Barry Bonds might enter the 2007 season second only to Hank Aaron on the all-time home run list, but in the story line that should matter the most, Bonds is still pleading the Fifth.
The Fifth Amendment, as in no comment, to any question regarding the federal government's ongoing attempt to nail him with steroid-use/related perjury charges.
Bonds' thus-far successful dodge of criminal charges has accomplished two things.
It assures that any and all on-field accomplishments emanating from his bat, from his era, will continue to enrage rather than elate. It also assures that Bonds, in particular, and the issue of illegal performance-enhancing drugs in general, will continue to present massive dilemmas for baseball.
Commissioner Bud Selig & Co. can't help but be at a loss as to how the game should honor Bonds should the man standing on 734 home runs approach Aaron's record of 755.
Arguments will be made that no honors should be conveyed if Bonds catches Aaron.
Honor Bonds, don't honor Bonds - either way, baseball's approach is guaranteed to polarize and inflame.
Poor Bud. He won't have enough fingers and toes to count the kinds of charges and countercharges any decision will generate, from racism, generational bias and flat-out hypocrisy, to name but a few of the high, hard ones sure to come the commissioner's way.
Some would argue that baseball earned this thankless mess on merit. Club owners, players, sponsors - and, alas, even reporters - allowed themselves to be mesmerized by what is commonly referred to in bitter terms as the steroid era.
That does not mean that the anguish of the powers-that-be won't be as real as the certain embarrassment. Because you're talking about a scenario in which the game possibly not only has to ignore its greatest hitter for all eternity (the banned-for-life Pete Rose) but also its home-run king.
Unbelievable, but true.
Still, any anguish Selig is about to feel, any anger even a slightly snubbed Bonds is bound to harbor, can't possibly compare to what will course through Aaron come crunch time.
A proud man, Aaron knows in his heart that his march past Ruth's one-time hallowed record of 714 homers was not only noble and heroic. Aaron also knows his milestone was built with an integrity that is beyond question.
Now he might be asked to honor Bonds and, therefore, the era that made it possible for his record to be wrenched from him in highly suspicious fashion.
And, unless Bonds pulls up short, how unavoidable.
While there remains so much we do not know about this tawdry era, one thing we do know is that should the record fall, there won't be a greater victim in this sorry saga than Hammerin' Hank.
As for that era, while it is said to be mercifully receding into the past, it is still spreading its stench.
That much became clear last week when the federal government, on the hunt for Bonds and others, won a court appeal guaranteed to send shudders through the ranks of every major league clubhouse.
A federal appeals court this week cleared the way for prosecutors to access the names and test samples of 100 players who reportedly tested positive for steroids in a voluntary scientific survey conducted by Major League Baseball in 2003.
The Major League Baseball Players Association will fight the decision, all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary.
That is Donald Fehr's job, to protect these knuckleheads - and the head of the players union does his job very well.
Still, should the union lawyers fail in their attempt to keep those records sealed, the fallout could devastate not only the ballplayers, but also baseball.
You do the math: What's in those vials might not only contain the proof needed to convict Bonds of lying about having never knowingly used steroids.
Those urine samples could at last legitimize what has been long thought to be baseball's ugliest secret of all:
This isn't just about Bar-roid. It's about Bonds times hundreds!
The wide net the public clamored for is about to be hauled in. And it might contain results the public isn't braced to receive.
It's been easy to demonize Bonds - made so by the sheer force of his often surly personality. Is the public really prepared to wrap arms around the fall of players once thought so pure and pristine?
Baseball and its fans might have to embrace a new, ugly reality in which the playing field was not as skewed in favor of power hitters as once thought because starting pitchers, relievers, Punch-and-Judy infielders, etc., all might have benefited from the shady times when 'roids were all the rage.
Ah, the steroid era: the gift that keeps on giving - black eyes, likely more than baseball ever imagined.
Claire Smith writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer.