BACK WHEN HE patrolled centerfield with a wad of chew and Lord knows what else in his system, Lenny Dykstra was a fan favorite. He could stroll disdainfully past autograph-pleading fans, roll his car over after a bachelor party and explain away his morphing from a Punch-and-Judy hitter to Popeye's twin brother with a wink and a teeth-blackened smile.

"What's he really like?" I would be asked time and again, and time and again, I would detail these and other, um, attributes. He could be surly, or even rude, I said. He was tough on the little people around the team - clubhouse guys, writers from smaller newspapers, and so on.

"But he's a good guy, right?" would come the response, as if they weren't listening to any of it.

None of it made him less popular. For one simple reason.

Lenny Dykstra was who you wanted him to be more than he actually was. You wanted him to be lovable. So he was.

Fifteen years later, after countless steroid scandals involving athletes, after arrests involving drugs, domestic abuse and even homicide, it is painfully clear that most fans would prefer not to know most of it. Moreover, their interest and outrage is proportional to the popularity of the athlete before the incident - or lack thereof.

Ray Lewis, who settled two civil suits following a post-Super Bowl brawl in 2000 that left two people dead, had his face placed on "Madden 2005." Barry Bonds was considered a bad guy even before he was a cheat. He was a worse guy afterwards.

Jason Giambi, a perceived good guy, confessed (sort of) and was forgiven. Lance Armstrong survived cancer and raised millions to fight the disease, so those lab results from France have to be tainted, right? And who could believe, back in 2000, that Marion Jones knew anything about the steroids that her then-husband, C.J. Hunter, was caught ingesting?

I mean he always did it in the other room, right?

Do we want to know? There is curiosity in the lives of these people, for sure, but raise your hand if you really want to know if that 1993 Phillies team cheated its way to the National League championship?

Thought so.

There's a nice little rewrite going on now, but people were at first outraged when a reporter spotted androstenedione in Mark McGwire's locker during the great Home Run Chase of 1998.

Outraged at the reporter.

Obscuring the debate about whether the testosterone booster should be considered a steroid - it was sold over the counter at the time - was a debate on whether the reporter should have been snooping around in the first place. Angered, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa wanted the Associated Press punished for violating McGwire's privacy.

At the time, reporters, players, owners - even commissioner Bud Selig - absolved the player of any wrongdoing.

Amid his scripted apology to ESPN's Peter Gammons, Alex Rodriguez charged that the Sports Illustrated reporter who broke the story, Selena Roberts, had stalked him and broken into his apartment. He later recanted and called her to apologize, and did the same to Katie Couric for denying ever using steroids during a 2007 interview.

But what if A-Rod had the popularity that McGwire had back in 1998? What would our reaction to his allegations have been? Would Roberts have been scourged the way the AP was in 1998? Would Rodriguez have apologized so quickly? At all?

Perhaps the most interesting case was Roger Clemens, who actually seems to have convinced himself of an alternate reality, one normally inhabited by fans. Clemens' steadfast claims of innocence amid an ocean of testimony and evidence reminds me of what Bill Murray said in "Groundhog Day" when asked if he thought he was God:

"Not The God. A god."

The public demonization of Clemens was easy: He doesn't pitch for anyone anymore. Same with Jones, who wasn't winning patriotic gold medals anymore when she copped a plea and went to prison. McGwire, in some ways as prickly as Bonds was, no longer needs to be presented in a softened light. We got what we wanted from him. He turned that summer of 1998 into a fantasy ride.

"What's he really like?" I was asked often that summer, as I joined hundreds of other reporters following him from city to city.

He could be surly or rude, and tough on little guys, too. But the lesson learned from Dykstra, and reinforced each year since, is that it is far too often a rhetorical question. *

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