Posted August 08, 2012

The thorny issue of Barry Bonds’ Cooperstown candidacy

Barry Bonds, Hall of Fame

Five years after he became baseball’s career home run king, Barry Bonds’ Hall of Fame chances are murkier than ever. (Brad Mangin/SI)

Tuesday marked the five-year anniversary of Barry Bonds surpassing Hank Aaron on the all-time home run list by hitting his 756th round-tripper in a game against the Nationals. The opportunity to mark the historic homer went largely unnoticed and uncelebrated, because these days Bonds is viewed as a pariah due to allegations that he used performance-enhancing drugs during the latter part of his career. First implicated as part of the BALCO scandal in late 2003, he was indicted in late 2007 on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice based upon his grand jury testimony in the case. After a long delay, Bonds finally went on trial in March 2011, where he was convicted on one count of obstruction of justice for giving an evasive answer when asked if trainer Greg Anderson had given him anything that required him to inject himself. The judge declared a mistrial on three remaining counts of making false statements to the grand jury. Bonds is appealing his conviction, while the government has yet to decide whether it will retry him.

This winter, Bonds will face another jury. With his career having ended following the 2007 season — involuntarily, as he desired to continue playing even past the age of 42 but didn’t receive any contract offers — he is eligible to be voted into the Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers Association of America. He’ll appear on a ballot alongside Roger Clemens, who himself was acquitted of perjury and obstruction charges back in June, and Sammy Sosa, who allegedly failed a 2003 PED survey test that was intended to be anonymous. For those who look forward to the annual vote, this one promises to be a lot less enjoyable due to the polarizing debate over how to handle the stars from the game’s so-called “Steroid Era.”

In a recent interview with MLB.com’s Barry Bloom, Bonds stated his belief that he belongs in the Hall. “There’s not a doubt in my mind,” he said. But will he get in? Even as the holder of the career and single-season home run marks, the answer remains unclear. Thus far, the BBWAA voters have taken a harsh view of the Hall of Fame cases of players connected to PEDs.

Mark McGwire, a 12-time All-Star who in 1998 toppled Roger Maris’ long-standing single-season home run record and who finished with 583 career homers (now 10th all-time) is 0-for-6 in front of the voters. First up for induction on the 2007 ballot, he received 23.5 percent of the vote, less than one-third of the 75 percent needed for induction. He maxed out at 23.7 percent in 2010, but since admitting what had long been suspected — that he used steroids during his career — his support has fallen under 20 percent. Rafael Palmeiro, the fourth player ever to reach both the 3,000 hit and 500 home run milestones — numbers that used to guarantee induction — but also the first star player to be suspended for failing a steroid test, is 0-for-2. He received just 11.0 percent in his first appearance on the ballot in 2011, and climbed to only 12.6 percent on the most recent ballot. Juan Gonzalez, who won two AL MVP awards and hit 434 homers in his career but was named in the Mitchell Report, drew 5.2 percent of the vote in 2011, and fell off the ballot after drawing 4.0 percent this year.

Statistically, Bonds’ case is far stronger than any of those players, not only due to his single-season and career home run records. He also holds the major league record for walks (2,558) and intentional walks (688), ranks second in times on base (5,599) and extra-base hits (1,440), third in runs scored (2,227) and fourth in total bases (5,976) and RBIs (1,996). He made 14 All-Star teams and won a record seven MVP awards. In terms of advanced metrics such as WAR and WARP, only Babe Ruth was a more valuable hitter.

The extent to which those numbers owe something to PED use is unknowable, and the same goes for any advantage such users may have gained on the field, a particularly thorny question when one considers that a significant percentage of players connected to the drugs have been pitchers. But for many BBWAA voters, that won’t matter. In their eyes, Bonds and other PED users cheated and don’t belong in the Hall of Fame, end of story.

Never mind the fact that cheating at baseball is as old as baseball itself. Sign-stealers and spitballers are in the Hall, including Gaylord Perry, who bragged openly about throwing the pitch long after it became illegal. Never mind that the Hall is a rogues’ gallery full of individuals with worse sins of character, racists and Ku Klux Klan members, Prohibition-era alcoholics, cocaine users, amphetamine users, spousal abusers, sex addicts and so on. Even Judge Landis, the commissioner who penned the character clause cited by voters as a means of justifying exclusion of PED users, spent his 24-year tenure upholding the color line, and he’s got a bronze plaque in Cooperstown.

And never mind that the steroid problem wasn’t simply a matter of players using banned substances in order to gain some nebulous advantage. This was a complete institutional failure that implicated the entire sport. Anabolic steroids were added to the Controlled Substances Act as far back as 1990, and explicitly banned by commissioner Fay Vincent in 1991, but the ban had no means of enforcement under the game’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, a situation that held after Vincent was ousted by the owners in favor of Bud Selig. Owners were loathe to go after stars they suspected of using, and far busier fighting a seemingly endless labor war to try to break the players’ union and hold down salaries to push for enforcement or more stringent rules. Their attempt to eliminate salary arbitration, restrict free agency and institute revenue sharing tied to a salary cap led to the 1994-1995 strike, after which they were more interested in winning back fans by any means necessary — even absurd home run totals.

Meanwhile, the union refused to police itself, and the media who covered the game and celebrated the home run boom failed to report what it saw happening as usage became more widespread. Recognition of their own complicity in the problem has led some voters to suggest that they have no place serving as moral arbiters when it comes to the Hall of Fame voting. ESPN’s Buster Olney, who in a 2006 New York Times Op-Ed piece admitted that he could have done a better job reporting what he saw regarding PEDs, more recently suggested that usage was so widespread — above 50 percent — that voters have only two real choices: “You can vote for no one from the era, or you can put the issue aside and vote for the best players, and that’s what I did.”

