A new, glorious day is dawning in the world of professional baseball. As fans, those who have followed in earnest in the past decade have gotten to experience the awe of some terrific players (such as David Ortiz, Mark Teixeira, Todd Helton, Mariano Rivera) on their way out of baseball, and the excitement of brilliant incoming young talent (including Aaron Judge, Francisco Lindor, Cody Bellinger, and Mookie Betts). At present day, self-proclaimed “baseball traditionalists” (a group of which I consider myself a part) are confronted with an “adapt or die” scenario that threatens the very nature of baseball as we (or they) know it. I, for one, will be the first to say, I wish the DH rule would be eliminated. I’m no fan of the intentional walk rule change (either let the pitcher throw the four pitches or eliminate the rule entirely…stop going half way). I believe a pitch clock is an unnecessary fundamental modification when part of the uniqueness of baseball has long been the lack of a timekeep… as Brad Pitt/”Billy Beane” declared in Moneyball, “This [baseball] is a war of attrition.” The game is changing more substantially than perhaps at any point in recent memory.
One of the most controversial aspects of this fundamental metamorphosis has been the Hall of Fame candidacy of players connected to, or proven to have used, performance-enhancing substances. Arguably, the most prominent, most polarizing, most accomplished name of those on the ballot this year is longtime Giants/Pirates outfielder Barry Bonds. Bonds is entering his sixth year of eligibility, and, like it or not, odds are he will surpass the 75%-of-ballots threshold sometime in the five seasons he has remaining on the ballot. Each of the last five voting seasons, I considered the thought of Bonds (or anyone relatable in the realm of cheating speculation) receiving a plaque in Cooperstown unjustifiable. It still isn’t sitting especially well with me or many of my fellow writers and/or fans that this is very realistic. Three years ago, Bonds received half of the necessary votes for election, when he came in at 37.5%. This lept to 44.3% the following year, and just last year he climbed to a new high of 53.8%. As my understanding and knowledge of the machinations of the game, the Hall of Fame and its voting have evolved, I came to realize that it’s easy to paint with the broad brush of PED speculation and refuse to vote for anyone whose names have that connection. The fan in me does not want the day to arrive where we hear his name read in January as an inductee to the museum of baseball’s legends. The writer in me believes that Barry Bonds is a Hall of Famer, and, given the honor of casting a ballot, would fill a box next to his name. I don’t make the case that Barry Bonds was an entirely clean player, nor that he should be in the conversation with someone who is probably (legitimately) the greatest player of all time in Willie Mays. Due to the circumstances and the details of the nature of his controversies, Bonds is a unique case and voting for him is not in and of itself a direct validation of anyone who used banned substances, in the same way that voting against him shan’t be perceived as a repudiation of any player with the ties.
For starters, let me inject (no pun intended) a disclaimer that I’m not universally softening my stance on PED-attached players. Manny Ramirez, for example, would still not be receiving votes from me. Bonds presents a unique case for a multitude of reasons. Roger Clemens is a case on which I remain torn. Understood, Bonds admitted to using Tetrahydrogestrinone and “the cream” (a composition of testosterone and epitestosterone). This admission was made on December 14, 2003, about two years before Major League Baseball’s first Joint Drug Policy was put in place (there had been various penalties beginning to surface in 2004 and 2005, but the first major efforts by the league and the Players’ Association to take a stand in the interest of cleaning up the game did not come until the end of the 2005 season). In stark contrast, Roger Clemens, for example, blatantly stated that he “could care less about the rules”, which I consider to be one of a multitude of factors that weaken the formidability of his case compared to that of Bonds.
As is public knowledge, there is zero statistical argument against Barry Bonds as a Hall of Fame player. In his 22 seasons, his walks exceeded his strikeouts in a staggering 19 campaigns (only in his first three were his strikeout totals greater). Was his ability to average 52 homers, 109 RBIs, and 174 walks to just 63 strikeouts per season from his age 35-39 campaigns bogus, and dramatically boosted by artificial means? It’s probable. Potentially, the Hall should not recognize him as the “home run king” and should clearly asterisk and state his alleged misconduct on any plaque he may receive. In a society that functions under a mantra of being innocent until proven guilty, and where the burden of proving guilt is on the system, not the defendant, why should a player be barred from being recognized for his greatness when his guilt could not even be confirmed predominantly because his sport failed to crack down on what was long known to be present within itself? A lack of action by the league, right or wrong, is an acceptance, and it’s why Barry Bonds and similar players who were alleged, and not even confirmed (though it’s arguable that such perhaps can be done beyond a reasonable doubt) of this usage should not be barred from the Hall of Fame on those grounds. It’s not the same as, say, Edgar Martinez, a clean player but full-time DH whose numbers are barely HOF-worthy without even having the normal burden of thousands of MLB players to contribute in half the game (and still Martinez had one 30-homer season and one 10-steal season in an 18-year career). Hall of Fame should be reserved for the greatest of the greats, and Bonds fits that criteria.
Let’s evaluate the “Bonds version 1” portion of his career first. In 15 seasons from 1986-2000, he hit .289 with a .979 OPS, 165 OPS+, averaging 33 homers, 94 RBI and 31 steals per season. Chances are Bonds could’ve retired after 2000 and been a Hall-of-Fame player. Alas, as we all know, Big Barry had other plans. His borderline-superhuman (and controversial) second act saw his numbers improve. Along with a .325 average, 1.262 OPS and 227 OPS+, he averaged 38 homers and 84 RBI from age 36-42. Again, “coincidental” is probably a little too naive for this situation as he was mired in the infamous turn-of-the-century home run race with fellow polarizing figures Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. To reiterate, you can agree or disagree with the premise of steroids in sports. It was not being cracked down upon by baseball, and thereby, I find it no longer legitimate for myself as a writer to keep an obvious Hall-of-Fame player from his rightful recognition, if only on performance grounds. Steroids in baseball dated back to Pud Galvin, a Hall-of-Famer (albeit by Veteran Committee) whose usage in the 1880s was not only known, but accepted. This was long before most living individuals, let alone professional baseball players, were born. Concerted efforts to clean up the game really began in earnest after the 2005 season, when then-commissioner Allan Selig and the Players’ Union signed off on the strictest penalty system in the life of the league, and only in March of 2006 called for Sen. George Mitchell to conduct an investigation into the history of usage within baseball. In the several major “reports” that surfaced over the last 10+ years that did not come with announcements from the league, MLB higher-ups have continuously said that leaks are not to be treated as gospel and that only official league statements should be factored in by the writers in these cases.
The inaction by Major League Baseball truly poses a moral dilemma for many writers who hold dear the character clause of the Hall of Fame (a group of which I am one). That being said, it’s up to the game to determine how it seeks to operate and conduct itself and oversee its players. The onus on the writers and/or voters should solely be to make judgment calls on which players were the absolute creme-de-la-creme when it comes to productivity, contributions to one’s team, and yes, personality remains an important factor. Ty Cobb is hardly an ideal example when not only were his alleged viewpoints not yet considered “outdated”, but the present evidence even substantiating racism claims of Cobb is, by and large, relatively scant, and numerous acclaimed papers, organizations, and individuals have written pieces in recent years to corroborate this. The character clause is not “out of date”, nor is it going to be void if a historically-talented player who made career decisions to exploit a lax mentality by his league and representative union is recognized for those achievements.
“Love Him or Hate Him”, the time has come.