We need the names. As many as possible.

When investigators bust a steroid-distribution operation in Florida, we need to know the names of the professional athletes on the mailing list.

When the feds flip a former Mets clubhouse guy with a booming steroid and human-growth-hormone business, we need to know the redacted names in the court documents.

When former Sen. George Mitchell starts interviewing active players in his so-far unproductive official inquiry into cheating in baseball, we need to know who they are and why they were selected.

We need the names. As soon as possible.

The "we" here isn't just the media who write about major-league baseball and the NFL and other sports tainted by the specter of widespread cheating. The "we" means the fans, it means the administrators who run the sports, and yes, it even means the current and future players who may be tempted to start cheating.

Much is happening in the biggest ongoing story in sports - the painstaking, gradual exposure of the cheating epidemic - as the focus has switched from easily fooled and sloppily applied urine testing to serious criminal-investigation techniques. Paper trails and stool pigeons are going to catch more cheaters than MLB or the NFL ever did, possibly because MLB and the NFL weren't always trying very hard.

Meanwhile, as affidavits are taken and endorsed checks are recovered, a 42-year-old player named Barry Bonds continues his inexorable drive to baseball's all-time home-run record.

Has there ever been a more sublimely absurd set of circumstances in the history of sports? Joe DiMaggio hit in 56 consecutive games and Pete Rose stalked Ty Cobb and Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky rewrote their sports' record books. That's the level of achievement we're talking about here, but has anyone ever attempted something this audacious with so much public doubt about its integrity?

Bonds was at 744, 11 shy of Henry Aaron's 755, going into last night's game. His personal trainer, Balco-connected Greg Anderson, was sitting in a jail cell because he won't testify against Bonds. Can this really be happening?

The crazy part is, the more we learn, the better Bonds looks.

Let's take this latest case. Kirk Radomski spent 11 years working in the visitors' clubhouse at Shea Stadium, picking up used towels and running errands for players. Beginning in 1995, he distributed steroids, HGH, and other performance-enhancing drugs, he said in testimony, according to a plea agreement he made with the federal government. Radomski named dozens of players, and investigators have his billing and payment records.

As suspected when the case broke, Balco was the merest tip of an iceberg that seems bigger every time we get another glimpse of it. The more we see, the more Bonds looks like one of a very large group rather than some brazen cheater.

There are two reasons Bonds has drawn so much attention and criticism: timing and the Aaron record. If Balco had been exposed five years after Bonds hit No. 756, it would have been big news. If he'd faded away with injuries the last few years, leaving Aaron's record intact, there would still be debate about the integrity of his career numbers.

But in either of those cases, Bonds would not be wearing quite the same bull's-eye as he wears right now. It is the combination - knowing he admitted to using Balco products as he slugs his way toward Aaron - that creates all this heat.

Unfortunately, according to disturbing poll results released the other day by ESPN and ABC News, many African Americans believe race is the primary reason Bonds is so reviled. That is discouraging, and it is one more reason we need as many names, as soon as possible, from the various investigations.

It is a sad fact of life that there are people out there who dislike Bonds for racial reasons. Others dislike Bonds because he is just not that pleasant a guy. But he is at the center of this mess because he put himself there, and because he is about to break perhaps the most significant record in sports.

That record is so significant at least partly because it was set by an African American, Aaron, who had to overcome virulent racism while he passed Babe Ruth.

It is telling that Aaron, one of the great sports heroes in this country's history, was present for Jackie Robinson Day at Dodger Stadium last month but has said he will not be there when Bonds breaks his record.

No words could be more eloquent.

Bonds' achievement will be tainted, no doubt about that. But it is becoming clearer all the time that all of baseball was tainted during the era that just passed. Bonds' record may be a product of a lab, but he's a product of his time.

Contact columnist Phil Sheridan

at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com.

Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.