The story of Barry Bonds is shaping up to be one of the great American sports tragedies.
The San Francisco Giants slugger is dogged by accusations that his home run numbers between 1998 and 2003 were due to his use of steroids and human growth hormones.
My question is this: Why do we care? It's entertainment, isn't it?
But the answer goes to the heart of why today's game is delusional about its place in our society.
We care about Bonds and the home run chase because we're still under the mistaken notion that baseball reflects the ethos of meritocracy in America. For many fans, Hank Aaron's chasing down and surpassing Babe Ruth's home run record represented -- albeit naively -- the belief in the leveling of race and class.
This isn't to say that baseball hasn't played an important part in the cultural landscape. It's hard to deny the social significance of Jackie Robinson's achievement of integrating baseball in the 20th century.
However, that was then and this is now.
The use of steroids and human growth hormones has tarnished the veneer of merit that baseball once enjoyed, especially after integration.
Today, our notion of the game is divided between grasping at the straws of fairness and honesty and recognizing the reality that baseball is a business for players, managers and owners.
It's not just about wins and losses anymore. Baseball is now also about selling merchandise and securing cable TV packages and landing product endorsements and building beautiful ballparks with sparkling corporate suites. Those suites are filled with people who couldn't care less about the fundamentals of good pitching, fielding, base-running and hitting for percentage. No, they want to see guys knock the cover off baseballs.
And this takes us to how Barry Bonds became Barry Bonds.
In 1998, Bonds was well on his way to the Hall of Fame. He was a five-tool star who already had won three MVPs. That year, he became the first player in major league history to reach the career landmark of 400 home runs and 400 stolen bases.
Yet Bonds found himself eclipsed by the long-ball escapades of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in chasing down Roger Maris' single-season home run record. Not only did fans at home and on the road admire McGwire and Sosa, the press and the public hailed the two as the saviors of baseball, which was still hobbled by the ill feelings from fans because of the strike-shortened 1994 season.
Even to the untrained eye, McGwire and Sosa looked abnormal, but did they get asterisks?
As for Bonds, according to two recent books on the slugger, "Love Me, Hate Me" and "Game of Shadows," he responded accordingly: He got big and set his sights on becoming the home run king.
In 2001, he knocked McGwire out of the record books by hitting 73 homers.
From 1999 to 2004, Bonds averaged one home run per every 8.4 at bats. In the 13 seasons prior, the rate was one in 16.1 at bats. He accomplished this as he closed in on 40, an age when most athletes are retired and the rest in decline.
Plenty of people suspect Bonds was on something, but we know nothing because nothing has been proven.
Bonds insists that his color is keeping people from embracing him as the game's greatest player. But that is disingenuous. He can't logically believe that racists are protecting a record held by Hank Aaron, a black man.
Whether an asterisk is placed beside Bonds' numbers, he will forever be linked to the "steroid era."
The cruel irony is that the pre-1999 Bonds was just the kind of stellar player that sportswriters and true baseball fans should have hailed.
Fred McKissack is a writer living in Fort Wayne, Ind. His dream is to be a freelance bullpen catcher. He can be reached at email@example.com.