As Barry Bonds moves upward into a stratosphere previously unvisited by mortals in the game of baseball, he simultaneously plops himself at the doorstep of the great However.
Right: That's two different places at once. Bear with me. I'll explain.
Bonds has won his third straight Most Valuable Player award in the National League. However, he did so after a couple of months during which he became prominently associated with one of the largest drug scandals in the history of sports.
Bonds now has captured six MVPs, these last handful coming at a point in his career at which most players start hearing "suggestions" from the front office that now might be a good time to think about starting that second life as a coach. However, he has done so under a general cloud of suspicion about how he got so much bigger and stronger so late in his playing days, a cloud that has failed to dissipate despite the continued absence of so much as a single test result linking the slugger to anything untoward.
Bonds will be touted, by some, as the greatest hitter in the history of baseball.
However: We're right on the verge of venturing into Asterisk Village.
And that's your Major League Baseball update for the fall of 2003.
Bonds' success is producing one of the great divergences of sporting thought in recent memory. On the one hand are those who consider his work with a bat to be the finest ever delivered by any player at any point in baseball's American history. These are the jaw-droppers, the folks who continue to reserve the right to be amazed by athletic achievement no matter how it is cobbled together and delivered.
On the other hand are the growing legion of skeptics, those who can't look at something like Mark McGwire's Andro-fed home-run binge of a few years ago and find a reason to salute it. These are the tight-lippers, the ones who see the thin-framed, loose-limbed Bonds of several years ago, look at the bulky, muscle-massed Bonds of today and declare the connecting link to be either illegal or deeply in violation of the spirit of the sport.
And on the third hand (listen, if Bonds can be two places at once, he certainly can be on three hands), there are those who simply do both. They celebrate Bonds' accomplishment and then diminish its importance. They enjoy the spectacle while doubting its true validity. They'll cheer Bonds in one moment and be willing to villify him in the next.
They are the great However. And if nothing else, they've got numbers.
The baseball vote on Bonds is a classic example of the phenomenon in play here. The MVP is given to the Giants' slugger in the absolute dearth of a solid suggestion why he should be denied it. At the same time, many of the people who voted for Bonds won't hesitate to aggressively follow the thread in the BALCO case, with its low, dark implications of "untraceable" steroid use that are smearing any athlete unlucky enough to receive a grand jury subpoenae.
And, believe it, this is the tip of the volcano. More than BALCO, this is about the age. This is about the era in sports and how it will be perceived, and Barry Bonds is a part of that, and, really, it's all inseparable if you're going to approach the thing with anything that resembles logic.
It is denial on the highest order to attempt to isolate Bonds' performance from the questions of the day. It's a fact that he got enormously bigger, with a quicker bat and possibly the greatest swing-reflex in the annals of the game, while on the far side of 35. It's a fact that Bonds smashed the single-season home-run record just a breath or two after both McGwire and Sammy Sosa laid waste to the Ruth-Maris marks that had stood for decades. It is a fact that Bonds has worked closely with the lab owner alleged to be at the heart of the THG scandal, and that his personal trainer is enveloped in the case as well.
It is a fact that this entire generation of statistics is and will continue to be loudly questioned by some people, who variously discount the numbers on the basis of any number of theories: the postage-stamp-sized strike zone, artifically amped baseballs, smaller parks, crummy pitching.
And suspected cheating by the winners. That, too.
There won't be a rational discussion of Bonds as the best of all time that does not include a sidebar on the issues of his day, in the same way that the dead-ball era (or whatever) comes up whenever old pitching and hitting records are assessed. They cannot be placed in separate rooms, these issues. They have been prominent for years, and now, in the time of Bonds' third straight MVP and sixth overall, some of them are stealing the headlines like never before.
They cannot be culled out. They cannot be siphoned off, no matter how clean and linear the resulting conversation might feel. Barry Bonds is a hitter who makes power and average merge like very few in the history of the game, and, in other news, he is unquestionably a player of his time. That may be the good news and the bad all in one.
Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com