The key question is no longer, "Did he do it?" That one has been answered to most people's satisfaction, even if the admission will never come from the man himself. We even know the when, what, why and how of Barry Bonds' steroid use, if the meticulously researched Game of Shadows is to be believed, and only the hopelessly naive or the simply stubborn could ignore the mountain of evidence the book presents.
Some of the other pertinent questions will be answered in due time: Did Bonds perjure himself before a grand jury? Could his next uniform be a prison jumpsuit? Now that he's passed Babe Ruth for second on the all-time home run list, can he last long enough to surpass Hank Aaron?
We don't need Bonds to tackle any of those topics today. But there is one matter that only he can address, one question that we would love to have him answer with his hand on the Bible.
Was it worth it?
Were the results of all those pharmaceuticals he's said to have injected, ingested or applied to his body worth the hell he now endures from the media, the public and the federal government? Was the unprecedented late-career spike in his power numbers worth going through the rest of his life with the stigma of steroids attached to his name? Was it worth it to amass the second-highest home run total in history, only to know that history will look down its nose at him?
He can't be under the illusion that time will bleach away the blemish on his records. As baseball strives to crack down on steroid users, the outlandish power numbers of the last 10-15 years won't be duplicated, and seasons like Bonds' 73-homer year in 2001 will stand out even more as an anomaly. We will shake our heads when we tell our children and grandchildren about him. "Yes, he was an amazing player," we will say. "But ..."
The "but" will never go away.
It is impossible to quantify the effect that performance-enhancing drugs had on Bonds' career. We will never be sure how many -- if any -- of his home runs would have been caught on the warning track, or how many -- if any -- were hit off pitchers who themselves were on the juice. That uncertainty is the legacy of the steroid era, and it will forever taint the numbers of anyone who played during the period, but no one more so than Bonds. His final career home run total, whatever it is, should carry not an asterisk but a question mark. We know he was great; we just don't know how much of his greatness came from a syringe.
Bonds' name will be linked with steroid use long after he has hit his last home run. The stain on his achievements is permanent, in the same way that Pete Rose is known as much for the gambling that has kept him out of the Hall of Fame as he is for the all-time hits total that otherwise would have made him a first-ballot inductee. It's not hard to imagine the two of them, years from now, commiserating over how unfairly history has treated them.
But Bonds may be more fortunate than Rose on the Hall of Fame issue. Although there are voters who have said they will not vote for the Giants slugger when he becomes eligible five years after his retirement, there are also voters who have said they will include him on their ballot because he had already compiled Hall-worthy statistics before he is believed to have begun juicing, in 1998. But even if Bonds is someday inducted, he will almost surely be met with more than a few boos when he takes the podium in Cooperstown, just as he met with a mixed national reaction when he caught and passed Ruth. Every milestone for the rest of Bonds' career will resurrect the steroid issue, and no discussion of his career will be complete without addressing the final, tainted stages of it.
The shame is that it didn't have to be this way for Bonds. These could have been the best of times for him, with the baseball world paying tribute during the waning days of a fabulous career. A great player nearing the end is loved everywhere, forgiven for all his sins. Even a player as prickly as Bonds could have been getting farewell ovations on the road as fans who rooted against him nonetheless acknowledged his greatness. Instead, he is heavily booed in every ballpark except his own, and instead of celebrating his 715th home run, commissioner Bud Selig kept him at arm's length.
Let's play a game of What If. What if, instead of hitting a home run every 8.5 at-bats, as he did during his "steroid years" of 1999 through 2005, Bonds had stayed away from the chemicals and maintained his career home run pace of one every 16.1 at-bats over that period? He would have entered this season with 567 homers -- not the stuff of Aaron and Ruth, but the fifth-highest home run total in history. He would have been universally accepted as one of the greatest hitters ever, without reservation. Instead, this.
Perhaps that scenario would not have satisfied Bonds. He would have missed out on some of the most awesome offensive seasons in baseball history, and he would have missed out on surpassing Ruth as the greatest left-handed home run hitter of all time. Maybe those accomplishments are worth every unpleasant thing he has or will endure because of them. Surely he has asked himself the question, "Was it worth it?"