With the Barry-hunt as his backdrop, Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield embraces the game’s characters, flaws and character flaws.

Baseball fans always wondered about the long-ball explosion. Was it juiced baseballs? Brady Anderson’s appearance on Sabrina the Teenage Witch? Actually, most of these jocks had bloodstreams like a Motley Crue afterparty. But the sport happens under artificial conditions, whether it’s steroids, segregation or the DH. Throwing out Bonds’ records is like throwing out Babe Ruth’s records because he never faced black pitchers. Drugs are as all-American as baseball. There’s Bill “Spaceman” Lee, who sprinkled pot on his pancakes, and Dock Ellis, who pitched a no-hitter on acid, and Tim Raines, who slid headfirst to protect the vial of cocaine in his back pocket.

When I was a kid, I worshipped the Red Sox’s Carl Yastrzemski (above, right), and you know why? He smoked. To me that meant he cared, because he was willing to sacrifice his health for the good of the team. Yaz drank salted beers, endorsed kielbasa and had that excellent vowels-are-for-pussies name. That’s a real badass baseball star. When he acted like a creep, nobody ever said, “That’s Yaz being Yaz” — back then, baseball players were supposed to be creeps.

Baseball is a game of screwed-up, emotionally crippled humans, and that’s its essence. You don’t go back and jigger the results of the 1978 pennant race because Bucky Dent used a corked bat. You don’t take away “Black Jack” McDowell’s Cy Young Award because he hung out with Pearl Jam. Umpires blow calls. Pitchers marry chicks who used to be in Whitesnake videos. If these people were sane, they wouldn’t go near baseball.

These days, baseball is supposed to be good for you, like Pilates or oat bran. But the fact is, baseball ruins your arms, your knees, your brain, your moral integrity. (And that’s just rooting for the Braves.) Barry Bonds might be the last old-school scumbag in baseball. And for that, he deserves his plaque in Cooperstown.

Y’know, if someone did petition to take away Jack McDowell’s Cy Young Award because he was pals with Eddie Vedder, I wouldn’t protest. Rob’s general point — that the game is no or more less pure than the imperfect men who play it — is solid enough, but I’m not so keen on his examples. Aside from Carl Yazstremski’s chummy relationship with Tom Yawkey — a bond that some have argued was to the detriment of the Red Sox rather than their benefit — it’s indisputable that the sort of scrutiny Yaz was under in his heyday was very different from what the Sultan Of Surly has experienced.

I don’t have a problem with anyone — journalists, Commissioners, special investigators, grand juries — insisting on a bit of integrity every now and then. I’m just dismayed that they’re so selective about when they insist on it and the targets are usually the most obvious. If Barry Bonds lied to the U.S. government, well, he’s probably fucked. But Tony La Russa wasn’t being entirely truthful when he tried to discredit Jose Canseco last spring, and he’s still considered an ok guy. Where’s the serious attack on the integrity of those who profitted the most from Bonds’ late career power surge? Or does anyone really think the ballpark formerly known as Pac Bell was built on someone else’s shoulders?