Barry Bonds did not, all by himself, make the periodic table part of baseball's stat panel. There are others who must answer for the game's atomic asterisk as well. But if he continues in his pursuit of the remaining home run milestones -- with 703, he's got Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron in his sights -- he will surely be the point man in what promises to be an ugly, rancorous debate on the chemical perversion of performance.
If he stays, every at-bat will be a call for suspicion, every home run a reminder of corners cut, the game cheated, fans fooled. Every record he reaches a sad, cynical testimony: Crime does too pay.
Bonds, because of generational timing and an apparent willingness to ingest rocket fuel, is a kind of test case for our moral tolerance. His prime was in that sordid sweet spot, right after the explosion of hormonal additives and right before baseball's belated decision to start testing for them. He and more than a few others fattened up during this era, taking advantage of both an illicit science and a three-monkey commission that seemed to have seen nothing, heard nothing and certainly said nothing. The home runs were thrilling, the records astonishing. Bonds's devotion to self-improvement was ... what? Pretty much wrong, apparently.
The weight of public opinion, which was persuasive enough to move even the players' union, has come down against steroid enhancement. We don't like the "clear" or the "cream" or the Clomid -- even for the sake of the dingers, the round-trippers, the four-baggers. For whatever reason, random drug testing of players has become a social decision (the disapproval of cheating trumps our appreciation of spectacle this time around), and baseball has grudgingly determined to enforce it. Major league baseball players will no longer be drafted out of the Pharmaceutical Fantasy League.
As a nation we're pretty good about understanding, even forgiving, these misguided extravagances of effort. We're so gung ho, about so many things, that we have to permit lapses in judgment; we'd never get ahead if we didn't prize ambition over good sense. For example: Nobody went to prison over polyester. We make mistakes, we get over them. And so Bonds' bulked-up demolition of all those old-timey home run records might be accepted in some kind of historical context, another of those wrong-headed fads. Let's not beat ourselves up about it.
On the other hand, we're not the kind of folks who like to wallow in our blunders, especially when one of them was a policy that seemed to doom a generation of T-ball players to acne, withered testicles and early death. Not good. Maybe having Bonds around to remind us of this misguided little era is the moral equivalent of wearing a Nehru jacket to work. We put the one away when it became embarrassing, how about the other?
If Bonds does continue, now past his synthetic prime, it will only serve to invite shame. Did we really go along with this cheating for the sake of a home run chase? Did we really enjoy all those blasts, sort of knowing they were forged with everything but artificial coloring? We're going to feel really cheap. It was one thing to marvel at a physical specimen just coming into his own in his mid-30s, his hat size climbing along with his home run totals; it's quite another to condone the underground chemistry that placed everybody else at a disadvantage. Wait, that's not the American Way!