Sammy Sosa hit homer No. 600 Wednesday night, and I smiled.
Cheering would be over the top. A scowl and hollow feeling, which comes just thinking about the number 756, would be too much.
Hypocritical? A little. Maybe not as much as you think. Here's the shorthand:
Barry Bonds: Evil.
Mark McGwire: Coward.
Rafael Palmeiro: Apparent perjurer.
A likable phony, sure. A cheater, demonstrably; remember the corked bat from 2003? A steroids user? Maybe. Probably. Don't know for sure. But a Hall of Famer? Surely.
Man, I'm tired of this debate. You catching the mixed emotions here?
The thread, of course, is that all four are members of the 500 home run club and are suspected of using steroids. While the other three have been linked by criminal investigation (Bonds), a book (McGwire) and testing (Palmeiro), all we have with Sosa is strong suspicion and our own eyes.
We just know.
There's a bigger distinction to be made. Bonds' biggest transgression is his wholesale and unwavering disrespect for the game and, just as important, its fans. In his mind, it's his universe, and we're just voyeurs picking up the tab. He owes nothing to anyone, has no obligation to anything. His crime is being a bad, bad human being.
McGwire and Palmeiro played us as fools. Decent guys, at least in appearance, they thought bankrolled good will would allow them to skate. Both were engulfed beneath ice.
Then there's the odd case of Sosa. After his no hablo ingles performance before Congress two years ago, when his ability to speak and understand English mysteriously disappeared, it became widely assumed he was just another member of the dirty dozen hundred or so who cheated his way to greatness.
Once again he's linked with McGwire, the tandem that did so much to resurrect post-strike baseball with the Great Home Run Chase of 1998. (Ever notice that accepted moniker gives the time a sepia-tinged aura of antiquity?)
Then there's the body, of course, which to this day bears no resemblance to the lanky teen first signed by the Texas Rangers. The drop-off in 2005 with the Orioles, followed by a year out of baseball, seemed to confirm what we seemed to know.
But do we really, truly know what he did - what any of these guys did, the ones we named and the others who have faded from memory? (Where have you gone, Brady Anderson?)
We just know.
But, ah, the smile, the hop, the enthusiasm. We want to love Sammy again, the way we once did, the way we once embraced McGwire. We can't. But he did make the game fun, and it seemed like he cared about baseball and its fans. A phony? Maybe. Maybe that's all we can expect.
But Sosa, the fifth man into the growing 600 club, should be hopping into Cooperstown. Same with McGwire and Bonds and even Palmeiro. Barriers must be built, penance paid, extended waiting periods endured. But enshrinement is inevitable.
We can't remove all the cheaters - say goodbye to Gaylord Perry and Ty Cobb? - nor can we deny the historical significance and accomplishments of these players, even if they come with an asterisk. We have to let them in, or keep everyone of their generation out.
Yes, Sammy will get in. His acceptance speech will be in unbroken English. And I will smile. But just a little bit.
Mark McGuire writes for the Albany (N.Y.) Times Union.