A genuine pain in the ... knee

You try not to overreact to Barry Bonds news, because it usually comes pre-inflated to your doorstep. The name alone bumps a story by 35 percent, content aside.

But the newest news is something else entirely. It isn't about accusations of performance enhancers, or accusations of perjury, or accusations of tax evasion, or accusations of guilt by personality.

It's about baseball. It's about a knee that obstinately refuses to heal, to the point that he has just endured his third surgery in 91 days, this one to clear up an infection.

If you squint your eyes really hard, you see parallels to the end of Mark McGwire's career, closed with a thud because of an injury that defied medicine.

But if you prefer your vision with eyes fully open, you know better. You know that Bonds isn't going to leave this game defeated unless his knee simply accordions into his sock, because he has come too close and fought too many people too many ways to give in just yet.

The import of this surgery, though, is that his knee may not keep taking "Suck it up, damn you" for an answer.

The details, as reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, are these:

  • He has had his knee drained twice in the past eight days, but an infection within the knee, presumably incurred during one of his two arthroscopic surgeries for cartilage repair, was found and treated surgically by flushing out the infection with fluids and antibiotics.

  • An orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist familiar with the procedure, but who is not linked to the Bonds case, said the chances of such an infection during an arthroscopic procedure occurs once in every thousand patients.

    In layman's terms, his comeback, once listed at mid-May, may not occur until July. And only if there are no new complications.

    This changes the discussion about Bonds in a radical way. He is no longer Robo-Man, the man who cheated gravity and time, but a 40-year-old man whose baseball future could be in full-stop mode.

    Could, that is.

    Bonds has told writers for years how tired he is, and there are times in every season when he does hit "E," like everyone else. But he hits "E" harder than most, and this is essentially a barrel-roll into the bleachers.

    Yet, Bonds is also more willful than most, willing (if not eager) to deal with the audience while perpetually on his guard. His legal issues aside, this is a hard way to go through life, antagonizing and being antagonized as a regular part of the day. For him to have done it this way, his way, for so long implies an inner stubbornness that one suspects will force him through this growing and horizonless stretch of idleness.

    So he's too tough to walk away. Yeah, now how about some news?

    Well, here it is. His argument this time is with himself, and his own persistently balky knee. He's being told no by something he cannot argue with.

    More specifically, he is dealing with a condition that clearly is not getting better, but worse. If you pile setbacks high enough, what you get is a chronic condition, and this third surgery increases the doubts exponentially.

    It does not retire him, though, and Bonds seems for all the world like the sort of person who needs the game far more than he lets on. Baseball is not only what he does, but what he is, and once you leave, you don't get to come back.

    Plus, he is still only 11 homers short of Babe Ruth. Even if Henry Aaron seems farther away than ever, it will take doctors with nets and stun guns to keep Bonds from chasing Ruth's mark.

    Thus, we are not looking here at Mark McGwire ... yet. To see that is to strain an analogy not yet drawn, to squint to the point of closing your eyes entirely. Barry Bonds is not going quietly into anyone's good night.

    But the question can now be asked, and that is troubling enough both for Bonds and for those who have committed themselves to his ability to amuse and amaze them.

    Ray Ratto is a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a regular contributor to ESPN.com