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Peering into the steroids crystal ball

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Question of the day: What all-time baseball record is guaranteed to fall this year, all because of steroids?

Answer of the day: The single-season record for most no-comments.

Yes, baseball's get-away-from-my-locker spring will no doubt give way to the I'm-not-gonna-answer-that summer. And we all need to get used to it -- players, owners, commissioners, union honchos, BALCO subpoena recipients, media inquisitors and readers, viewers and listeners everywhere.

We're beginning to see real baseball games (well, real spring-training baseball games) played by real baseball players now. But that doesn't mean Steroidpalooza is going to disappear beneath the first barrage of box scores. No chance.

Not now. Not until the BALCO case is resolved, once and for all. Not until the first full season of serious steroid testing has come and gone.

Nevertheless, we've never seen a team more relieved to play its long-awaited Grapefruit League opener than those Yankees were Thursday. For good reason.

The Yankees are always a circus and a half -- any week, any month, any year, any time of day or night. But lately, they've just about run out of tents.

Step right up and grill Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield, Joe Torre, George Steinbrenner and Derek Jeter on the back-page topic du jour. Day after day. Sunrise to sunset. Until the next angle presents itself. Then see above.

"And when you have the biggest player on the planet," Giambi said of life under the whole separate A-Rod big top, "that doesn't help, either."

Nope, just one thing helps change the focus: Actual baseball.

"I don't think any of us thinks that all this (steroid) talk will go away overnight," said Yankees reliever Paul Quantrill. "But playing games has got to help."

As a long-time observer of the media biz, Quantrill understands exactly how it works. When the only baseball action is watching pitchers practice covering first base for two weeks, we media types have too much time on our hands. So if there's an off-the-field angle this significant and this compelling, why would we have any motivation to shift the spotlight away from it?

But when they play, stuff happens. Stuff we care about. Stuff you care about. And we'll all get sucked in by that, the way we have for 100 years. This is how baseball has survived many a self-inflicted wound. This is how it will survive this one, too.

Except for one thing.

Steroids is a cloud that won't be dissolved by the standings. Or the Web Gems. Or the 10-game winning streaks.

This is a story with too many teeth. It has links that run all the way to the White House. And the court house. It isn't just a topic that generates its steam off the field, like labor or the fate of the Expos. It's a topic directly linked to events on the field.

We'll be talking steroids when home runs are hit. We'll be talking steroids when they're not hit. We'll be talking steroids when guys get hurt. We'll be talking steroids when numbers rise and fall. They may not be the big story every day, from now till Game 7 of the World Series. But they'll be a big story for a long time to come.

So where is all this leading? Let's try to look ahead and peer into The Big Picture that looms ahead on several different fronts.

Will the testing work?
As one-longtime baseball friend of ours pointed out the other day, if you listened to all the ranting and raving about this issue, you might think baseball has no plan to deal with this mess.

Granted, it undoubtedly never would have gotten to this point if it had had a plan sooner. But it does have one now. And even if it isn't sanctioned by the USOC, even if it isn't extensive enough or tough enough, it will have an effect.

Every player in the big leagues is going to be tested this season. Twice. Unlike last year, players won't know when those tests are coming. And pains are being taken to make them tougher to beat.

We know players are concerned about those tests, just from the questions they've been asking people who they think know anything about how the tests will work.

"I don't think you'll see all the guys using them stop right away," one player predicted this spring, "because you still get one strike. If you get caught the first time, you don't get suspended or named. So I bet some guys will keep using it and see if they test positive."

But anyone who does test positive is subject to random follow-up testing for an indefinite number of times over an indefinite period. So the question is: Would anyone risk testing positive twice, even if the penalty is "only" a 15-day suspension and public identification?

"Are you kidding?" laughed one All-Star player. "The way people are all over this thing right now? You'd have to be crazy to want to get named now. That would be like a death sentence to your career."

We're not sure how many players are thinking that way. But if enough of them are, this testing program can still be an important first step in cleaning up the sport. Which is exactly what it was intended to be. Whether 50 players get suspended, or five. Or none.

