When fashion designer Mark Ecko paid $752,467 for Barry Bonds' record-breaking 756th home run ball, he decided to make a statement.
He asked baseball fans what he should do with it, and the on-line baseball nation spoke; brand it with an asterisk mark and send it off to Cooperstown, New York.
"We're delighted to have the ball", Hall of Fame President Dale Petroskey said. "It's a historic piece of baseball history."
It's also a painful reminder of how the purity of baseball—the subject of countless nostalgia-riddled movies—has been tarnished by the lure of steroids.
Once considered a great sport invented for little boys, it has now been ruined by the big boys. Juiced-up big boys.
While we still attend the games, our eyes become more focused than ever on individual players.
"He looks like he's bulked up a bit" and "That helmet looks too small on him" are no longer innocent thoughts—they are accented by uneasiness and dread.
Is your hero on that still-somewhat secret list that the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform's Hearings has stashed away?
Do you really want to know if he was named? Are you going to tell your seven-year-old boy his hero is a cheater?
While sports agents, the press, commissioners and owners all get flak for how they have changed different aspects of sport, cheaters have changed the entire game. Permanently.
And it's not just in baseball.
The Olympics used to hold all the ideals of amateurism as reason to embrace their worldly, and pure competition.
The East German's women's swim team started raising eyebrows for two decades (60's -70's) when some of them looked like they could start as linebackers for the Chicago Bears.
Something wasn't right. Their voices were too deep.
"We confirm that anabolic steroids were used in former East German swimming," twenty East German coaches said in a signed statement in 1991. "Not all of us were involved in doping. The extent varied."
Cheaters, in this case, prospered. They all have their gold medals. But no one learned any lesson. Except how to cheat.
Cyclists are now looked upon as the biggest cheaters of all- blood doping and testosterone abuse has all but made the Tour de France—once a premier event in the cycling world—now a showcase for who can mask their test results best or come up with a new reason why they tested positive multiple times.
Floyd Landis, we crown thee king. Thanks for embarrassing us.
The Olympics are now a venue for professional hockey players—not great amateurs like the USA Hockey team who stole our hearts with that 1980 Miracle on Ice in Lake Placid, New York.
Isn't that really cheating when you put professional hockey, basketball and tennis players in an amateur athletic competition? Does it not diminish the spirit of the games? Or does it add to our medal count so be damned, critics?
Marion Jones, cheater. Justin Gatlin, joint record holder in the 100 meter dash, cheater. Tim Montgomery, cheater. Ben Johnson? Cheat, cheat, cheat.
Admit it—after they win their races, after the thrill of watching them carry their flag around the track, the thrill is overcome by dread. Will they pass their drug tests?
If they cheat in ice skating, what's left? Tennis? Nope, they may cheat in that sport as well—German tennis player Tommy Haas was allegedly poisoned by another tennis player during a Davis Cup semi-final.
Roger Clemens? Barry Bonds? What does it matter what they claim or deny? Most cheaters don't tell the truth, and athletes are no different.
They know their role model image is important to their sport, but even more important when it comes to endorsements.
So are cheaters the most influential figures in sport?
When the economy is in the proverbial toilet, foreclosures are at an alarming rate and an unpopular war's resolution seems to be dragging on forever, cheating in sports has somehow managed to wrestle our elected officials away from all the important stuff and instead, decide on whether or not Roger Clemens or Bill Belichick is a cheat.
The cheaters have taken over America's priorities. It doesn't get more influential than that.
While agents can get their clients huge contracts, the cheating can null and void all of it.
Commissioners can pledge to fix all the problems in sport and attempt to change our perception of our heroes, but cheaters have made an indelible mark on the sports' record books and their holders' once-stellar reputations.
When a sport's own referee is found guilty of altering basketball games—one who is entrusted to make unbiased judgment in interpreting rules—how does one remain a fan?
Find one cockroach in the kitchen, and twenty more are waiting to come out when the lights are turned off. Denial of collusion isn't going to make it go away.
The media can hype up a football team's greatness to the point where they seem invincible, but a cheater can bring it all down to earth with one switch of a video recorder's power button.
Major League owners can laugh at the luxury tax and bulk up their incredible payroll roster, but cheaters can make them look like buffoons when most of their players are whispered to be on "the list" or flirting with aging pop stars or teenage music stars, depending on their tastes.
Cheaters have affected sport more than any one entity. They have changed games and ruined lives. They have made once fun-loving sports fans cynical and defensive.
Cheating is part of our weakness as human beings- the lure of money makes it hard to resist.
And while many optimists think cheating will someday become extinct, the fact of the matter is that as long as money is king in sport, cheating will never stop.
Cooperstown's display of one single baseball is irony at its best.
A baseball that surpassed the home run king's record—a record that at one time was thought to be a mark that would never be surpassed—has its own mark.
A mark that truly represents the historical sports era of this generation.
A small, seemingly innocuous icon that holds more meaning behind it than anyone could have ever imagined. It's this millenium's scarlet letter, if you will.
And it represents well.