MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL and scandals go together like Bernard Madoff and swindled investors. The entity that once referred to itself with justification and swollen pride as the national pastime has morphed into a multibillion-dollar business that has helped elevate cheating in professional sports to the highest level in history.

No? Think again . . .

Pick a random season in baseball's so-called Golden Age, the quarter-century between the integration of both leagues by American and Latino players of color and the overthrow of the reserve system that led to the economic upheaval of free agency in 1976. Let's take 1961, when Roger Maris, chased by Mickey Mantle, broke Babe Ruth's revered single-season home-run record of 60 in a 154-game season with 61 in 162 games. Mantle, Frank Robinson, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente were the best players in the game, each a five-tooler with amazing athleticism. The cream of the starting pitchers included Whitey Ford, Sandy Koufax, Warren Spahn, Bob Gibson and Juan Marichal.

So let's imagine that early in the 1962 season, Mays was suspended 50 games for using a banned substance to enhance his already-vast ability. What if a half-dozen other power hitters from that amazing era were also found to be dirty? What if the great pitchers were taking illegal drugs to gain more velocity and stamina?

Let's imagine that the implications from those explosive baseball revelations knocked college basketball's second widespread point-shaving scandal off the front pages and spread throughout the pastime like the oil slick from a torpedoed tanker.

Awful, right?

But that's precisely where Chemical Bud Selig's game is today, awash in money while drowning in shame.

A Dominican hitting machine named Manny Ramirez has shinnied over Barry Bonds to become the tip of the sleazeberg only because the results of a random MLB test for steroids and other performance enhancers revealed the Dodgers outfielder as an unmasked man. Manny didn't play the 'roids game nearly as well as he hits. He got nailed - 50 games' worth and a big chunk of his Scott Boras-extorted contract. And he's "ashamed and embarrassed."

Because it took Selig and the owners who keep him in office so long to wrap their arms around the problem, a lot of first-ballot Hall of Fame locks won't be making a trip to Cooperstown. Maybe Gamblin' Pete Rose can organize the mother of all memorabilia shows on induction weekends. There is Barry Bonds, the greatest 'Roid Gen player, about to walk without as much as a traffic ticket on his record, thanks to some of the sloppiest prosecution work since O.J. There are the congressional committee stonewallers and perjurers, led by Mark Mc-Gwire, Sammy Sosa and the adamantly innocent Rafe Palmeiro. There is the greatest righthander of the Free Agent Era, Roger Clemens, continuing to sink ludicrous deniability to new depths. Listening to Clemens deny, deny, deny on ESPN Radio's "Mike and Mike," I wound up with the bends.

There is A-Rod, playing without penalty because of the confidentiality the players union lawyers brokered with the Bud Bunch. But he's a key link to why MLB is now more crooked than any professional sport has ever been or will be again. Even boxing. He was the leaked result from 104 failed random tests. If you bag 104 players in a "random" test, what would a blanket surprise test turn up?

When Selig revealed after the 2007 season that MLB's income had topped $6 billion, the words of "Godfather II's" Hyman Roth popped into my head:

"Michael, we're bigger than U.S. Steel."

Yep, baseball now can provide everything but assurance that the 1,200 players on the 40-man rosters of 30 big-league ballclubs have not provided themselves with the unfair competitive advantages possible through using an array of illegal substances. Many are manufactured in underground labs and administered by pseudo trainers such as former Bonds pharma-valet Greg Anderson, who chose jail time over diming his employer in a chilling performance of loyalty and "Andromerta."

What has saved baseball from the kind of national disconnect that the 1919 World Series dumpers produced is the staggering amount of money involved. The banking industry has proved that when you screw up on a really grand scale, the government will actually fund your misfeasance. Pay three- and four-digit prices to watch a ballgame in certain taxpayer-funded stadiums and you're probably not there merely to watch a competition. You're also there as an extra in the cast of an entertainment, which is why the Pirates, Royals and other serial losers are still in business. If their games were just about winning and losing, who would pay those prices to watch them?

Fans now show up in the drag of their teams, ready to cavort. The brilliant retroparks are more carnival midways than rows of seats. Ease of movement is encouraged. There are as many ATMs as restrooms. To paraphrase Danny Ozark, morality has never been a concern of fans snapping pictures of themselves on cell phones and tweeting them into cyberspace.

We all know people who are out of work, have comrades laid off by dying companies in moribund industries as the economy tanks at warp speed. But the Great Global Deflation has not caught up with the ballparks. Maybe it never will.

Maybe baseball has become a sport where the people bellying up to spend what it costs to take a family to a ballgame have devalued the game itself and the integrity of the competition. Just win, baby.

Maybe it's no longer a big deal that you can't tell the cheaters without a pee jar and a test tube.

But if Hyman Roth were around today, he would have to change his famous "Godfather II" line to, "Michael, we're bigger than Citibank." *

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