Other prominent voters, such as the New York Post‘s Ken Davidoff, a past president of the BBWAA, have distinguished between usage that took place before the rules were enforced (starting in 2004, though the first suspensions didn’t occur until 2005), and that which took place afterwards; he is on record as voting for McGwire, who never tested positive, but not Palmeiro, who did. He plans to vote for both Bonds and Clemens.

The wide consensus among voters is that Bonds certainly isn’t going to get in on the first ballot. Unless he receives less than five percent of the vote — highly unlikely given the precedents of McGwire and Palmeiro — he’ll have 14 more years to gain entry. It may be several years before he gets in, but the evolution of the electorate — which began admitting members of the electronic media (such as Rob Neyer, Keith Law, Christina Karhl and even this writer) — in recent years could work in his favor. So too might the pressure on voters to hold their noses and recognize that the Hall is a private institution whose revenue is based upon tourism; a failure to accurately reflect the era as part of baseball history may doom it — and by extension, the voting body — to irrelevance. It certainly won’t be a pretty process, but in time, Bonds should get his bronze plaque.

11 comments
Derek M
Derek M

I agree, if he had blown his knee out in 99 and been done he would have been in first ballot in 05 prickly personality and all.

bra356
bra356

For Bonds' first 14 years in MLB ('86 - '99) his average WAR was 7.1.  He it 445 HRs. He also earned 8 Silver Slugger awards. Is there another player with a 14-year stretch of offense like that who is not in the HOF? In addition to his offensive stats, over that same period Bonds earned 8 Gold Glove awards, stole 351 bases and won 3 MVP awards (plus one 2nd-place MVP vote ) That's a HOF career before he would have started taking PIDs in, as you say, 2000.

 

bra356
bra356

Derek,

 

So add up Bonds' career prior to 2000 (defensive stats, records, and awards as well, not just offense) and tell me he wouldn't have made the HOF anyway. If not simply based on his accomplishments before 2000, then projecting what his numbers would likely have been over his remaining years if he had maintained the same level of performance. (Admittedly it's a crap shoot, since he might have fallen off dramatically without the assumed PHDs.)

 

Derek M
Derek M

If you look at Bonds career on Baseball reference it is clear when he started juicing. In 1999 he hit 262 and only had about 4.0 war. He had about 100 war over his career to that point. In the next 3 years he 2 years over 11 war, hit 73 homers, and won a batting title. I think his use was a case in point of how pervasive it was. Bonds was used to being the best. It's quite possible he wanted to even the playing field against players he knew were inferior to him hitting for similar numbers.

bra356
bra356

Bonds never admitted using banned substances. Never failed a drug test. Has never been proven in court to have used illegal substances. How was he cheating except in your mind? Folks can vote "no" because they don't like a player's hairstyle if they wan to. But the HOF is about a player's career on the field, and it is inevitable Bonds will have to be in the HOF or it will be rendered a joke as an institution.

DaveMcLean
DaveMcLean

The whole argument to put Bonds in boils down to the fact that a lot of other people cheated as well.  I wouldn't vote for Bonds or Clemens, and I'd have serious reservations about voting for someone like Bagwell or Piazza, even though I'm a Dodgers fan.  I definitely wouldn't vote for Braun, who got off on a technicality (and robbed Kemp of his deserved MVP).

bra356
bra356

You can't keep Bonds out. Hate him, hate the era, hate MLB for looking the other way, but Bonds is a giant, and a HOF that doesn't have Bonds in it is a laughingstock. He would have qualified for the HOF even had he retired before his alleged drug use. He's the only player routinely held up next to Babe Ruth with a straight face.

 

And suppose you keep Bonds out. You're going to keep the other 150 players (including pitchers) who are on the list shown to Congress out as well? In other words, there was no MLB for all those years? Let's face it, probably all the players from that era who would even be considered for the HOF were most likely juiced.

 

Finally, Bonds never failed a drug test. Think about that. You're going to keep him out for a conviction (which may well be overturned) for making a "misleading" statement to a grand jury?

 

Get real, people. He'll be in the HOF, or there is no HOF.

 

dhzlatar
dhzlatar

The pro Bonds writters have started the campaign. I think this guy cheated big time. Everybody knew it. Inmy opinion enhanced drugs are more serious than alcohol, gambling or spitt balls, because the player use exactly to have a no natural or training advantage over their peers. This is contrary to all sports ia bout, skip the hard work training, try to emulate the good ones with something that is artificial. On contraire what this article is saying the Hall still is an honor, vote for Bonds to be in would be a catastrophe for me. That´s mean that the most knowledgeable people in baseball considered Bonds as a example to follow and somebody who deserve to be praise by others. 

harvey
harvey

lionoah may have just written one of the most intelligent posts on this matter that I have ever seen ...

lionoah
lionoah

That tone sounds about right. From the owners to the fans, the press and most definitely the players, everyone was involved. Like you said, it was highly interesting until the shadow grew so large that the sun didn't shine on the game anymore. It was the absurdity of men who were having better seasons in their late 30's than they did in their supposed physical peak. When guys who never hit more than a few homers all of a sudden bang 50, which had only been done a handful of times before the early 90's. That said, we cannot forget and throw away the era as if it never existed. We have to look it in the eye and accept it for what it was; a highly entertaining game fueled by an apathetic attitude to physical performance enhancement. Vote in the best, or rather those who we suspect might have gotten in anyway (Bonds and Clemens among a few others) and be done with it. They cheated, and so did we.