Here’s the thing with Barry Bonds and the Baseball Hall of Fame, and it gets lost in all the bickering between the “It’s a crime he’s not in” crowd and the “Hell no, not ever” set: This is hard. One of the best hitters who ever played the game will never be honored as such. That can both be defensible and deflating. Why does it have to be one or the other?
For the purposes of “enshrinement” — a term that connotes more holiness than is fit for any sport — Tuesday’s announcement that the Baseball Writers’ Association of America had left out Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, the only seven-time MVP and the only seven-time Cy Young winner, brings with it finality. There will be no bronze plaque for either of them in Upstate New York. They have been on the ballot for 10 years and failed to gain the requisite 75 percent of the vote each and every time. That’s where there’s a clear either-or, because either you’re in or you’re out, and there’s no in-between.
Finality, though, doesn’t equal clarity, and there’s perhaps some more haranguing to come as it pertains to proven or suspected users of performance-enhancing drugs. Alex Rodriguez has nine more tries at this. Plus, there’s a last gasp provided by the 16-member “Era Committee,” but that group — formerly known as the “Veterans Committee” — swiftly and roundly rejected the case of Mark McGwire, 11th on the all-time home run list, admitted user of PEDs during his historic career. There’s no reason to foresee an about-face with the two players who perhaps most define the era and all its perceived stains.
So clarity eludes us, even as there is a frenzy to take sides here — absolute, black-and-white sides. There’s a reasoned path to passionately end up in one place or the other. That both paths are fraught should be acknowledged, too.
Start with the stats, because you can just get lost in them. Since 1960, Bonds authored seasons that produced four of the top six slugging percentages, the top four on-base percentages, the top four on-base-plus-slugging percentages. The back of his baseball card looks like it’s filled with typos. Last year, for instance, Bryce Harper led the majors with a .615 slugging percentage. In 2004, Bonds posted a .609 on-base percentage.
The numbers become overwhelming, and not just the home runs. In that ’04 season, Bonds walked 232 times, still a major league record — by a mile. The next closest: Barry Bonds in 2002, with 198. The next closest to that: Barry Bonds in 2001, with 177. The names that follow him: Babe Ruth and Ted Williams, two of the best hitters to dig into the box. Bonds owns the top OPS of all time — an incomprehensible 1.422 from ’04. Only three men have ever produced a single season with an OPS higher than 1.250 — Bonds, Ruth and Williams. They combined for 12 of them.
Clemens similarly has historically outlying statistics, dominance combined with longevity. In 2005, when major league pitchers posted a collective ERA of 4.29, Clemens’s league-leading ERA was 1.87 — nearly 2½ runs better than average. It was the last of his seven ERA crowns, and it came 19 years after his first. Only Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson have more career strikeouts. No one had struck out 20 batters in a game before Clemens did it — twice, a decade apart. There’s nothing on his baseball-reference.com page — 354 wins, Cy Young awards at 23 and 41 and scattered in between — that suggests he’s anything other than one of the best to ply his craft. That’s hard to unsee.
So that’s what Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were: two of the best to ever do what they did. There is a flaw in a Hall of Fame that denies admission to the player who hit more home runs than any in history, just as there is a flaw in a Hall of Fame that denies admission to the player with more hits than anyone in history. But here we are, with Pete Rose on the outside because he bet on baseball even as Major League Baseball aggressively tries to lure its fans to become bettors on baseball. Which form of cheating was worse in the moment? Which looks worse now? Try to find absolutes in that debate, too.
The “Not on my watch” crew that has voted against Bonds — a ballot is offered to BBWAA members of 10 years or more — is willing to ignore all those numbers in the name of serving as gatekeepers, the lions on the pedestals sitting outside Cooperstown. There’s virtually no doubt that there are PED users in the Hall already, and there’s something holier-than-thou about keeping others out. Admission of Bonds and Clemens would spur further debate about how much steroid use enhanced what were already legendary careers. Relegation won’t wipe their accomplishments from the record.
And yet, there are pitfalls in saying the stats should override all else. You know why? Because these guys cheated. They cheated their contemporaries. They cheated the fans. They cheated the game. What the-ends-justify-any-means lessons are we teaching the next generation if there are essentially no ramifications for knowingly and systematically using untoward means to improve your personal standing?
That sounds like a dramatic and overwrought question to assign to what’s mostly a frivolous situation, until you envision Bonds at the lectern delivering a speech to a Cooperstown crowd and you have to explain to an 11-year-old why the all-time home run king wasn’t a shoo-in to be delivering that speech in the first place. That’s tough.
It’s worth noting, too, that the only member elected by the BBWAA this year — Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz — was reported by the New York Times to have been among a group of players who tested positive for a banned substance in 2003, before MLB had instituted its full drug-testing program. Several people, among them Commissioner Rob Manfred, have downplayed results of that test, saying in 2016 it could have been a false positive. Talk about murkiness.
How to process it all? I think back on one moment. On the night of Aug. 7, 2007, at what was then AT&T Park in San Francisco, Bonds came to the plate in the fifth inning to face a journeyman Washington Nationals left-hander named Mike Bacsik. He sat at 755 home runs, tied with Hank Aaron for the most all-time. He worked the count full, and Bacsik came with the best fastball in his arsenal — grooved, sadly, at 86 mph. Bonds demolished it.
I remember, sitting in the press box that night, the conflict in the moment. The march to Bonds’s record-breaking shot had largely been joyless and tense, marked more by the questions about how he became so prolific than any celebration of the accomplishment. When his bomb off Bacsik landed in the center field seats, the Nationals slowly left the field so Bonds could address an adoring home crowd, but catcher Brian Schneider wouldn’t budge from behind the plate, “the best seat in the house,” he told me afterward.
“As far as excitement, that was unbelievable,” said Felipe Lopez, the Nats’ starting shortstop that night. “I had goose bumps. It was awesome.”
Goose bumps or guilty? How to feel, all these years later? There’s no need for absolutes. Barry Bonds will not be inducted to the Hall of Fame, and that’s both justified and a damn shame.