There are certain stories in sports you wish weren't true, weren't real, weren't happening.
There are certain stories in sports that pull you in, magnetize your eyeballs, grab your heart and then won't let go.
Little did we know that Rick Ankiel's powerful story would fit both of those definitions.
The defenses, the rationalizations, the leave-this-guy-alone pleas on behalf of Ankiel came rolling in Friday as Americans tried their best to wish away the nasty HGH bomb that had just been dropped on their favorite sporting fairy tale.
He wasn't even a hitter then.
It wasn't a banned substance then.
He had a doctor's prescription.
He was recovering from Tommy John surgery.
He needed it to heal.
He hasn't been accused of any "wrongdoing."
The media is out to get him.
It's not like he's Barry Bonds or something.
We heard them all Friday, on the radio, in our inbox, in the questions cascading at us in an hour-long chat.
We understand where all those arguments come from. We understand why people want to make them. There are varying degrees of merit to every one of them.
But at times like this -- with Ankiel's HGH blockbuster tag-teaming with a report linking Troy Glaus to steroid shipments from the same Orlando pharmacy -- we often find the perception of these stories as fascinating as the stories themselves.
That's because we live in a world ablaze in double standards. And we're never more aware of those double standards than we are when stories like these break.
As Ankiel's saga in particular so vividly demonstrates, we adjust those standards -- and taper our level of outrage -- depending on whose name happens to wind up in the headline.
Is this a player we like or a player we don't like?
Is this a player we root for or a player we root against?
Is this a player slugging his way to "history," or is he "just a pitcher"?
Is this player a star trying to "cheat" his way to glory, or is he just some poor underdog trying to keep up with the drug-popping masses?
And then there's the double standard that really inflates our blood pressure:
Is this guy one of those cheating baseball players, or is he a football player just doing his selfless best to get healthy and help his team get to the big game?
If we're looking for the perfect test case for all those double standards, you can't beat this Rick Ankiel tale. It overlaps just about every one of them.
Double standard No. 1: The likability test
One of our chat participants -- the ever-perceptive Dominic from Sacramento, Calif. -- actually jumped on this issue Friday, when he asked:
"How come when we hear Ankiel takes HGH we say it wasn't banned so it's OK somewhat, but when Bonds takes something, everybody wants him kicked out of baseball?"
Great question there, Dominic. And shouldn't it make us ask: What were our perceptions of those two men before the Signature Pharmacy and BALCO ever made it into their Wikipedia bios?
Before Friday, was there any loser in the whole stinking country who wasn't rooting for Ankiel? Anybody who wanted this guy to fail must also have rooted for a grizzly bear to eat Snow White for lunch just before she was about to live happily ever after.
Nothing beats a good old schlocky Hollywood plot line that pole-vaults off the screen into real life, and that's what Rick Ankiel was. We would love to believe he still can be. But that trail got a lot more treacherous once Friday's New York Daily News hit the presses.
So why would we root for him over Barry? Because America made up its mind a long time ago -- long before "Game of Shadows" -- that it didn't like Barry. That simple.
Didn't want him on the All-Century Team. Didn't want him in mucking up the history books. Didn't want to bid up his home run balls on eBay. Didn't like him. Period.
So if you're one of those people trying to find a rationalization for Ankiel right now, you're also one of those people who wanted Barry's stats obliterated from the backs of baseball cards everywhere. Hey, thanks for playing. You've helped us demonstrate Double Standard No. 1. Much appreciated.
Double standard No. 2: The he's "just a pitcher" myth
There was no more fascinating line of defense that wallowed up on Ankiel's behalf Friday than this:
In 2004, he hadn't even become a full-time hitter. He was still a pitcher. So what he did then has nothing to do with what he's doing now.
OK, let's try to accept this premise on its merits. Maybe Ankiel really did just order those eight shipments of HGH in 2004 and then stop. Never ordered, or messed with them, since. Maybe, as he and GM Walt Jocketty insisted Friday, it was all on the up and up, all on doctor's orders. Maybe.
Again, we want to believe. If he were somebody else, maybe we wouldn't. We live in an age now where we don't know what the heck to believe in sports. So we might as well choose to believe our guts, even when the voices of logic might be screaming at us to believe something else.
But here's the problem: That still doesn't necessarily make Rick Ankiel "innocent," regardless of whether he's ever indicted, charged or convicted by the proper authorities, or punished by Major League Baseball.
This is not an accusation based on speculation about hat sizes or acne outbreaks. It's an accusation based on a report by respected investigative reporters, who obtained records substantiating that Ankiel ordered and received these eight shipments of HGH.
Who among us doesn't want desperately to accept Ankiel's explanation that this was just part of his treatment? Who among us doesn't want to believe him when he says he took what he took only because it was "doctor's orders?"
