Public deserves truth in doping charges

Upon further reflection, I can’t help but wonder about the reaction to Alex Rodriguez’s 600th home run. Was it really nonchalance, or a now-practiced form of contempt?

In the not-so-distant past, 600 denoted a sacred, almost unattainable accomplishment. Only three men — Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron — hit 600 in the first 131 years of big league baseball. In eight years since, four players have done it. Of the four, three were linked to steroids. Sammy Sosa, long-suspected, was reported to be on the 2003 list of players who tested positive. Same for Rodriguez, who later confessed. Barry Bonds, who holds the most famous record in sports, is awaiting trial in federal court.

Bonds has been under federal investigation since at least 2003, when he testified before a grand in the infamous BALCO case. He was indicted for, among other things, lying to that grand jury in 2007. The first trial date was March 2009. The way things look now, it may actually happen some time in 2011. In other words, if BALCO was one kind of disgrace, then the fate of this prosecution has been another.

But now comes word of a similar investigation, another probe into a scene and a sport most people would rather forget. It involves a huge star, an impossible record and the same dogged federal investigator who was behind the BALCO case. According to the New York Times, Special Agent Jeff Novitzky, who is doing for the FDA what Eliot Ness once did for the Department of the Treasury, is building a real case against seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong. It includes interviews or, in some cases, grand jury testimony from “many of his former associates, including cyclists who have supported and detailed claims that Armstrong and his former United States Postal Service team participated in systematic doping.”

Hope this doesn’t bore you like A-Rod’s 600th. I know you’re sick of cheaters and dopers. And you can’t be psyched for another prosecution that promises to last longer than the Iraq War.

But I don’t care how long it takes. I don’t care if it’s ancient history. I don’t even give a damn about cycling. I want to know the truth, and so should you.

As it pertains to performance-enhancing drugs, not all lies are created equal. And if the allegations against Armstrong are true — even a little true — he’s the worst cheat of all. Ever.

Pick a name: anyone from Marion Jones to Mark McGwire, who celebrated his illicitly gotten 62nd homer by hoisting his son in his arms. As great moments go, it was overproduced and Disney-like, which is to say, too good to be true. Even worse, it was a complete lie.

Still, none of the cheaters asked the public to become complicit in their glory as Armstrong and his great corporate benefactor, Nike. His wasn’t a cause, so much as an old-fashioned quest. Now Novitzky’s investigation aims to see if Armstrong defrauded his sponsors, including the U.S. Postal Service. But the larger question is whether he defrauded the general public, including everyone who’s ever worn a yellow LIVESTRONG bracelet.

This isn’t like Tiger Woods or Brett Favre, guys who turned out to be something less than you wanted them to be. This is about the prospective death of heroism in sports. If Armstrong was a cheater, then you can never believe that anyone isn’t.

Back to Bonds. Most Americans felt a personal stake in the home run record. But Bonds — to his everlasting credit — never pretended to be something he wasn’t. He was a bad guy, and proud of it. But Lance Armstrong? The mere name suggested star-spangled brand of virtue. He wasn’t just out to win bike races. No, he was out to cure cancer.

In late 1996, an advanced case testicular of cancer was found to have spread to his lungs and brain. The diagnosis was followed by surgery and chemo, and by 1999 he won the first of seven consecutive Tour de France titles. It was more than a great story, more than what usually passes for inspiration. He wasn’t your standard-issue role model. I mean, after what he had been through, what could be more life-affirming than a steady carnal diet of singers, starlets and hotties?

But now I’m reminded that the bad guy Bonds won his first batting crown at the age of 38, when he hit .370. And I wonder if cynicism shouldn’t apply to the good guy and his seven in a row.

What’s too good to be true usually is.

Now it’s on Novitzky to come up with an answer, one way or another. Here’s hoping he can do it before A-Rod hits No. 763.