As narratives go, baseball's steroids era always has desperately needed a cavalry, good guys to ride to the rescue and, at the least, ease the cynicism that the lure of the dollar has turned everyone's hands dirty.
The players, outsized on the field, have been at their least heroic during more than a decade of deceit. Their obstructionist union, the MLB Players Association, has been at its worst on the issue. Even as it failed to anticipate the true cost of performance-enhancing drugs -- the players' reputations -- the union complained bitterly that its members were not receiving a fair trial from a rightfully disillusioned public.
The ostensible protector of the game, commissioner Bud Selig, hates the assertion that he was negligent as well, but there are too many examples in which he was slow to the party. And even after he arrived, he didn't act comprehensively or decisively enough to escape the taint of scandal.
The closest thing to a crusading body -- outside of the handful of medical experts, whose expertise often was overwhelmed by the familiar high pitch of the cash register -- has been the federal government.
It was the government -- Congress, the Department of Justice, the Postal Service and the Internal Revenue Service -- that shook Selig out of his slumber and revealed the true scope of the steroids issue to the reluctant public. Congress made little boys out of the big men of the clubhouse during those seminal March 17, 2005, hearings. It transformed Selig from disaffected autocrat to compassionate ally of parents who lost their children in part to steroids abuse.
It was the Justice Department that finally and completely deflated the biggest lie in sports: There's nothing in a bottle that can help you hit home runs. First through the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative investigation (which began as an IRS inquiry), and then through the Kirk Radomski and Brian McNamee investigations (the Radomski case was built largely on postal inspectors' nabbing drug shipments in the mail), the muscle of the federal government did what the media could not manage and what the public never demanded: It forced baseball to own up to a rampant drug culture it had been trying to pass off as nothing more than an illusion.
But now, it appears that even the government, the protagonist of the story so far, might not be able to provide a happy ending for history or, for that matter, the present. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld on Wednesday in San Francisco the union's long-standing claim that the crusading government agents, the supposed heroes, acted improperly in seizing data and results from baseball's confidential 2003 survey drug-testing program. That information, as anyone who hasn't been sleeping under a boulder can tell you, has come out in leaks that have made many recent headlines.
The government's role in the narrative always has been questioned by a union long frustrated that the public is fixated on the superficial tenet that perception is reality and thus cares more about the acidic trickle of those names alleged to be on the 2003 list -- Sammy Sosa, David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez, thus far -- than about the far more dangerous fact that the law is being broken each time a new name hits the streets.
And while no one was listening -- too taken by The Next Big Name to be leaked -- the union was right. The larger question of confidentiality had been compromised, no small thing if the justice system is to work. The union would like to call Wednesday's decision a victory for the players, but it is only a partial one. Like everything else about the steroids era, victories and defeats are not so easily claimed. The government might have been admonished, and the civil liberties of citizens against unlawful search and seizure might have been reinforced as a result.
But the ruling doesn't exonerate the compounding dishonesty on the part of the players and their union, who have not shown much interest in preserving the integrity of the product on the field.
The players still conned the public, and their union backed the con game. Without the government using its power, the con game would have continued, the players straight-faced and indignant, lying all the while.
Jack Cust, the A's outfielder who so cockily mocked the Mitchell report last week, failed to mention in his arrogant moment of triumph that a more comprehensive report was not produced because people such as Cust and his union refused to cooperate. Cust, like most of the players, has wanted it both ways on this issue; they like to complain about unfair treatment, yet they refused to engage and protect their reputations when they had the chance.
Now, the government, once the catalyst for reform, is in the middle of its own seventh-inning stretch, the equivalent of a team that scored runs early but has watched its big lead erode as the final innings approach. It no longer is clear that the good guys are going to emerge that good, after all.
The government's case against Barry Bonds has floundered almost from the start. It has been nearly two years since Nov. 15, 2007, when Bonds was indicted on perjury and obstruction of justice charges. It has been more than a year and a half since Roger Clemens and Brian McNamee testified before Congress, and Clemens has not been indicted. Rafael Palmeiro wagged his finger in front of Congress and then tested positive for a banned substance months later, but the government couldn't find enough evidence to indict him for perjury. Only Miguel Tejada, indirectly cross-examined through the Mitchell report, pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor of lying to congressional investigators.
Nevertheless, the government remains a seminal player in this drama. Baseball had introduced drug testing in the minor leagues and the union had agreed to drug testing in the big leagues before the Henry Waxmans got involved. But without the government listening to Jose Canseco, the penalty for a positive test for a performance-enhancing drug still would be 10 games and players still would be able to thwart the drug testers with impunity. Amphetamines likely would not be on the game's banned list. Mark McGwire likely would be in the Hall of Fame. Baseball would not have, as Selig now boasts, "the strongest testing program in professional sports." The lie would still be alive.
But if the government winds up as checkered a player as the rest of the characters in this story, the true failure of its mission will be in not going far enough in its pursuit of performance-enhancing drugs. If the congressional hearings of several years ago produced one absolute, it is the legislators' collective and stated belief that the Olympic standard for drug testing is the only way to begin to reduce the use of performance enhancers in pro sports. Neither the players nor management -- be they in the NFL, NBA, NHL or MLB -- have the will or the interest to deal candidly with drugs in sports on their own. As Waxman once told me, "Professional sports needs to get out of the drug business."
Yet each time Congress has threatened to take that ultimate step and impose an independent agency on pro sports, it has disappeared, unwilling to deal with the considerable labor issues involved -- drug testing is a workplace issue that traditionally is collectively bargained -- and ultimately uninterested in tangible reform.
The end result: The government created a bully pulpit, but the bully seems to have taken a lunch break.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston " and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.