This is a tale of four men. You know their names.
Two are baseball's biggest names of this millennium. The other two are men who stepped out of the shadows to become strength coaches to the stars, only to help lead both of them on a journey from fame to infamy.
In so many ways, the stories of these two high-profile tag teams are the same story. In other ways -- very significant ways -- their stories sprint in dramatically opposite directions.
But at times like this, we need to ask ourselves: Have we done enough to point out those similarities? Have we done enough to clarify those differences? And if not, how do we explain the divergence in how we've portrayed them and how we perceive them?
These are complicated questions because these are complicated issues. So let's think them through as best we can.
Let's start with a premise not everyone will accept. Let's assume we should believe the accounts of Bonds/Anderson in "Game of Shadows." Let's also assume we should believe the allegations about Clemens/McNamee in the Mitchell report.
Granted, neither represents the legal system's version of The Truth. But let's assume both for now, if only for the sake of storytelling.
If we do that, don't these stories seem almost interchangeable, at least in their basic outline?
Both Anderson and McNamee came to be more than mere trainers, more than mere employees. Anderson became such an intrinsic part of Bonds' entourage that he accompanied Bonds to places beyond the gym and the ballpark -- even on the 2002 Japan tour by a team of baseball all-stars.
McNamee became such an important presence in Clemens' universe that he followed Clemens from the Blue Jays to the Yankees and later worked with him again during the Rocket's years as an Astro.
Both trainers were allowed comfortable, regular access to big league clubhouses. Both later made connections with other big-name players, in large part through their personal connection with arguably the two biggest stars in the sport. Both were ousted by the teams they worked for over concerns about their behavior.
And both, of course, are alleged to have been the purchaser and supplier of performance-enhancing drugs for the stars who employed them.
Not all the details are identical, obviously. Can't be. But the general outlines of their stories are stunningly similar.
Yet the perceptions of those stories hasn't been similar. And we can't escape the notion that that might be due in part to how those tales have been reported and told.
There is almost universal acceptance of the guilt of Bonds and Anderson. There is almost unanimous agreement in the court of public opinion, in fact, that those two did everything they're alleged to have done.
But there is clearly more skepticism about the accuracy, or at least the provability, of the allegations about Clemens and McNamee. Full disclosure: There is certainly more skepticism on the part of this reporter, anyway. And there are plenty of others out there like me.
So the fundamental question is: Why is that?
Some will say there's a racial component to those perceptions. It's tempting to say that's a bunch of baloney, but for a long time now, surveys have shown that race is a major factor in how Bonds is perceived. So there's no reason not to think race shows up in the perceptions of Clemens, as well. We'd be naive to think otherwise.
There is so much more to it, though. Above all, there is the single most significant fork in the road where these two stories divide.
The similarity is that both Anderson and McNamee were confronted by the feds and offered comparable arrangements. We can describe those offers in three words:
Talk or else.
But this is where those stories disconnect so sharply.
Against all odds, Anderson actually chose "or else." He actually chose going to jail over "confessing" what he knew about Bonds.
Did he make that choice out of friendship? Loyalty? Business? An oath he'd pledged long ago? All of the above? None of the above? We'll never know unless Anderson opts to tell us why someday. But the whole continent knows the guy served more than a year of jail time rather than talk. Astounding.
McNamee, on the other hand, took the more common road. His choice was to talk or face an indictment. So he sang. To the feds. Then to George Mitchell. And on Thursday, Mitchell uploaded that song to the world via the Mitchell report.
What the skeptics wonder now, however, is the basic question that is asked about all witnesses who talk to avoid those slamming jail-cell doors:
Can we believe a guy who talks under those conditions?
Was he telling the truth this time? Or was he telling the truth before, a bunch of times, when he told reporters repeatedly that Clemens never used performance-enhancing drugs?