Where is the BALCO case leading?
BALCO, one front-office man quipped this spring, "sounds like the shortstop for an expansion team."

Heh-heh. We just wonder how many baseball people will be making jokes about BALCO six months from now.

Under ordinary circumstances, there would be reason to think that even for the players directly tied to this case, there should be very little to worry about. Under ordinary circumstances, the men charged in BALCO would be likely to cut a deal, so the government could use them to shut down operators bigger and more worrisome than one isolated lab near San Francisco.

But these are no ordinary circumstances. Not when the attorney general of the United States is calling press conferences to talk about this case. Not when attorneys for the defendants are holding their own press conferences to profess innocence and dig in for a fight.

Not when leaks are flying, and big names are being subpoenaed, and the president himself is politicizing this issue.

So at this point, there is every reason to suspect this case could go the distance -- to a trial that can have almost no good outcome for baseball.

It may be true that no player -- not even Barry Bonds -- is a legal target in this case. They've been granted immunity from prosecution. They'll face no legal repercussions.

But there's another court in session -- the court of public opinion. And we all know what the verdict will be in that court if evidence is presented tying any prominent players to any banned or dubious substance.

And you can rest assured -- that evidence will be presented if it exists.

On one level, this case is similar to an amphetamines case tied to illegal distribution of amphetamines to several Phillies players in the early 1980s. Once one of those players testified the doctor who'd been charged had gotten him pills, the players all walked and only the doctor got nailed.

But this is a case more complicated than that, for a couple of reasons. One is that, for whatever reason, the longtime use of amphetamines by athletes has never gotten fans real outraged. Which is a fascinating subject in itself.

The other reason, however, is not just which drugs are involved here but who is alleged to have taken them -- and what might have been accomplished while using them.

"I'll tell you why this is a big deal," said one player. "Seventy-three home runs is why it's a big deal. If you break that record and it gets tied to this, that's a really big deal."

It would be irresponsible and un-American to accuse Bonds of anything here. But Bonds has so many ties to one of the men indicted (Greg Anderson) going back to Little League, there is virtually no way, if this case goes to trial, their relationship won't be a major topic.

Does anybody see any positive scenario if Bonds is called to testify? Or even if his heretofore-private testimony before the grand jury is cited publicly during the trial?

He almost certainly hasn't done anything illegal, no matter what evidence is presented. But this could get way too uncomfortable for a player we've agreed is one of the greatest of all time.

BALCO may be just a dark cloud for Bonds now. But it could turn into a tornado.

How divisive will this be among players?
In the more than 20 years we've covered baseball, we can never recall players more divided over any bargaining issue than they are about their own union's efforts to crack down on steroid use.

To its credit, this union has issued no gag orders. So players have said what's on their mind. And they'll keep saying what's on their mind.

But where is that leading? We've heard theories floated that management is deliberately attempting to use this hot-button issue to split the players. We prefer not to believe that. But there is no doubt the commissioner is positioning himself in a way that squarely fingers the union as the villain in this brouhaha.

No matter how many fingers are pointed, though, and how many players choose to raise their voices, here's one thing you should not expect:

That baseball will tear up its current steroid agreement and redo it.

Forget it. There's a better chance of Dennis Kucinich winning the Florida primary.

They don't even know yet how well this system is working -- because not one player has been tested yet.

So no matter how loud the talk-show hosts scream, we're stuck with the current arrangement for the foreseeable future -- except for a provision in this deal that allows additional substances to be added to the list of those banned, if both sides agree.

In the meantime, you should remember this: The reason we now have any steroid testing is that so many players demanded it, the union listened. And if enough of them want a tougher system, their voices will be heard again.

Just not until the next labor deal gets done.

So brace yourself. Steroids aren't just going to be a story now. And they're not just going to be a story all year. They're going to be a story for at least the next three years. If not beyond.

But in the meantime, there will be baseball to take our minds off this sideshow -- and put it back on the Yankees-Red Sox sideshow, where it belongs.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to send Jayson a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.