Played 22 years for two teams
Seven-time MVP hit 762 homers and walked 2,558 times, both records. 162.4 WAR, 123.5 WAA
Pro argument: One of the five greatest players in baseball history.
Con argument: Used PEDs to achieve almost comical heights.
Deserves to be in Hall?: Yes.
Will get elected this year?: 5-10% chance.
Will ever get elected?: 95% chance.
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We are now in the section of the ballot where all 18 remaining players have a legitimate Hall of Fame case, one that will sway a fair percentage of the writers. With that in mind, we will bounce around on our ranking numbers from here on in just to keep things interesting.
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Let’s take a moment to ask that most basic question again: What is the Baseball Hall of Fame? And what I mean is this:
1. Is the Baseball Hall of Fame an honor?
2. Is the baseball Hall of Fame an acknowledgement of greatness?
Obviously, both things are at least somewhat true — but what is the dominant answer? You will sometimes hear people pose this question by asking is the Hall of Fame a “privilege” or a “right?” But I don’t like the way that’s worded. I don’t think the Hall is either of those. A privilege is, by definition, a special right, advantage or immunity granted to a particular person … that’s not the Hall. And a right is a”moral or legal entitlement to have or obtain something.” That’s DEFINITELY not the Hall.
I prefer to ask the question this way. Is the Baseball Hall of Fame an honor, like say the Nobel Prize or a lifetime achievement Academy Award or the Presidential Medal of Freedom or the decision to name a room in your office building after a longtime employee?
Or is the Baseball Hall of Fame an acknowledgment of greatness, like say the Fortune 500 list of richest people in the world (assuming you consider wealth “great”)?
It seems to me that the big arguments about the Hall of Fame lately — the ones surrounding players like Bonds and Roger Clemens — have been about this divide. If you believe the Hall of Fame is mostly an honor, like that lifetime Achievement Academy Award, then absolutely you should believe that Bonds and Clemens surrendered that honor by cheating (assuming that Clemens cheated, something that has not been proven — Bonds did admit to using something unknowingly).
You absolutely would not want to give a Nobel Prize to someone who cheated. You want not want to name the conference room after someone who had been tinkering with the books to make him or herself look better.
But if the Hall of Fame is mostly an acknowledgement of greatness, well, that’s different. There are unquestionably people on the Fortune 500 list who cheated. We just want to know: Who is the richest? Heck, my suspicion is that if there was a character, integrity and teamwork qualification for the Fortune 500 list, it might be something like a Fortune 9 list.
People say the same thing about the Baseball Hall of Fame, obviously.
If you view the Hall of Fame this way, as a place for the greatest players ever without prejudice, it is impossible to leave out Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.
There is middle ground on this, of course, but in the end there is a judgment call to be made. Is the Hall of Fame something we bestow upon a player based not only on his play but also how he represents the game? The people on this side of the argument can point to the Hall of Fame itself which asks voters to consider “playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and their contributions to the team.”
When I spoke to Jeff Idelson, president of the Hall of Fame, he reaffirmed this:
“I don’t think it needs to be clarified,” he said. “We want voters to have the leeway to define character as they see fit however they like for those traits like character, integrity and sportsmanship.”
Or is the Hall of Fame a determination that this player is one of the greatest who ever played the game? On this side, you have two obvious points in your favor:
1. Baseball writers vote on it. Not theologians. Baseball writers should (should) share only one quality — an understanding of baseball and baseball history.
2. In the actual vote — not the dreamy stuff of character clauses but the actual vote — cheaters and poor teammates, scoundrels and racists and alcoholics and drug abusers and just about anything else you can imagine have sailed into the Hall of Fame without second thought. And there isn’t a single example I know of where an esteemed player whose baseball credentials fell short was voted in anyway. Raul Ibanez and Curtis Granderson probably won’t get elected despite scoring off-the-charts in character, integrity and sportsmanship.
I did a quick poll on Twitter again, and in the poll 82% said they related more to the idea of the Hall as a “recognition of greatness” than as “an honor.” I don’t know if that means anything at all — probably not — but I’ll tell you this year provided the biggest test for me on the subject. The issue was not Bonds or Clemens, they were easy yesses for me because I believe in the Hall as a place for the greatest baseball players ever, flaws and all.
But there is a player on the ballot this year I absolutely love, one of my all-time favorites, a fantastic teammate and a joy to watch, someone I firmly believe is a Hall of Famer. And there was another player who is not one of my all-time favorites, a player who cheated and was, by all accounts a difficult teammate.
Thing is: the second player was significantly better than the first and had a much larger impact on baseball.
You can probably guess the two players. You tell me — if you can only vote one, which one is the Hall of Famer? That answer will tell you whether you see the museum as an honor to be bestowed (or withheld) or an acknowledgment of a baseball player’s awesomeness.
