Even though Barry Bonds has received a temporary reprieve from federal investigators, doesn't it feel like we're reading the last chapter - the last few pages even - of a long, fabled career?
If baseball is serious about curbing drug use, this season will be Bonds' last in a major league uniform. Major League Baseball officials may not have the evidence for a banishment or even a suspension, but they don't really need it.
Bonds is a free agent after this season. Many think at least one team will take a chance on him next year. They figure the surly slugger will still be productive at the plate. Most tab him as a designated hitter for an American League team. It'd be a shame if that's how this plays out.
No one is suggesting collusion, but one by one, teams should take a pass on Bonds when he becomes available. The message that would be sent would stretch much further and have far more impact than whatever numbers Bonds might put up next year.
Baseball has shown signs recently that it wants to do more than pay lip service to its problem. The owners need to follow suit. Don't reward a guy who has disgraced the game with another multimillion-dollar contract. Fifteen homers and 70 RBIs - or whatever Bonds would post next season - just wouldn't be worth it.
We've heard for a while now that Bonds has been unfairly targeted. That's half true. Bonds has been targeted, but not unfairly. While some want to paint Bonds as a martyr, I see nothing wrong with him being used as an example.
After all, he's the one who clumsily allowed himself to get caught, he's the one who delivered testimony to a grand jury and he's the one who so audaciously challenged the game's norms. If baseball needs to wave its biggest pariah from a stick and parade him through the town square, then so be it. The next generation of ballplayers needs to understand that performance-enhancing drugs are not acceptable.
The message is too important; it's bigger than Bonds, Bud Selig or Victor Conte.
But thus far, that message has been as watered down as a martini at a Jerry Falwell dinner party. Baseball needs to draw a line and decide what it is and isn't willing to tolerate. And Bonds belongs on the side of the line that includes retirement checks and golf and watching The Price is Right every day from the living room couch.
It's early still. Before free agency is upon us, we'll know whether Bonds ultimately faces any charges at all. But even if he doesn't, we all know that Bonds won't be one of the hotter commodities on the free-agent market. Much of the concern will center on his declining numbers and mounting health concerns, not the controversy that tails him closer than a reality-TV cameraman.
The factor that should make him completely off limits, though, is the arrogant disregard he's displayed for the game's rules. In sports, second chances are easier to get than a parking ticket, so it seems reasonable to assume that someone would take a flier on Bonds. That'd be a safe assumption were it not for Sammy Sosa. And were it not for Rafael Palmeiro.
Because this is all relatively new territory, we don't have a lot of case studies to consider. So we look at two prominent players, both prominently associated with steroids. Neither officially retired from the game. They both left the Orioles last year, became free agents and found that not a single other team wanted to give them a major league deal.
Sosa battled several injuries in recent years, but still, over the past 10 years, he'd only failed to hit 35 home runs just one time (last year). Palmeiro didn't really have injury problems until last season, and in his previous 10 seasons, last year marked the only time he failed to notch at least 85 RBIs (and the 2004 season was the only other time he failed to reach 100). So is it that far of a reach to think that neither Sosa nor Palmeiro could contribute to a major league team this season? It might have been a gamble, but of course they could have.
But teams stayed away - Palmosa couldn't have found a job cooking fries - which certainly seems like some not-so-subtle foreshadowing for what awaits Bonds.
(Bonds turns 42 on Monday. It's worth noting that Bonds and Palmeiro are the same age; Sosa is nearly four years younger. While Palmeiro was busted for steroids last year, neither Bonds nor Sosa has tested positive for any illegal substances - unless hot air has been banned and we just didn't notice. Palmeiro and Sosa have both recently said they still hope to play this season.)
Part of you thinks that if the federal government wants to bust somebody, it will. Another part feels that if they had the evidence against Bonds, we would have seen some charges by now. Regardless, the end of Bonds' storied career doesn't seem far away. (Yes, I like anagrams, too; flip a few letters and "storied" becomes "steroid." Cue The Twilight Zone theme.)
As it concerns Bonds, the responsibility no longer lies with a grand jury or the commissioner's office or George Mitchell and his investigators. Baseball collectively - yet independently - must take a stand.
One of the beauties of free agency is that teams can choose their work force. And if anyone chooses Bonds, we'll all know just how seriously baseball regards cheating.
Read Rick Maese's blog at baltimoresun.com/maeseblog