The performance-enhancing drug plague has a new face. Darn the luck, it's a friendly one.

According to a story in Tuesday's San Francisco Chronicle, former Giants third baseman Matt Williams purchased human growth hormone and steroids from a Florida clinic near the end of his career. The story included the requisite and ritual explanation from Williams, who said he was prescribed HGH by a physician to treat an ankle injury suffered in 2002.

And with that, it becomes even more difficult to maintain any semblance of rage against the performance-enhancement machine.

In fact, it says here that this is where the performance-enhancing drug pandemic begins an accelerated descent from its orbit as a hot-button issue. It has been up there too long. Too many names have come out. Too many feel-good achievements have been tainted. There are too many other issues competing for our attention.

It was one thing when this was new, when it first came to light that baseball players were engaging in the same performance-enhancing practices as track athletes, whom we historically have marginalized, and football players, whom we historically have given a free pass.

The baseball element was troubling, given the emotional energy we had invested in the home run -- more specifically, Mark McGwire's takedown of Roger Maris' single-season record in 1998.

It was another thing when we were comfortable with the names emanating from the BALCO investigation. Bill Romanowski was a certified nutburger. Jason Giambi had been a favorite son, but he became a Yankee. Barry Bonds, quite simply, is the most easily disliked athlete of our lifetime.

Other names, emanating from other sources, have been reconciled just as easily. Jose Canseco: scoundrel. McGwire: Hey, the guy set himself on fire in front of Congress. Ken Caminiti: a tragically troubled individual. Paul Byrd: What do we care about a Cleveland Indian?

Outfielder Jose Guillen and former pitcher Ismael Valdez also were named in Tuesday's report. But Williams is the most troubling revelation from a provincial standpoint. This is likable, nonthreatening Matt, who began his major league career in San Francisco. This is hilarious Matt, who used to entertain fans during rain delays with his brilliant stuffed-shirt Babe Ruth imitation.

This is star-crossed Matt, whose bid for Maris' record was halted by the players strike in 1994, and who was saddened by his trade to the Indians after the 1996 season. This is trophy dad Matt, who, as a divorced single father, requested a trade from the powerhouse Indians to the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks so he could be closer to his kids.

This is redeemed Matt, who helped the D'backs win the 2001 World Series. This is tragic Matt, forced to retire in midseason at 37 because of a bum wheel. This is engaging Matt, who has gone on to a second career in broadcasting. This is a guy we feel we know and who we very much want to believe has never disappointed us.

According to the published report, Williams ordered more than HGH from the Palm Beach Rejuvenation Center. What's more, some of the prescriptions were written by a dentist, since censured for fraud and incompetence.

It's the same dentist, by the way, whose prescription of HGH for Byrd became big news during the recent American League Championship Series. Remember what we were saying then?

"In addition, Mr. Byrd, I notice some early warning signs of gingivitis. I'm going to put you on flaxseed oil to see if we can't head this thing off at the pass."

See how easy it is to be skeptical of someone we don't know? If we were to go strictly by the Cynics Handbook (foreword by Marion Jones), we'd apply the same smell test to Williams.

Go ahead, you first.

It only gets more complicated from here. Sen. George Mitchell's report is due on baseball commissioner Bud Selig's desk any day now. We are going to be treated to more names, more friendly faces, more achievements we'd rather not reconsider with a critical eye, more reputations we'd just as soon leave intact.

This business of revisionist history, reassessing who we thought we knew and what we thought they did, is exhausting work. So much so that Mitchell's final report is increasingly likely to be met with cries of, "For the love of God, man, make it stop," than it is, "Three cheers for Mitch!"

Hopefully that will be our cue to ease our death grip on the past -- as best we can with Bonds still out there swinging for the fences -- and focus on the more proactive process of testing and punishment.

That's not to be confused with a perfect world. Then again, nine out of 10 dentists surveyed agree that was never an option in the first place.

Contact Gary Peterson at gpeterson@bayareanewsgroup.com.