A sportswriter talking about a legacy is just a fart talking about its own smell." So wrote a sportswriter on the ever readable Deadspin website last week concerning the stench emanating from the trial of Barry Bonds. It neatly, if a tad too graphically, summed up a furore which says so much about sporting heroism in the US.
The word is Bonds will not go to jail, despite being found guilty last week of obstructing justice in a steroid investigation. But neither, it seems, will the record slugger go into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Over here we might consider liberty for legacy being one heck of a trade-off. Over there they aren't so sure. In fact, the Americans, and certainly their media, take entry into the HoF so seriously any snub would be considered a punishment so ghastly as to approach eternal damnation.
Yes, the courts may be unwilling to put him behind bars, but that doesn't mean the HoF voters – yep, the media – will be so affable in judgement. If the prevalent mood in the columns is an accurate gauge, Bonds will not be joining the immortals. His name will not have the revered "Hall of Famer" prefix. Slam go those pearly gates to the sporting hereafter.
Big deal, we say. But then, we would because Halls of Fame mean next to nothing in Britain. They are many rungs down from the royal honours and even have to bow in prestige to something called BBC Sports Personality of the Year. How many English football fans actually realise there is an English Football Hall of Fame, comprising more than a hundred greats who made the sport what it is in this country, including Sir Stanley Matthews, Sir Tom Finney, George Best and, er, Ian Wright ? Well, there is and it is soon to be relocated to the new National Football Museum in Manchester. Flock to see it and be one of the multitude trying to fathom how Sepp Blatter was ever inducted.
In the States there would be an outcry. But here? The merest whimper. We aren't annoyed because it doesn't really matter. Sporting greats are sporting greats to us just because they are, not because a panel of expert voters confirms they are. Their legend is cemented in folklore by memory, by anecdote, by silverware. Of course, that follows in America, too. It's just the ultimate validation comes in gold leaf on oak. That place on a wall is the very pinnacle of a sporting career.
It is the same throughout their society. It starts with the original Hall Of Fame For Great Americans in New York University and from there the honour cascades down through a vast and creaking pyramid. Each sport has its Hall of Fame (yes, even professional wrestling) and within this sport, each state has its Hall of Fame. Each county, each town, each college, each high school, each junior high, probably. I am not exaggerating when I claim some households have their own Halls of Fame. A few years ago a friend took me to see his folks in New Jersey. Four of his brothers had their pictures under a banner reading: "Crosby Family Hall of Fame". But my friend and his two sisters were absent. "My parents didn't consider my third place in the 60-yard sprint worthy," he explained, only part-joking.
Perhaps it wasn't. After all, the criteria are strict. This is no shallow honour; the arguments rage before inclusion. Sportsmen and sportswomen have had their dotage wrecked by the bitterness and frustration of being ignored. Little wonder considering the financial benefits of being a "Hall of Famer". These are "made" men who will rarely place hand in pocket again.
But, believe it or not, there is more to it than the evil greenback, more to it, even, than a comparatively young nation desperate to establish some history. It is also to do with the American obsession to define who is "the best", who is "a great". Look at the detail they keep and follow in what is supposed to be their recreation. We'd never heard of assists in football until the 1994 World Cup. And the baseball geeks are even more exhaustive.
When a "legend" retires his statistics are indeed vital. For instance, the average baseball fan will be able to recount that Bonds hit 762 career home runs (a record), hit 73 home runs in a single season (a record), was walked 2,558 times (a record), was intentionally walked 688 times (a record)... and this will be the barest outline of their knowledge. Like us knowing Gary Lineker was never booked.
Yet the average fan will also know of Bonds' role in baseball's steroids scandal. They will know of his links to the infamous Balco laboratory, of his indictment on charges of perjury and obstructing justice when testifying to the grand jury that he never knowingly took illegal steroids. They will know he beat all but one of the raps, but also know that the majority in the media will still hold him culpable, even if, as forecast, he wins an appeal.
The question should be: will Mr Average care if Bonds isn't voted into the Hall of Fame? But it isn't. In America this is beyond public perception, beyond the view from the armchair. It is eminently possible that Bonds will be the greatest in the record books, but not be placed among the greats. And all because of the importance of the legacy. The whiff grows ever stronger.