If we really cared about cheating ...

Here in America, nothing outrages us as a society more than cheating.

Unless, of course, it's a pitcher who is doing it.

We want Rafael Palmeiro to quit, to confess, to be thrown in the slammer by Congress and to be kept out of Cooperstown, N.Y., -- even if we have to call in the National Guard.

But Gaylord Perry can sign autographs for 20 bucks a scribble every year on Hall of Fame Induction Day. And Whitey Ford can pose for pictures with our wives and our fathers and our babies outside the Doubleday Cafe.

So why is that? We'd love to have someone explain it to us.

It's a phenomenon we've noticed since Steroid Mania began raging in our streets. And we know we're not the only ones who have.

For some reason, there is only one form of cheating that seems to offend us anymore. And that is guys who cheat to hit more home runs. Period.

No one grumbles about pitchers who scuff up baseballs with their belt buckles and their wedding rings.

No one screams about pitchers who fiddle with their cap, wipe their brow, rub their hands through their hair gel and then fire pitches that break three feet.

No one calls a talk show about middle relievers or fifth starters who test positive for illegally ingesting whatever.

But Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Palmeiro are right up there with Al Capone, Vincent Gotti and Jack the Ripper: Criminals. Hoodlums. Disgraces to their sport and to their planet.

Now this is not a column meant to defend them or excuse them or rationalize for them. Before you start e-mailing, please understand that.

This is just a column meant to pose a question we can't answer. This is a column intended to point out the double standard that has always governed our attitude toward cheating in sports.

Some cheaters make us laugh. Other cheaters make us crazy. Does that make any sense?

There is a message in here someplace. We're just trying to find it. And we're starting by pondering the eternal question of what we do and don't consider to be "real" cheating.

"To me," says Phillies closer Billy Wagner, "guys who scuff the ball or put pine tar on the ball -- that's not cheating."

And many people -- inside and outside of baseball -- agree. That kind of cheating is just baseball's equivalent of fudging on your income-tax deductions or embellishing an expense account.

It's not cheating. It's "gamesmanship."

"If you get away with it," Wagner laughs, "it's fine."

Fine? Heck, it's amusing -­ if the right guy does it. Gaylord Perry used to make jokes about doing Vaseline commercials. And nobody cared. Heck, they laughed.

"It bothers me that people still laugh about what Gaylord Perry did," says SABR home run historian David Vincent. "And what he did was clearly against the rules of baseball. I keep asking 'Where's the moral indignation about those other things?' ... I guess I just don't understand the meaning of 'gamesmanship.' It's cheating."

Ah, but that's not how we look at it. Is it? Sure, there's a difference between a spitball and a syringe. But there are also some significant similarities.

"The definition of 'gamesmanship' is something you do to give yourself an advantage," Vincent says. "But isn't that what these power hitters were doing -- trying to give themselves an advantage by muscling up?"

Sure. And remember, they were doing it, at least until the last couple of years, in a sport that had no rules against it. Not to mention in an environment where many players looked around and saw "everyone else" doing it -- so it seemed crazy not to.

Of course, as many of you have pointed out, if steroid use was so socially acceptable, why did these players work so hard to hide it? You also have hammered on another point: They were breaking actual laws. So why do they deserve forgiveness?

Well, they don't deserve forgiveness. And we've never argued they did. But the Hall of Fame is filled with men who broke all sorts of laws -- including federal drug laws. They just happened to involve a different kind of drug.

So what this really comes down to is this:

We love home runs. We especially love really long home runs. So by extension, we love our hallowed home run records. We love them more than any other records in sports. And if those records are being threatened by "cheaters," now that offends us.

"And I think the reason why," Vincent says, "is that those home run records were held for years by Babe Ruth. I really think that's what has propelled this. It's a lot like what happened with Roger Maris and the asterisk in 1961. The feeling was: 'We're going to find a way to keep Babe Ruth at the top of the list.' And it's a similar feeling now. We don't want anybody to tarnish what Babe Ruth did."

So how can we pull that off? By dusting off those asterisks and stamping them all over the records of Bonds and McGwire. Or better yet, expunge those records entirely. That'll preserve the sanctity of the Babe and his numbers, right? That'll tell the world how strongly we feel about maintaining the purity of our sport.

OK, fine. Let's do it. But the trouble is, if we do, we can't stop there. If the theories are right -- that just as many pitchers were taking steroids as hitters -- what about their records?

And then comes the really hard part: If we're going to make all those stats and all those records disappear, what do we do about wins and losses?

After all, there's nothing more amazing, when we hear this issue kicked around, than the fact that something much bigger than any record has undoubtedly been affected by these players who used steroids -- and it's never discussed.

What about the games these men changed? What about the seasons they changed? What about the postseasons they changed? What about the World Series they changed?

If you strip Barry Bonds' records because of what you think he did, what would you like done with the results of that 2002 postseason -- a postseason that ended with Bonds' team playing (and losing) Game 7 of the World Series? Obliterate them?

Well, you can't. Obviously. But isn't it kind of bizarre that you never even hear that question debated? If we really cared about cheating, if we really cared about righting all the wrongs perpetrated by that cheating, shouldn't that be the first issue we debate?

But we gloss over that, and why? Because it's too complicated? Maybe. But we don't think that's what this is about. What it's really about is The Almighty Home Run.

"There's no doubt that pitchers cheat," says Billy Wagner. "But it's always overshadowed by home runs. ... Pitchers are a dime a dozen. It's the home run hitters people look for when they go to the ballpark. They don't care about Billy Wagner. They care about where Jim Thome is. They want to see the ball leave the park."

Yes, they do. So it only seems to follow that the things we care about most are the same things that outrage us most when we find out they weren't what we thought they were. We get that part of this issue.

But if this steroid outrage is really about the criminal act of cheating, then how can we stop there? Either we care about cheating, or we don't. And if we do, how can we justify picking and choosing which crimes are worth prosecuting?

That's a question we can't answer. So we've posed the question. We've opened the debate. Now where do we go from here? Sorry, we can't answer that one, either.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.