When America's biggest steroid scandal finally reached the doorstep of its most famous slugger last week, baseball - and the whole of professional sports - arrived at a crossroads.
For several years, fans have responded to allegations of steroid use among top ballplayers not with shock and outrage but rather with a wink and a nudge. Now, the emergence of Barry Bonds's testimony before a grand jury investigating BALCO, the Bay Area laboratory charged with producing designer steroids, has made the issue nearly impossible to dismiss.
This is not Jason Giambi or Gary Sheffield - great players ensnared by the scandal, but by no means legends. This is Barry Bonds - the man who stands on the verge of surpassing perhaps the most storied number in all American sport: Hank Aaron's 755 career home runs. For a sport where immortality is built one statistic at a time, the soul of the game is at stake.
Unlike the Olympics - or even college sports - where the sense of pure competition brings almost universal condemnation of performance-enhancing drugs, professional athletics has slipped into a world of increasing ambiguity, lulled by the allure of the long ball or the big tackle. What happens next will provide insight into whether years of scandal and cynicism have turned professional sport into nothing more than entertainment or whether the spark of sportsmanship and fair play still remains.
"The lines aren't as clear as they used to be," says Frank Uryasz of the National Center for Drug Free Sport in Kansas City, Mo. In pro sports, he adds, "there seems to be more gray in the perception as to what is cheating."
On the surface, Bonds's testimony doesn't seem to add much clarity. According to the documents, he admits only to using two substances - a liquid taken orally and a cream that was rubbed on the skin. He says his trainer told him they were flaxseed oil and an anti-arthritis balm. The two substances, however, bear a striking resemblance to the "clear" and the "cream" - two steroids produced by BALCO that Bonds's trainer has been charged with conspiring to distribute.
Bonds says that if they were steroids, he never knew it, and his lawyer has charged that the leaked documents - which, by law, should be confidential - suggest that federal prosecutors are merely running a smear campaign against Bonds. Whatever the truth, there is strong evidence that Bonds has been convicted in the court of public opinion. One nonscientific poll on ESPN.com over the weekend suggested that some 85 percent of respondents thought Bonds knowingly took steroids.
What that means for Bonds and baseball is now the deeper and more vexing question. On a purely legal level, Major League Baseball can do little without a positive drug test - particularly considering that Bonds did not admit to knowingly taking steroids, and that the testimony is in a document that was leaked illegally.
But the game is faced with the prospect that Bonds could be called to testify in the BALCO trial during spring training, then replace Babe Ruth a month later as No. 2 on the all-time home-run list.
Some have suggested that Bonds should be considered the best of what is increasingly being called the "Juiced Era" - a generation of players who bulked themselves up through legal and illegal means to hit record numbers of home runs. To others, though, the idea of a tainted record displacing those of the most hallowed players could shake the foundations of the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
"Without Cooperstown, you don't have baseball: Baseball is history," says Brian Kilmeade, author of "The Games Do Count: America's Best and Brightest on the Power of Sports." "They're messing with more than just their bodies here."
Yet America isn't exactly unanimous in its condemnation. In a second ESPN.com poll, about 48.7 percent said they would take steroids if it helped them make millions of dollars as a pro athlete.
Indeed, while the BALCO story has brought fits of moral outrage from the press, as well as talk from Sen. John McCain of Congress taking up the issue if baseball doesn't, the atmosphere in ballparks has been one of ambivalence. "Baseball is no longer the national pastime and a moral beacon," says Ken Rosenthal, a baseball writer for The Sporting News. "People are just more cynical."
It's indicative of the changing nature of pro sports. To be sure, sports arenas never could have been mistaken for cloisters: Hitters have been corking bats for decades, and football receivers once did everything short of putting Krazy Glue on their hands. But with America's increasing appetite for sports have come increasing stakes - most notably, money.
"We have blurred the lines between entertainment and sport," says Steven Ungerleider, coauthor of "Faust's Gold: Inside the East German Doping Machine."
There are boundaries, he and others say. Doping in amateur sports is still largely seen as unacceptable, either because of the health risks to teens or because of the nature of the competition.
But many observers question whether the BALCO case will stir similar sentiments among pro sports fans. Says Buster Olney, a baseball writer for ESPN.com: "It doesn't create a sense of outrage."