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Barry Bonds was almost a member of the Atlanta Braves. I told this story briefly in the piece I wrote about John Schuerholz — in 1992, Schuerholz completed a deal with Pittsburgh GM Ted Simmons for Bonds. The Braves gave up Alejandro Pena, Keith Mitchell and a player to be named later. The Pirates, knowing full well that they would not be able to sign Bonds after the season, gave up their franchise player.
The deal was rescinded by Simmons the next day. Schuerholz’s recollection of that phone call is priceless:
“We have a problem,” Simmons said.
“What do you mean a problem?” Schuerholz asked. “Don’t want to release it just yet? What?”
“I can’t do the deal,” Simmons said.
“You can’t do the deal? You DID the deal? Ted, we agreed over the phone, general manager to general manager? We MADE the deal.”
What happened, in Schuerholz’s memory, is that when Simmons told manager Jim Leyland about it, well, as you might expect, Leyland went coconuts and rushed in to see the team president and, well, as you know, Bonds stayed a Pirate for one more year (he hit .311/.456/.624 with 109 runs, 103 RBIs, a Gold Glove and an MVP award). Then he signed with San Francisco and history played out.
What happens if the Braves get Bonds? Does history change? We can never know, of course. Schuerholz thinks it might have changed. He thinks the Braves would have found a way to sign Bonds long term (using money the eventually spent on Greg Maddux) and that Bonds might have gone down a different path. I don’t know.
See the thing about the 1990s that gets overlooked all the time is that steroid use, PED use, it was normal. I mean, nobody was doing it openly, out in the public, and nobody was talking about it. But it was normal. There was no testing. There was no obvious rule against it. There was no team pressure to stop using. There was no fan pressure to stop using. There was no media pressure to stop using. Quite to the contrary. We celebrated the long ball, all of us. We celebrated ball players who worked out. We celebrated the way the game had come back from labor oblivion. There were a few opposing voices in the wilderness, no question, but the power was thrilling to watch. McGwire was thrilling to watch. Sosa was thrilling to watch. Home runs are joyous.
Barry Bonds had nothing to prove by 1999, the year that according to legend he decided to start using PEDs.By that point in his career, he had hit .290/.411/.556 with 411 home runs, 445 stolen bases and had accumulated 99.6 WAR. He was a locked-down Hall of Famer and he was just 33 years old.
BUT he was not viewed as the greatest player of all-time. Most people did not even consider him the best player of HIS time — Ken Griffey Jr.had that unofficial title. If a three-time MVP could be considered underappreciated, Barry Bonds was. He was not well-liked. He had never played in a World Series. He was not being talked about in that class with Mantle and Mays, Aaron and Gehrig, Ruth and DiMaggio. As a 34-year-old he only played in 102 games because of injuries and he hit just .262, his lowest average since he was 22 and in his first full season.
And PED use, yes, it was normal. You couldn’t get caught. Nobody was even trying to catch you.
This is not to excuse Bonds — he knew what he was doing.They all knew. But, again, it was normal. The irony is that it was Bonds, more than anybody, who made it all feel, well, not normal. There was a fascinating debate* in the magic community about David Copperfield making the statue of liberty disappear back in 1983. If you were alive and aware then, you will remember: It was a HUGE deal. My friend Joshua Jay, a brilliant magician himself, had listed that as one of the 16 greatest magic tricks ever in “The Final Four of Everything.” I completely agree.
*Well, fascinating to me because, don’t know if I’ve mentioned this, but I’m writing a book about Houdini’s impact on our time.
But the reigning star of magic Doug Henning apparently didn’t like it. The main reason? It was too impossible. Magic is so much about suspending belief but, Henning believed, no one can suspend belief that much, nobody will really believe that the Statue of Liberty itself just disappeared. I side with Copperfield on this one; the idea of big magic seems to me to stretch the limits of what we will and will not believe.
But the point of suspending belief is real. We have to believe that players, many players, had used steroids before Bonds, and they had put up preposterous numbers the like we had never seen before. From 1978 to 1993, 15 years, one player hit 50 home runs From 1994 to 2000 there were TWELVE 50-homer seasons. There were four 60-homer seasons. We had the McGwire-Sosa chase. There were so many 40-homer seasons during those seven seasons (82 if you’re counting) that 40-homers stopped mattering at all.
In other words, we had become immune more or less to all of the causes for the home run explosion — it’s not only PEDs, there was also the tiny strike zone, high-altitude ballparks, harder bats, dearth of pitching because of expansion, etc.
Whatever, we had accepted most of it. Then Bonds hit 73 home runs in 2001 — one homer for every 6.5 at-bats — everyone basically at the same time said: “OK, that’s it. I have stopped believing. This is ridiculous.” Managers started saying, “OK, we’re going to walk this guy every time he comes up.” Fans started saying that it had gone too far. Congress got involved. We all know the story.
Does that whole, big story change if Bonds is traded to Atlanta? I kind of doubt it.