And if we decide to maintain some doubts about McNamee's story -- and, therefore, about Clemens' guilt or innocence -- then don't we have to turn around and question our perceptions of their alter egos, Anderson and Bonds?
Don't we have to ask ourselves why we assume that if a guy like Anderson is more willing to go to jail than talk, he must have something to hide? Don't we have to remind ourselves that that's not enough reason to conclude that all the accusations against Bonds must be true?
Well, if we think that way and we haven't thought about those questions, we're wrong. Dead wrong. Logical, maybe -- but still wrong.
So I've asked myself those questions. I've been asking them since Thursday, since I read the Mitchell report from start to finish. I want to make sure I understand exactly why I feel the way I feel, at this moment, about these men and their stories.
Here's how I've answered those questions, now that I've had time to reflect:
I believe there are two basic reasons to look at these two situations differently. The first revolves around a critical concept -- corroboration.
To draw conclusions on matters this serious, we should never rely merely on the tales of any one source. They taught that lesson in Journalism 101. It might be the only lesson I remember from Journalism 101, but I never forgot it.
So where's the outside corroboration of McNamee's story? Is there any other witness? Any other proof? Any receipt, any mailing label, any tape that directly corroborates the allegation that Clemens did all the stuff McNamee told the Mitchell staff he did? Nope. Can't find it.
Does Andy Pettitte's confession -- at least to a partial version of the accusations McNamee made about him -- give McNamee some desperately needed credibility points? Sure, although the "charges" against Pettitte were always much milder than the allegations about Clemens.
Is there a mountain of circumstantial evidence against Clemens, not to mention staggering detail in the testimony of McNamee himself? Absolutely. But is there the kind of corroboration that any court in America would ask for? Haven't seen it. Not yet, at least.
But in Bonds' case, there was enough evidence for a grand jury to hand down an indictment -- without Anderson saying a word. Big difference.
Now it's important to remember that there hasn't been a conviction yet -- if ever. So the courts eventually might reject the credibility of that evidence. And we'd better all be wary of our judgments on Bonds until there's a verdict.
But if we're looking for corroboration beyond the word of the two trainers who are the stars of this particular story, there is clearly much, much more of that corroboration about Bonds than there is about Clemens.
Which brings us to the second reason I find myself feeling differently about Bonds than I do about Clemens at this complicated moment in time. And that brings us back to where we started -- with how these two stories have been reported and told.
When I'd finished reading "Game of Shadows," I felt as if Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams had connected every significant dot about Bonds' saga. I felt as if they'd answered every significant question I personally would want answered. They told me when. They told me how. They told me why.
When I'd finished reading the Mitchell report's assessment of Clemens, on the other hand, I felt like I had more questions than answers. Even if I was going to accept the account of everything he did, I wanted more context. I wanted more explanations.
I wanted to know what Clemens' motivations were to use the substances this report accused him of using. Was he in it for money? Was he in it to chase 400 wins? Was he in it so folks would say, "There goes Roger Clemens -- the greatest pitcher who ever lived?"
Or was he trying to keep from breaking down in the second half of all those long seasons? Looking for help to try to maintain the standards he'd set for himself?
I ask these questions because I want to know more about what went on in that era -- and why it went on. After 400 pages of Mitchell report findings, does anybody understand any of that any better? Not me.
It's so easy to jump to quick, simple, convenient conclusions. About Barry Bonds and Greg Anderson. About Roger Clemens and Brian McNamee. About everything that went on around them in those unsavory times.
But wouldn't all of us be better off if we avoided making those instant, easy, knee-jerk judgments? And I mean all of us. Reporters. Talk-show hosts. Fans. Bloggers. Members of Congress. And baseball men.
Let's ask the right questions. Let's try to understand what happened and why. Let's think about the reasons we feel the way we feel about the most confusing era in baseball history.
That's what I got out of the Mitchell report, anyway -- and from the fascinating, parallel tales of two transcendent baseball stars and the men who trained them.
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.