The 134 Hall of Fame voters who left Barry Bonds off their ballot reached a verdict that flies in the face of reason. They allowed their hearts, not their heads, to check the boxes and lock the game’s home run king out of Cooperstown, at least for the time being. They made this personal.
And, really, what we did expect?
Other sports may be more exciting, more fun, more watchable, but baseball still has them beat as the one best enjoyed with nostalgia. More allegory than game, it retains immense power over grown-ups, causing them to spontaneously tear up over cheesy scenes in a dated movie and over manufactured games played on the old set of the same dated movie.
Just thinking about baseball cues an orchestral accompaniment beneath a narrator’s sun-kissed memories of fathers and sons and lies about the purity of Americana. Vapid to the cynical but precious to its truest believers, baseball is not a soulless game. And it has survived this long because enough people have passed down their love for it from generation to generation.
So when it came time for the 134 voters to make a rational decision, to look past Bonds’s link to performance-enhancing drugs and evaluate his career for the 10th and final time on their Hall of Fame ballots, they couldn’t do it.
They are now in the minority among their Baseball Writers’ Association of America tribe. And if you believe the supercilious vitriol aimed at them on social media after Tuesday’s announcement, they are rigid, old-fashioned moralists alone in the world, while everybody else, clearly, can see Bonds is a Hall of Famer.
But better descriptions for these voters would be fallible, unreasonable, emotional. Human beings with good judgment of character but overall terrible judgment.
During his record-annihilating days, Bonds made it clear how he wanted to be remembered. He fostered an icy relationship with beat reporters, sometimes even with teammates, because his was a greatness that had to be appreciated from a distance. He blasted the home runs; they wrote about ’em. That was the deal.
“[Reporters] expect you to be who they want you to be, not who you are,” Bonds told New York Times Magazine in 2002. “If they could only judge a player by their own eyes, if they could just watch me play, what I do on the field.”
Two decades later, it turns out, Bonds didn’t get what he wanted. While the pro-Bonds crowd would argue rightfully that his stats should have rocketed him on the first ballot into Cooperstown — 762 home runs, seven MVP awards, a .298 batting average, a .607 slugging percentage and the major league record holder in walks and intentional walks — some writers couldn’t look at Bonds simply as numbers on the back of a baseball card.
Instead, they viewed his totality as a person. He was the greatest home run hitter the game has ever seen and a liar who even lied to himself. Asked once to explain why he was slugging so many homers, he offered: “Call God. Ask him. It’s like, wow. I can’t understand it, either. I try to figure it out, and I can’t figure it out.”
He was the boy who grew up in the game and surpassed even his heroes, Willie Mays and Bobby Bonds: “My godfather and father are the only reason I played, for their approval,” Bonds told ESPN in 2003. But he was also the greedy competitor who desired more and, according to the book “Game of Shadows,” envied Mark McGwire so much that he turned to steroids after the 1998 season — even though by that time Bonds was already crafting a Hall of Fame career.
When faced with all this — with everything that makes up Bonds’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contributions to the team(s) on which he played — those 134 writers did not separate the human being from the ballplayer. And they could not expunge their own beliefs about what baseball is and what baseball should be from their ballot.
Charged with guarding the gates of a museum that has more emotional ties to it than any other American sports institution, they were supposed to suddenly take a cold and detached view of Bonds? As though dissecting a dead frog in a biology lab? That wasn’t going to happen.
Good baseball people as they might be, they allowed their personal feelings to muck up the process.
But strip away the sentiment and try, hard as it might be, to push aside Bonds’s flaws as a man (he was accused of domestic abuse by an ex-wife and a former mistress), and it’s easy to recognize how PEDs had nothing to do with his plate vision. Beneath his body armor, his biceps may have been bulging courtesy of BALCO, but the steroids didn’t improve his ability to connect on a pitch thrown by a flamethrower who also might have been juicing.
Anyone could see that. However, those 134 baseball writers just could not unhinge themselves from the fantasy of baseball long enough to open their eyes and cast an impassive vote.