On the night of Aug. 7, 2007, the mighty Barry Bonds stepped into the batter's box against a Washington Nationals left-hander named Mike Bacsik, owner of an 86-mph fastball and a deep appreciation for baseball history. In the stands, 43,154 people stood at attention. The iPhone had been released little more than a month earlier. Yet seemingly everyone had a camera, ready for the moment.
"I had goose bumps," Felipe Lopez, the Washington shortstop for that game, said that night. "It was awesome."
That moment, when Bonds sent Bacsik's feeble fastball out of AT&T Park, thrusting both arms to the sky long before it landed in the center field stands, is what Bonds has now. What happened that night was history, the 756th homer of Bonds's career, breaking the mark of Hank Aaron for the most ever in baseball. Call it what you will — tainted, ugly, whatever. It was historic.
On Wednesday evening, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum will announce the members of its 2018 class for induction. Bonds, the all-time home run king and a seven-time most valuable player, almost certainly won't be in it. Neither will Roger Clemens, a seven-time Cy Young Award winner who is surpassed in career strikeouts only by Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson.
It's time for this nonsense to stop. Baseball, perhaps more than any American sport, values and revels in its history. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are two of the most historically significant figures in that rich past. Love them for what they did or loathe them for how they did it — there's not much better than a good old-fashioned sports debate over a beer.
But let's place hazy morality aside for a minute. Even if Bonds and Clemens — and other players known to have used performance-enhancing drugs along the way — are denied their spots in Cooperstown, they are inexorably woven into the fabric of the game. I was there that night when Bonds took Bacsik deep. I remember what it felt like in the day leading up to the moment. I remember calling Bacsik's father, a former big league pitcher also named Mike, who had long ago faced Aaron after Aaron had hit his 755th homer — and held him to a single in two at-bats. I remember Brian Schneider, the Nationals catcher, finding a picture the next day of Bonds's swing with Schneider in the frame, and Schneider frantically figuring out a way to get a print and have Bonds sign it.
That's all baseball history. The essence of it, really.
"The Hall of Fame's mission is to preserve the sport's history, honor excellence within the game and make a connection between the generations of people who enjoy baseball," the Hall says on its website. To police morality? No, it doesn't quite go there.
Now, there is a clause — on which so many voters hang their decision-making hats — about factoring in a player's "integrity, sportsmanship, character" along with his playing ability, stats and contribution to his team's achievements. I don't want to dismiss this clause. But there are a few issues to consider before kicking Bonds and Clemens to the Cooperstown curb.
This stuff has been chewed on and spit out over and over at this time of year, but it's all worth noting again. It's worth noting that Gaylord Perry, whose autobiography was "Me and the Spitter," gained enshrinement in 1991. Does throwing an illegal pitch constitute good sportsmanship? I don't particularly care that Perry, for the most part, got away with it, and I suppose it's possible to think doctoring a baseball is a lesser transgression than juicing your muscles. Split those hairs if you like.
But if your argument against Bonds and Clemens is that the Hall must be a sanctuary for clean players, well, come on now, let's not kid ourselves. There are either players who used performance-enhancing drugs already in the Hall, or there will be, and I'd rather not entrust the Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA) with having to vote on what-ifs and maybes and shadowy rumors.
(It's actually hard for me to write about this without going down the path I feel more strongly about, and that is that the BBWAA has no business offering its members as judge and jury for Hall membership. I've written this before, and I'm not going to get sucked into it now, and it actually doesn't have much to do with steroids or "the clear," but more with people who report the news not making the news. I digress.)
Here are the people whose case makes it difficult: The contemporaries of Bonds and Clemens (and others) who played the game without help from drugs, who failed and succeeded naturally, and whose honors — All-Star Games and postseason awards when they played, even the Hall of Fame afterward — might not be attainable at the expense of players who bulked up illegally. Those people, I feel for.
Still, how do you know who those people are?
What the Hall could do: On Clemens's plaque, acknowledge his appearance in the Mitchell Report, baseball's 2007 independent investigation into the pervasiveness of PEDs in the game. On Bonds's plaque, explain the perjury and obstruction of justice conviction — a conviction that was later overturned — that all stemmed from his involvement in the BALCO steroid scandal. Scrubbing history is always dangerous. Acknowledging it, understanding it — that's progress.
Speaking of progress: When Bonds and Clemens first appeared on the ballot, back in 2013, there appeared little hope for their induction. Gaining entry to the Hall requires being named on 75 percent of the ballots cast by qualifying members of the BBWAA — those who have been members of the organization for 10 years. Bonds and Clemens, in that first vote, gained just 36.2 and 37.6 percent, respectively.
But a funny thing has happened. Last year, they were up to 53.8 and 54.1 percent, respectively. And according to ballot-tracking by Ryan Thibodaux, as of Tuesday afternoon, they had each appeared on 63 percent of the ballots with more than half the votes released publicly.
Now, that's not likely to get them in this year. No, this year will likely include Chipper Jones, the superior switch-hitter and career Atlanta Brave, and Vladimir Guerrero, the barehanded slugger primarily for Montreal and Anaheim. It'll likely include Jim Thome, a meandering designated hitter who finished with 612 home runs, and maybe Seattle legend Edgar Martinez, and maybe San Diego closer Trevor Hoffman.
Nice players, all. None compares in ability or accomplishment — not even close — to either Bonds or Clemens. A Hall of Fame without either of those two is a Hall of Fame that doesn't tell the full story of the game. The Steroid Era, that's part of it. Maybe that's too bad. But it's the truth. Why shouldn't Cooperstown include all of it?