Let me ask you a question: As a baseball fan with a sense of history and an appreciation for the game played at the highest level, which of the following scenarios disappoints you more?
1. Barry Bonds using something to dramatically improve his already-high level of performance and to substantially prolong his baseball career.
2. Mickey Mantle using something that dramatically lowered his once-high level of performance and substantially shortened his baseball career.
Despite his claim to have never knowingly taken steroids, Bonds, thanks in part to the body of evidence presented in Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams' "Game of Shadows," is widely believed to have used performance-enhancing drugs beginning in or around the 2000 season.
From the beginning of that season until the end of the 2004 season (he was injured in 2005 and appeared in only 14 games), from ages 35-39, he hit 258 home runs, amassed 543 RBIs, posted a slugging percentage of .782 over 2,132 at-bats, and won four National League MVP awards.
Mantle, who was further limited by chronic leg injuries, by his own admission began drinking alcohol heavily early in his career. In his 1986 autobiography, "The Mick," he said he "got a bellyful starting in 1952," and after being diagnosed with liver cancer in 1994, he urged fans: "don't be like me."
At age 32, in 1964, Mantle posted a .303/.423/.591 line, including 35 home runs and 111 RBIs, and finished second in American League MVP balloting. In the last four years of his career, from ages 33-36, he averaged a .256/.386/.455 line, 21 HRs and 53 RBIs over 1,569 at-bats, including a career-closing 1968 season in which he hit .237 and managed a career-low (excluding 1963, in which he played in just 65 games, and 1951, in which he played in 96) 18 home runs.
Which hurts more?
Witnessing what otherwise might never have happened?
Or longing for what might have been?
I realize the comparison is sacrilege.
Bonds is considered smug and distant, and is reviled. Mantle was thought of as folksy and charming, and was beloved. Bonds is alleged to have consciously engineered and manipulated his body against the ravages of time, and Mantle is remembered as a tragic hero cut down by the fates in his prime.
But is the comparison altogether inapt?
If Fainaru-Wada and Williams have it right, and if Mantle is to be taken at his word, didn't each man tweak the course of history? Didn't they both, more or less consciously, cheat baseball fans, in the one case by making them question what they see with their own eyes and in the other by denying them the opportunity to see great talent fully realized?
The two things feel different, no doubt
Steroids are creepy, alien, illicit doorways to a frightening cyborg future. We want no part of them. They make us long for purity and certainty. They're a threat not only to baseball records we cherish but to our very sense of self, to our most basic understanding of what we mean by "human being" and what we understand to be the limits of human accomplishment.
Alcohol is familiar. Many of us love its cozy burn in the throat and the courageous flow it inspires on the tongue. In moderation it might facilitate connection and intimacy, make us feel more human. In excess, as an addiction, it renders us powerless and pitiable, and so defines the limits of human frailty.
We condemn Bonds.
Mantle inspires pathos and reverence.
But I'm not asking which man is more deserving of either blame or empathy, and I'm not asking who you like more. In fact, it's easy for me to see how each of them (if Bonds indeed used performance enhancers, and if Mantle abused alcohol to the extent he described later in his life) could be thought of as someone acting out of a profoundly unappealing hubris. It is equally easy for me to see how each of them could be thought of as someone acting out of a deep, nearly unquenchable, very sympathetic insecurity and desire for attention.
What I'm asking is, which is more disappointing?
When I watched Bonds hit home runs 755 and 756 this past week, watched the almost technically perfect swing, watched the racing pace and arc of the ball on its way over the wall, I knew the moment was complicated and potentially compromised.
And I wish, as most fans do, that I could say with certainty that each of his home runs has been hit without the aid of any chemical substance stronger than the caffeine in a cup of coffee.
But even given all the baggage, I'm not altogether sorry to have seen them. I cannot claim I experienced no rush at the pop of the bat. I cannot say there was absolutely no thrill in watching something so undeniably powerful and dramatic. The moment is disappointing. But it is a moment. It is happening. Right here, right now. And I am drawn to it.
What I'm asking is, which is more disappointing?
When I think about Mantle, when I look at the film clips (I confess I'm too young to have seen him play in person), when I marvel at the jaunty, muscular quickness, when I look at the black ink on the pages of baseball-reference.com, when I listen to Bob Costas and Billy Crystal wax poetic about their boyhood idol, I know his career is a glorious thing, with mythic peaks and tall-tale triumphs (18 World Series home runs and 40 World Series RBIs).
And I recognize, as most fans do, that he is one of the greatest players to ever play the game, and all the greater for how well he performed on two bum legs, and with his liver beating a saturated retreat most every day of his playing life.
But even given all his seemingly insouciant genius, his undeniably sympathetic circumstance (he was convinced he would die young, as his father and two uncles had before him), and all the romance they inspire, I've never been altogether satisfied with what there is of Mickey Mantle the baseball player. I can't say I look on the record without wanting more, without my every celebratory impulse married to one of wondering, and wishing things were different.
So my answer to the question with which I began is God save me
Scenario No. 2 actually disappoints me more as a baseball fan than No. 1 -- the situation we now find ourselves in, the reality we're wringing our hands over as we speak.
Commissioner Selig and high priests Ripken and Gwynn may exile me from the kingdom of baseball for saying so, but I'll take the spectacle of Bonds still pumping his bat barrel once or twice before unloading, and still raking the ball all over the yard at age 43, ambivalence, suspicion and all, over a glass of Mick half-empty.
I'll take the cold comfort of knowing that if Bonds used, he wasn't the only one who used (not by a long shot), and he almost certainly faced pitchers who used as well. I'll take it if it comes with him going heads-up with Greg Maddux when he's sitting on 754, or even if it just comes with the visceral jolt I got watching exactly how far 756 flew on Tuesday night, before I'll try to linger with the hollow feeling of Mantle's steep decline.
And (and this is the hardest one to say out loud), by a narrow margin, give me the guy maybe doctoring his biochemistry in an attempt to stay around longer, do more, fend off the kids with greater fervor, even reach for some outlandish, unprecedented greatness, over the guy who literally drowns his talent over time.
Every time I think of how things ended for Mantle, of the extent to which he cheated himself and his fans down the stretch, the extent to which he was ultimately cheated by his own fears and worries, it just makes me sad, makes me want to turn away.
I don't like what Bonds is accused of doing. I'm not comfortable with it. I don't relish explaining what his record does or doesn't mean to my daughter when she's old enough to ask. But there is in the brand of cheating of which he is accused some weird, ornery, rage-against-the-dying-of-the-light anger I find compelling, utterly comprehensible (remember Mike Schmidt saying he would have used steroids if they'd been available; who wouldn't want the edge?), and deeply watchable.
I can't say I find it laudable.
But it's not the most disappointing thing I can imagine.
Eric Neel is a columnist for ESPN.com. Sound off to Page 2 here.