IT’S OPENING DAY – CALL A LAWYER

Baseball season officially begins today, but many fans already are sick of it.

Has there ever been a year in which the game has brought more of a shudder? Before a real pitch even has been thrown, baseball is neck high in investigations, lawsuits, grand juries, books, drug rumors, steroids and asterisks.

Can’t we just postpone the whole thing – until it looks more like a sport and less like a congressional subcommittee?

The photos of spring have not been pitchers laughing or outfielders shagging fly balls, but a dour-looking commissioner, Bud Selig; a tight-lipped former U.S. senator, George Mitchell; and a sneering, elusive slugger, Barry Bonds.

The headlines are not about who is healthy or who is favored to win the World Series, but how deep will baseball’s latest steroids investigation go?

Save the game. Clean up the game. Expose the game. “Game of Shadows.”

Whatever happened to a hot dog and a scorecard?

Fantasy ball or real ball

Sports should never be this much work. They are diversions. They are escapes. Maybe – maybe – you keep score in your program.

But no one ever sat in the bleachers and said, “Hey, you got a pencil? I want to make some notes on these BALCO transcripts.”

Alas, the sport we once looked forward to has been cleft in two: There’s the game you want to believe in and the game you actually see.

Is there anyone out there who doesn’t think Barry Bonds used steroids? Is there anyone out there who looks at Bonds’ swollen muscles and pumped-up physique and gaudy home-run numbers – all after age 34 – and doesn’t think he did something?

Is there anyone who doesn’t think the same of Sammy Sosa, who got pumped up, got paid, and then got gone, or Mark McGuire, who was the powerhouse of the summer of 1998 and the piñata of the congressional hearings of 2005?

Rafael Palmeiro? Jason Giambi? Jose Canseco? They were enhanced. They were inflated. They were not as “natural” as many of their competitors. Do we accept that at long last?

If so, what do we do about it?

The elephant in the living room

Judging by Web sites, radio stations and people who come up and talk to me, many would like to forget it. What’s done is done, they say. We’re bored. Move on.

The problem is Bonds. He’s like the one creature in the horror film that’s still in the basement, still coming at you. He is close to Babe Ruth’s home-run mark. Within reach of Henry Aaron’s all-time position. And even if he’s clean now, how many of those home runs he piled up would have been fly balls without the added muscle from an alleged syringe, cream or liquid?

And what is baseball – a game that celebrates records and numbers like no other – supposed to do with him? Deny him the chance? Pretend it’s not happening? Make him wear a scarlet asterisk?

Personally, I feel sorry for Selig, whose biggest crime was naiveté. He actually believed players didn’t use this stuff. He didn’t demand testing, his managers didn’t want to know, his business partners were content so long as the cash registers were ringing.

Now, he has no choice but to conduct an investigation that is bound to be more gums than teeth. He’s left to turn back the calendar, to explore allegations without test results, to wonder if it ends with this group or if more should be scrutinized, and to further expose grand jury testimony that was supposed to be confidential.

For what? At best, to go on the record with something that most Americans already assume is true: Men cheated. It’s a lot of work. It will never be enough. It will involve documents, media leaks, rumors.

Just thinking about it gives you a headache. No wonder fans aren’t thrilled about the new baseball season. A headache we can get on our own.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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