It's a bad time, but baseball will survive

Opening Day is just over two weeks away and, despite fascinating story lines across Florida and Arizona, there isn't much baseball talk going on. That's because the real opener is Thursday in Washington, D.C., when Congress gets its chance to interrogate Major League Baseball about steroids.

There will be a lot of sweating and a lot of hard questions asked, but chances are, there will be no startling revelations; mostly, we're guessing, it will be commissioner Bud Selig and others explaining that baseball had a major problem with steroids, but it is cleaning up the game, and doesn't need outside assistance.

It will not be an easy day for anyone who testifies, and it is not a good time for baseball. But this is not a crisis. This is not the 1994 strike. This is not the Black Sox scandal. This is not the Pittsburgh drug trial. The steroids controversy has damaged the game, and it won't go away until the BALCO investigation is over, which could take years. This is not going to just blow over, it's going to follow the game through Barry Bonds' chase for 756 career home runs, and beyond.

But the game is too great to be overwhelmed by it. Baseball overcame a lost World Series and a thrown World Series. It will overcome this because the game is so resilient. Its three core elements, those that drive the game, will be affected, but not destroyed.

The fans
They have heard the rumors of steroids for years, especially last spring, and yet the major leagues and minor leagues set records for attendance. The issue is far more serious this year, with at least some acknowledgement of steroid use, but it's difficult to imagine the fans letting it ruin their enjoyment of the game.

How else can you explain the large crowds this spring in Red Sox camp, with fans buying bottled water for $4.75 a pop? It's hard to picture a father telling his 10-year-old son they won't be following their favorite team this season because players several years ago did steroids to make themselves bigger and better. It's hard to imagine four friends with great seats on a gorgeous Friday in July at Wrigley Field, punishing the game by saying, "Those guys are all a bunch of cheaters, let's not go.''

The players
Other than those who have been called to testify, the players appear largely unaffected this spring. "It is not a topic of conversation in our clubhouse,'' said one manager. "No one is talking about this. We made mistakes in our game, but those mistakes are being corrected.''

Players are smaller this spring. "Have you seen Pudge [Rodriguez]?'' one player asked. "He looks like Brandon Inge.''

The players have been getting smaller for two years, which seems to be an indication that the system is working. Steroids will be a distraction as the season goes along, especially if a few players test positive, but it will not overwhelm the season.

The BALCO trial might not take place until after the season, which would be a good thing for baseball; it would be especially awkward if it was going on as Bonds passed Babe Ruth. There will be increased scrutiny of performance of players who have been linked to steroids, but players are likely to learn what they should have known all along: most of them are good enough, and strong enough, to hit a lot of home runs, and throw 95 mph, without additional help.

The statistics
With the proof we have, it's impractical to wipe away records, to put an asterisk next to anyone or to keep anyone out of the Hall of Fame. Cheating is cheating, and taking steroids is cheating, as is corking a bat or scuffing a ball. Granted, sticking a needle in your butt is far more unsavory – and serious – than loading up a baseball, but is anyone prepared to kick all pre-1920 pitchers out of the Hall of Fame because the spitball was legal?

For now, it is impossible to determine which players used steroids, how often they used them and how the steroids affected their performance. Have we forgotten that smaller ballparks, a strike zone the size of a license plate, harder baseballs and new technology in bats have aided this offensive explosion?

To many, however, the records are now, and always will be, tainted. Even if we learn nothing more about performance enhancing substances, this forever will be known as the Steroid Era. All numbers amassed during 1994-2004 will be viewed with mistrust.

Borderline Hall of Famers who played in this era, and are suspected of steroid use, likely won't get a vote from the voter on the fence. For the rest of Barry Bonds' life, his stunning achievements will be seen with a skeptical eye by many. For now, that is his punishment, and given baseball's marvelous link to history through its numbers and its records, that is no small punishment. Not like he cares, but when Bonds passes Ruth, and then Hank Aaron, for the greatest record in sports, it surely won't be celebrated with the same joy.

We don't have enough faith in ourselves, and our children, to understand this era in relation to the history of the game. When Sammy Sosa passes Willie Mays on the all-time home run list in three or four years, there isn't one person on earth who will believe that Sosa was a better player than Mays.

Ruth is, by any statistical measure, the greatest and most historic player of all time. When Bonds passes him, does anyone believe Ruth's stature will be lessened? The Bambino's legend is safe forever. And so is that of Roger Maris. It matters little that he has the seventh greatest single-season home run total. Anyone who cares about history will know he was the first to 61, the first to beat the Babe.

This era will not be remembered fondly, especially with what might happen Thursday in Washington, D.C., and the rest of this year. But it will not ruin the game. Nothing can do that.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Baseball Tonight.