said. "They had listened and trusted me and I was the one that was guiding them."

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