Far from 'roid to ruin

Let's put this mess in a little perspective.

This isn't the Black Sox.

This isn't The Strike that Ate the World Series.

In many ways, in fact, this probably isn't even as scandalous as the late, great Collusion Fiasco back in the 1980s.

But now that we've got that out of the way, there's still no denying that baseball's latest ride on the rampaging Steroid Express has sent this sport tumbling over the side of a cliff it has seen coming for a long, long time.

On this very Web site, at last look, more than 80 percent of sports fans who were polled about Barry Bonds' BALCO revelations said this story didn't change their opinion of him -- because they "always thought he used steroids."

So if that many people are regarding what seems like one of the blockbuster sports stories of modern times with a big fat "what-else-is-new?", then how much damage can it really be inflicting on the sport itself?

Meanwhile, over in the Jason Giambi car of the Steroid Express, just 10 percent of fans polled said they were either "surprised" or "shocked" by Giambi's testimony before the BALCO grand jury.

Even if you throw in the 12.9 percent who said they were angered, you're still talking about a smaller percentage of the population than thinks we should rip Alexander Hamilton's mug off the face of the $10 bill.

So that's a scandal? An embarrassment, maybe. But a scandal? Not in our dictionary.

What Jason Giambi and Barry Bonds did for baseball this week was present it (and themselves) with a public-relations nightmare. But it's not a new nightmare. It's just a new spin on the same old nightmare.

We know that because, in the same set of polling, more than 93 percent of fans surveyed said steroid use "taints the game."

So the people have spoken. But they've spoken before. And what they said this week is no different than what they said last week. Or last month. Or last year. Or last century.

They don't exactly look at steroids and baseball as the sports world's cutest couple. When they look at this scene, they see Sharon and Ozzy, not Nick and Jessica.

So what have people really made of the developments they read about and heard about this week? They didn't need shock therapy -- because they knew this stuff was looming, just over the horizon. Who the heck didn't?

Sooner or later, some week or some month or some year, some big-time baseball name was going to get caught testing positive for illegal steroids.

Or, as happened in Giambi's case, some once-beloved slugger was going to climb onto a witness stand and admit he took what he took and he did what he did and he knew it wasn't right or fair or legal.

Giambi just had the misfortune to be the first. So he gets to wear the scarlet letter.

Now his team wishes he would just go away. His sport would love to find a way to make an example of him. And only the might of the players' union will keep the Yankees from voiding his contract.

If ever other players needed a deterrent not to use steroids, forget fines. Forget suspensions. The example of poor Jason Giambi is all the deterrent they should ever need.

After seeing how he's been treated for being Victim No. 1, who would ever want to put himself at risk of being Victim No. 2?

Meanwhile, Bonds did an excellent job of covering himself legally by saying he didn't know he was using a steroid. But will the sports fans of America actually believe that? Sure doesn't look that way.

Nearly 85 percent of people who voted on this site didn't believe him. Then again, only 7 percent said they did before this story broke.

That's our man Barry. He's reached the unique place in our hearts where folks don't believe his admissions or his denials. Hard to do.

But Bonds could have far more trouble ahead. There are many miles to travel on this BALCO Highway. And it's hard to imagine Barry enjoying the ride.

With every leak, every headline, every twist in this case, his chances of being regarded as one of the shining lights in the history of his sport shrink like Giambi's biceps.

So that, really, is where this mess turns tragic. What Barry Bonds has done these last five years is totally unprecedented. He has hit more home runs since his 35th birthday than Roger Maris hit in his whole career. Which is amazing.

It is that power explosion which has turned him from a great player into a man who has either broken or threatened the most romantic records in this, or any, sport. But if it turns out to be steroid suspicions that stain the breaking of records that magical, then baseball has broken the pact any sport makes with its fans.

That pact isn't real complicated, either. What a sport owes its fans, more than all else, is the promise that what they're watching is real.

But because of steroids, we have reached a point in baseball where many fans no longer believe that. They have convinced themselves that steroids equal cheating. Period.

That's a vast oversimplification of a complicated issue. But it's where we are. And it's where we have been for a long time now. But because it's where we are, baseball has no choice but to get its act together and do whatever it can to reassure its fans that it has its sport back under control.

The executive board of the Players Association will meet next week. Sources say the steroid issue will be a major topic of conversation, as well it should. If players push for a better, tougher, more effective program, we expect their union will agree to negotiate one.

It probably won't be the zero-tolerance, stay-clean-or-take-a-hike program Bud Selig is lobbying for. And it probably won't be in place by spring training, as Selig has vowed.

But any step is a positive step for a sport that has a responsibility now to calm down the masses before they reach the summit of Mount Hysteria.

What unfolded this week in the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle, and then reverberated through living rooms from coast to coast, wasn't a scandal, just as it wasn't a shock. But it was a wakeup call.

Now it's time for baseball to hear that alarm -- and do the right thing.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.