In baseball, we love our numbers. And we love our heroes. And that brings us to Alex Rodriguez, a man who has committed a crime he doesn't even understand:
A crime against the once-proud history of his sport.
A-Rod didn't commit that crime alone, of course. In many ways, he is just the latest, greatest face of a mass conspiracy that has now succeeded in obliterating the quality that used to separate baseball from the rest of the sporting jungle.
Once, the numbers of baseball used to mean something special and magical. And the men who compiled those numbers were transcendent figures in American life.
But not now. Not anymore.
Now we've arrived at this sad and tragic place where the players missing from the Hall of Fame will tower over the men who are actually in the Hall of Fame.
I'm willing to bet right now that Alex Rodriguez will join that Cooperstown missing-persons list -- no matter how many home runs he hits, no matter how he chooses to spin Selena Roberts and David Epstein's impeccably reported story on SI.com.
So if that's true, think of where this sport almost certainly will find itself 15 years from now:
The all-time hits leader (Mr. Peter E. Rose) won't be in the Hall of Fame.
The all-time home run leader (assuming that's where A-Rod's highway leads him) won't be in the Hall of Fame.
The man who broke Hank Aaron's career record (Barry Bonds) won't be in the Hall.
The man who broke Roger Maris' single-season record (Mark McGwire) won't be in the Hall.
The man who was once the winningest right-handed pitcher of the live-ball era (Roger Clemens) won't be in the Hall.
The man with the most 60-homer seasons in baseball history (Sammy Sosa) doesn't look like he's headed for the Hall, either.
And who knows who's next? Who knows what other names are lurking on that list of seized urine samples? Who knows whose career and reputation will be fed through the shredder in the next big scoop? And the next? And the next?
I keep reading those previous seven paragraphs, trying my best to fully comprehend them. I'm not really succeeding.
How could baseball have allowed this to happen to itself? How? Can anyone recall any other sport that has ever committed such an insane act of self-destruction?
What compares to it? The Black Sox? This is worse. Game-fixing in college basketball? This is worse. Nominate any scandal in the history of sports. My vote is that this is worse.
It's not worse because it will cause massive numbers of people to stop watching or caring about baseball. Check the attendance. Check the revenue charts. People will come back. They've already come back. The sport, as a business, is doing great.
But the sport, as a unique paragon of American culture, is devastated. And that's forever.
At times like this, I always tell the story of what it was like to follow Mark McGwire around in September 1998. I saw this man hit 17 of his 70 home runs that season. I saw records topple. I saw powerful numbers rise and fall.
But more than that, I measured the feat I was watching by who else showed up to catch the show. And by that I mean Bruce Springsteen. And Bruce Hornsby. And Barbara Walters. And MTV. And "Good Morning America." And many, many others just like them.
They didn't join us in beautiful downtown St. Louis because they'd always wanted to see the Arch. They joined us because this wasn't a sports story -- this was a massive American story.
This was a story that lifted itself out of the batter's box and plopped itself right down on Main Street. It was a story that appealed to Americans who didn't know a split-fingered fastball from a banana split.
But they knew what the number 60 meant. They knew what 61 meant. They knew who Babe Ruth was. And they knew this was a phenomenon that linked Mark McGwire to the Bambino, that linked now to then, that linked this America to that America.
That's what the home run record used to mean in our land.
That's what baseball used to mean.
But not anymore.
And that's the crime here. That's the tragedy. That's what we've lost.
We've lost the opportunity for Alex Rodriguez to restore that: the meaning. The relevance. The power. The romance.
He held that opportunity in his hands. And now it's gone.
He was the one man on the planet with the chance to resuscitate the greatest record in sports. He was the one man on the planet with the chance to rebuild his sport's sacred bridge to the glory days.
And now he'll never get that back, no matter how many more home run trots he makes.
I do have some measure of sympathy for him, though. We can't forget that these test results were supposed to be confidential. So the leaking of the results of those tests -- particularly his tests -- is outrageous on one level, suspicious on another.
I also know that he isn't alone. I know there are 103 other positive tests on that list, capable of being leaked any minute. And I know there are hundreds of other players who never failed a test, who never have had a finger pointed, who never have come up in this conversation, who are just as guilty of performance-enhancing-drug use as the names we spend all our time talking about.
So even now, it isn't particularly fair to single out A-Rod. I'll concede that.
But those are all just subplots to the big show, under A-Rod's big top. And that show isn't going to close for the rest of Alex Rodriguez's life.
He should resign himself to that before he takes another step or utters another word. The yolk is never going back inside the egg. So whatever he does next, however he explains himself this week and next week and for the rest of his career, all he can possibly accomplish is damage control.
But the damage itself already has been done. And it's never going to be undone.
That's the crime here. Oh, it may not just be his crime. It's a crime shared by everyone who allowed the steroid era to exist and persist. But that doesn't make our man A-Rod any more innocent, either. No, in some ways it makes him even more guilty.
He was a special player, with a special gift -- and an even more special opportunity: He was the man with the opportunity to reconnect baseball's once-indelible dotted line between past and present, between great-grandsons and great-grandfathers, between his home plate and your hometown.
And now he's squandered that gift, squandered that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
So weep not for what A-Rod has done to himself.
Weep for what he's done to his sport.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.