THE POPULAR NOTION that baseball officials are secretly dreading the day Barry Bonds breaks the home-run record might be so off-base that even Billy Wagner could pick it off.

Truth is, the opposite might be true. Given that George Mitchell's steroid probe seems to be moving toward a conclusion at about the same rate as O.J.'s search for the real killers, the best thing for baseball right now might be some finality to this Barry Bonds mess.

Hit four tonight, Barry.

Hit four more tomorrow.

Break this thing before school gets out.

Because no matter what Mitchell and his men dig up, it is not likely to stain Bonds any more than the BALCO investigation

already has. Indeed, if an ABC News/ESPN poll can be believed - and I have my doubts on that one, too - opinions on Bonds' innocence or guilt have again been drawn along racial lines - common sense, and headline commanding investigative books be damned.

Intuition and common sense also tell you Bonds will always be viewed as he is now, the way Pete Rose is, after all these years. Those who believe he should be banned from the Hall of Fame will always feel that way. Those who believe he should get in will not change, either, even if some smoking gun were discovered and Bonds were implicated more definitively than he is now.

Like Rose, Bonds will always be a scoundrel to some, a victim to others, a name on the tip of the tongue to all. If you want to see how he will be perceived in the future, look at Rose now.

The one exception is that Rose doesn't get to play the unjustly picked-on minority card.

But despite that poll, I don't feel a lot of love for Barry coming from any quarter of America. That might have less to do with performance-enhancing drugs than it does his boorish behavior, but then again, that might be just me. I am rooting against the guy as much for mistreating a 12-year-old kid living out his fantasy as a TV reporter at the All-Star Game here in 1996 as I am because of any suspected use of illegal performance-enhancement substances.

And lest we forget: Bonds is so far from being alone on this.

Anyone for digging up the medical records of those lovable '93 Phillies?

Didn't think so.

Let's face this, too: No matter how successful Mitchell's investigation is - and news reports suggest it will be far less thorough or conclusive than all hoped - hundreds of users will slip through unaccused when it's all done.

Face this, too: We all knew about Mark McGwire and andro in 1998, and most of us had doubts that Sammy Sosa's power was derived from Flintstones vitamins. But we liked the story, we liked the people, and we all made a collective effort to look the other way and enjoy the ride.

Everyone but Bonds, that is.

Only 3 years and countless pounds of muscle later, Bonds blasted away McGwire's single-season home-run record. As with this latest assault on the record book, the public shielded its eyes through most of it, and the record-breaking moment was as forgettable as McGwire's moment 3 years before had been unforgettable.

Was that a case of racism?

Or repentance for our sins with McGwire and Sosa? I would argue it was more the latter, and credit Bonds for at least that. He made it impossible for us to look the other way on McGwire any longer, and no one buys Sosa's act anymore, either. McGwire owes his current status as a baseball exile as much to Bonds' quick obliteration of his record as he does for his "I'm not here to talk about the past" testimony before Congress.

We love our good guys in sports. But if we're honest, they don't stay fresh, and they tend to lose some or all of their flavor as time wears on. So we have to restock constantly. We have to replace the old good guys with the new good guys.

Bad guys, though, they stay around much longer. They are like the smell left after a flooded basement. I grew up knowing Babe Ruth was good and Ty Cobb was bad. You'd have trouble selling a Cal Ripken Jr. story to your boss now, but a Rose update always seems to have a place.

But it is its own category now, and Barry Bonds will have his own soon enough. Once he breaks the record, and we all squirm through it and all its implications, we will move on to the All-Star Game, the pennant races and the World Series. Mitchell's investigation will name a few more retired names, and we will lose interest.

It says here that Bud Selig and his boys are looking forward to that day.

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Send e-mail to donnels@phillynews.com. For recent columns, go to http://go.philly.com/donnellon.