We want to believe. We do. But we can't help but have questions.
What possible specific medical need could he have had to take HGH -- an extremely unusual prescription for a 25-year-old athlete? And remember, unless that specific need can be documented, it is illegal in this country for any doctor to prescribe HGH to anyone.
And if this was just a normal prescription for normal medical reasons, why would Ankiel have picked up his prescription at an anti-aging clinic – let alone a clinic now under investigation for dispensing illegal prescriptions? We've filled, and picked up, many a prescription in our day. It never occurred to us to do that anywhere but at the neighborhood pharmacy.
But maybe it really is all perfectly normal, and that's the reason Ankiel hasn't been "accused of any wrongdoing." Then again, it could also be because the customers of this pharmacy and this clinic are not the targets of this investigation. It's the folks doling out the goods who are the target.
Yes, Ankiel was recovering from Tommy John Surgery back then. And yes, his motive very well may have been the search for some magical medical help at a time when he felt like he needed some.
More players have no doubt taken these and similar substances looking for medical benefits -- not fame or glory -- than the public has ever been willing to acknowledge. But we sure are selective in our desire to buy that alibi.
Maybe what Ankiel did while his job description was still "pitcher" really does have no bearing on any of his current exploits in his role of Babe Ruth reincarnate. But we don't know that. We have no way of knowing that.
And that brings us to the final point:
Why is it OK if pitchers use HGH? Because at least they won't break any home run records while they're using it?
More than 200 major league and minor league players have tested positive for using some kind of illegal substance in the past three years, and the vast majority of them were pitchers. Has there been a peep of uproar about any of them?
So fine. If we don't give a hoot about Guillermo Mota almost pitching the Mets into the 2006 World Series just days after testing positive, then why should we care about what some down-and-out, rehabbing, faded star did in 2004, when he was just trying to stay in baseball?
Hey, it's fine with us if you want to let any of this slide. But don't tell us there's no double standard in how we choose our targets of outrage.
Double standard No. 3: He's no football star
It may be too early to draw this conclusion. But we tried our best to measure the coverage of the Ankiel/Glaus Banned Substance Baseball Daily Double on Friday. The object was to see how it compared with the coverage last week of the two NFL figures who were snared in exactly the same net: Rodney Harrison and Wade Wilson.
The first thing we noticed: Of the 438 news stories that showed up on a Google News search for Ankiel and Glaus, their names made the headline of every one of them.
But when we did a Google News search for Harrison and Wilson, we were stunned to find their suspensions were actually lumped into quite a few NFL notes roundups. They weren't even the lead story in many of them.
Earlier in the week, we'd used ESPN Insider's invaluable Local story search to sift through the newspaper columns written about Harrison -- a Pro Bowler who was a major cog on two Patriots Super Bowl champs.
It was hard not to notice he wasn't exactly treated like he was the NFL's version of Rafael Palmeiro. We couldn't find one columnist who suggested he was an unprincipled cheater and should never be allowed to return, not that we believe that ourselves.
We did come across a few "we shouldn't be surprised by this" pieces. But much of what was written was shockingly sympathetic -- certainly when you compare it to the coverage of any star baseball player who has been linked to steroids or HGH, no matter how those baseball players tried to explain away those links.
One column we found even suggested there was a good reason that Harrison was going to get off easy in the media, compared to, say Barry Bonds -- because (ready for this?) at least Rodney Harrison never made any "history."
Huh? His teams won two Super Bowls. That's the most important kind of history any football player can make. Isn't it?
You can make a case -- in fact, you should -- that winning a championship is more significant than breaking any record in any sport. But it clearly hasn't worked that way for anybody who ever flirted with a home run record. Has it?
Look, we concede there are some obvious reasons why baseball gets different treatment than football on the steroid/HGH front. And the biggest of those reasons is that it took MLB a decade too long to take this issue seriously.
So is some of this particular double standard baseball's fault? Absolutely. The NFL gets held to a different standard on the criminal behavior front, because that's been its biggest Achilles' heel of late. That's its fault, too.
But there also are reasons for that double standard that don't fit in anybody's logic textbook. And that's the whole point of this column.
We find ourselves in times that do nothing but frustrate and confuse us. We pick our heroes, then read their names in the worst kind of headlines.
We root for men we hope are our kids' greatest role models, only to have their names show up on some sleazy doctor's prescription list.
We want to believe that what we are watching on those seductive green fields is genuine enough to be worth investing way more time and emotion than any otherwise normal human being should.
But we have no idea anymore what percentage is real and pure, and what percentage is linked to a pill or a syringe. So no wonder we concoct these double standards.
They may not conform to any sane standard of reason or fact. But here in September of 2007, as the headlines explode around us, clinging to those double standards is the only way we sports fans can survive to root another day.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," has been published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.