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Barry Bonds may get frozen out of Cooperstown, even as public opinion has thawed

Barry Bonds is in his final year on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America Hall of Fame ballot. This year’s class will be announced Tuesday. (Eric Risberg/AP)
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If baseball legacies were defined numerically, Major League Baseball’s all-time home run leader would be a surefire Hall of Famer, a first-ballot inductee. Barry Bonds has seven MVP awards — nobody else has more than three.

If baseball legacies were determined solely by perceptions of character, though, Bonds probably wouldn’t have to wonder. As with dozens of other players in the Hall of Fame, off-field transgressions probably would have disqualified him long before this.

Bonds was never suspended for the use of performance-enhancing drugs, but he has been linked to steroid use. He was never convicted of domestic abuse, but he was accused.

But baseball legacies are determined by all of those things and more in the minds of human beings. And those human beings this week will reveal their verdict on Bonds, as well as steroid-era colleague Roger Clemens, in their last opportunity to do so.

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The Hall of Fame’s Class of 2022 will be announced Tuesday and deliver with it something of a final public judgment on the careers of some of the biggest stars of a complex and asterisk-laden era.

A player needs 75 percent of the vote from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) to be elected to the Hall of Fame. According to ballots accumulated and tabulated by Ryan Thibodaux and his colleagues at bbhoftracker.com, Bonds had received votes on 77.5 percent of ballots made public by Monday afternoon — which accounted for 47.7 percent of total ballots cast, per Thibodaux’s calculations. Clemens stood at 76.5 percent, and David Ortiz topped the tracker at 84.5 percent. It is the final year on the writers’ ballot for Bonds and Clemens; Ortiz is in his first.

Because BBWAA voters who do not make their ballots public tend to be less likely to vote for players linked to PEDs, at least based on their voting histories, those numbers may not indicate that any of the three is on the verge of induction. (These voters do not include eligible Washington Post journalists, who are not permitted to cast ballots for the Hall of Fame.) Even if they don’t make it, a separate committee of veterans can vote them in anyway — a system that yielded six new Hall of Famers last year.

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But whatever the outcome, the past decade has demonstrated the malleability of legacies such as Bonds’s. In 2013, his first year on the ballot, Bonds got approval from 36.2 percent of voters. By 2017, that number was 53.8 percent. He climbed to 60.7 percent in 2020 and 61.8 percent last year.

Some veteran writers who chose not to vote for him 10 years ago have shifted their stance. The Athletic’s Peter Gammons, himself a Hall of Famer, began to vote for Bonds in 2017. “Barry is one of the five best players ever — defense, speed included, the best left fielder. If he gets in, there will be a Steroid Era mention on his plaque,” Gammons wrote at the time.

San Francisco Chronicle writer Susan Slusser explained that, as of 2019, she is limiting her considerations to on-field results because many overseers and enablers of the steroid era — such as, for example, then-commissioner Bud Selig — have been inducted.

“I used to be a non-Bonds/Clemens voter, but the growing number of execs and managers from the steroid era who are now enshrined, along with the certainty that some Hall of Fame players also used steroids, made that stance increasingly hard to support,” Slusser, a former BBWAA president, wrote in 2019. “I still loathe the cheaters and worry about the message honoring them sends, especially to children, but they’re already in the Hall or enabled the era.”

Baseball has not exactly banished confirmed steroid users, let alone those who never tested positive once MLB began more thorough testing.

Alex Rodriguez, who unlike Bonds registered positive drug tests when MLB began to test and was suspended 162 games for PED use in 2014, was a color commentator for ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball,” the nationally televised game of the week, from 2018 to 2021. The network recently announced he will be hosting his own simulcast of “Sunday Night Baseball” in 2022, along with longtime Yankees play-by-play broadcaster Michael Kay. Rodriguez is in his first year of Hall of Fame eligibility, and as of Monday afternoon he had received votes on 40.1 percent of public ballots.

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Before he was caught using steroids a second time, Rodriguez traveled the country urging kids against steroid use with Don Hooton, whose son, Taylor, died by suicide at 17. Hooton testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform in 2005, urging players to take responsibility for the examples they set for children. He told the panel he believed Taylor’s use of anabolic steroids “played a significant role” in his mental health issues. To Hooton, the calculus about Bonds, Rodriguez and their similarly situated contemporaries hasn’t changed.

“I am tired of hearing you tell us that kids should not look up to you as role models. If you haven’t figured it out yet, let me break the news to you: You are role models whether you like it or not,” Hooton said that day, addressing a committee before which Bonds did not testify. “And parents across America should hold you accountable for behavior that inspires our kids to do things that put their health at risk and teaches them that the ethics we try to teach them at home somehow don’t apply to you.”

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A decade and a half later, as he continues his efforts, Hooton is disappointed to see concerns about steroid use — by players accused of using such as Bonds or confirmed users such as Rodriguez — that he tried to highlight slide out of voters’ minds.

“The point of view we bring to the table, what happened with our loss of Taylor and the loss of other kids, that discussion seems to have gotten lost,” Hooton said in an interview this month. “You go back and look at Bonds and the pictures before and after steroids … come on, guys. I don’t care if everybody else was doing it. That’s beside the point.”

While they don’t officially have a say, Bonds’s San Francisco Giants appear to have rendered their decision on whether he belongs in Cooperstown, N.Y. They retired his No. 25, making him one of 12 former Giants so honored. The other 11 are Hall of Famers.

To the Giants, Bonds is as much the cantankerous star wrapped in scandal as he is the superstar Larry Baer called in the winter of 1992, just after a move to Florida was vetoed by MLB, just after he and Peter Magowan bought the team and decided they needed to make a splash to show San Francisco they were serious about baseball.

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To the Giants, Bonds is the man who choked up when Baer called, emotional at the idea of returning to the franchise where he grew up watching his father, Bobby, and his godfather, Willie Mays. Bonds was the reigning MVP then, coveted by the Atlanta Braves and New York Yankees — the teams that would go on to dominate the sport for the next decade.

He chose San Francisco, then spurred the city’s baseball renaissance. More than once, Bonds has quipped to Giants executives that he built AT&T Park (now known as Oracle Park) by making the Giants relevant enough in the 1990s to make the investment worthwhile. Privately, one longtime Giants executive joked recently, they don’t disagree.

Because to the Giants, and seemingly to a large portion of their fans, Bonds is a part of their history, a man whose home run exploits put their ballpark on the map, the man who helped baseball regain its footing in San Francisco — a villain, maybe, but their villain.

When the Giants faced the Dodgers in the National League Division Series this past October, Bonds was in the stands for Game 1, the old familiar scowl replaced by an unmitigated smile as the cameras found him. Any frustration with the less flattering parts of his history was inaudible amid the seemingly unanimous adoration: “Bar-ry! Bar-ry! Bar-ry!”

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