The time for Barry Bonds to break Hank Aaron's career home run record is fast approaching, which means it's also time for baseball commissioner Bud Selig to make a call:
Should he be present when Bonds passes Aaron and takes possession of one of baseball's most hallowed records, or should he suddenly have, ahem, "something else to do" and skip the moment because Bonds is so closely linked to the steroid scandal staining the game?
The longer Selig avoids making his plans known, the hotter the debate will get as Bonds approaches 755. (He has 745 after going 0-for-3 last night.) But in the end, Selig really doesn't have a choice. He has to be there.
Fair or not, Bonds used to be the primary poster child for steroids in baseball, but the scandal is mushrooming in multiple directions now. In the past two weeks, a former clubhouse employee for the New York Mets has pleaded guilty to dealing steroids to major league players, and the investigation led by former Sen. George Mitchell has requested medical records from former and current players such as Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro, among others.
There's no telling where it will all go from here, but the one certainty is it will go somewhere. If Bonds was indeed bellying up to the juice bar, as many believe, he probably had all sorts of company.
Selig's lukewarm, halfhearted defenses of Bonds ("he hasn't been convicted of anything") make it clear he would love to have nothing to do with the record-setting moment, and you can't blame him for feeling that way. Outside of San Francisco, where Bonds is beloved, the countdown is widely viewed as a grim march.
But as the scandal widens and the Mitchell investigation, which Selig ordered, finds cause to look under more and more rocks, the last thing the commissioner can afford to do is make distinctions between potential users. At this point, who knows how many there are? More than anyone thought, that's for sure. And who knows how big some of the as-yet-unknown names are? Dozens of players are reportedly involved in the Mets clubhouse case, and when their names become public, as they surely will, you can be sure there'll be stunners.
If Selig chooses to ignore one alleged juicer, he had better be ready to ignore a long list of alleged juicers - and in doing so, tacitly state that an entire era of the game's history might need to be thrown out.
Is that the right stance for the commissioner of the sport to take?
Not when the facts of a situation are still developing, as is the case with steroids in baseball. If anything, we're just now starting to fathom the scope of the problem. There is so much we don't know.
You can't make selective judgments at such a crossroads. Remember, Roger Clemens' name showed up on the Jason Grimsley affadavit last year. That might prove to be a false lead, but if it wasn't, would Selig turn his back when the Rocket makes the Hall of Fame?
Sure, Bonds has been churlish, arrogant, selfish and, according to leaked grand jury testimony, a cheater. Selig would be cheered for taking a tough stand on steroids if he turned his back. According to a poll conducted by ABC and ESPN last month, 52 percent of baseball's fans hope Bonds doesn't break the record.
But frankly, Selig needed to take a tough stand on steroids long before now, and the fact that he didn't is one of the primary reasons the sport has a problem now.
Taking a stand years ago could have curtailed behavior; taking a stand now would be a classic example of too little, too late.
Besides, by turning his back on Bonds now, Selig would be abandoning baseball at a time of need, and as the game's commissioner and supposed chief caretaker, he has to stick with the game through the bad times as well as the good times - especially since the roots of this situation formed on his watch.
Selig loves to crow about the game's overall health, citing record attendance, labor peace and the soaring profits being pocketed in spite of steroids headlines. Last year, he went so far as to claim the sport was experiencing a golden age.
You would say the same thing if you earned $14.5 million a year, as Selig did during the fiscal year ending last Oct. 31.
He gets paid like that to take hits as well as bows. When Bonds breaks the record, Selig might not want to be there, but at the rate he is paid to represent baseball in sickness and in health, he had better be there.