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Barry Bonds, Drugs and the Hall: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dingers

While one could be forgiven for thinking that the only story currently smoldering in the 2014 offseason was the eventual signing of Masahiro Tanaka, another much more regularly scheduled story is also heating up. Members of the BBWAA are currently poring over stat-sheets and ensuring that their picks for the Hall of Fame are based objectively on a player’s performance and not their media persona or the performance of their teams – at least that’s how I’d like to think it goes. In reality, voters seem to have let their Powers of Induction go to their heads. Voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America have taken it upon themselves to play judge, jury and executioner when it comes to defending the Sanctity of the Game. They refuse to vote for candidates who were caught using performance enhancing drugs, or even one’s they suspect may have used, with some of the cheekiest amongst them submitting blank ballots as a form of protest last year. They dreamed up and then enforced a system where only the most deserving players in their minds should be elected immediately upon being eligible; they seem to feel that they need to make the players who are closer to the cut ‘sweat it out’ a bit as they burn up a few of their eligibility years and creating the nonsensical distinction of being a ‘first-ballot guy.’ They have ceased to be objective and, while fellow CTTP writer Sam Clancy may not agree with me, nowhere can this be seen more demonstratively than in their refusal to elect Barry Bonds to the Hall of Fame.

From 2001-2004, Barry Bonds hit .349 over 573 games, hitting 209 homers and walking a nutty average of 189 times per season. He won the MVP in each of those four years (voted on by those same members of the BBWAA) and led baseball in basically every traditional stat category. In 2004 he drew 232 walks and posted a 1.422 OPS – both of which are easily the best marks of all time. His OBP was well over .500 in each of those four years, peaking at an unfathomable .609 in 2004, again posting the best mark of all time. From 1990 until he was forced into retirement, Bonds never posted a wRC+ lower than 146, roughly the mark posted by Edwin Encarnacion and Matt Carpenter in 2013; that was Bonds’ worst offensive year during an amazing 15 year peak.  Between 1987 and 2004, a span of 18 major-league seasons, Bonds only put up less than 5.0 fWAR one time; he posted a 3.3 in 1999 due to a hilarious .225 BABIP that dragged his average down to .262 (his OBP was still .389) When discussing Hall of Fame candidacy for players, writers will often discuss either peak or longevity when trying to eke out a few extra points for their guy. Sandy Koufax didn’t have the amount of time necessary to accumulate the kind of counting stats put up by a pitcher like Nolan Ryan, but he’s a deserving Hall of Famer to be sure; he’s in because of how dominant he was at his peak. Craig Biggio is a longevity guy who is nearly a lock to get into the Hall in his fourteen years remaining on the ballot; he’s going to ride those 3010 hits right in because he was a great player for a long time, even if he was never a super-elite player like Koufax or Mantle. This logic all makes sense to me, where it starts to fall apart is that none of this should apply to Barry. Barry had peak, Barry had longevity. Barry Bonds, adjusted for skill inflation, is possibly the best player that has ever played the game. His performance was undoubtedly the performance of a Hall of Famer, which brings us to our point. They’re not stopping Barry Bonds from getting into the Hall of Fame because he wasn’t great, they’re stopping him from getting in because he cheated.

In 2003, Barry Lamar Bonds became embroiled in a scandal that would go on to define his entire career, and permanently tarnish his legacy. The BALCO story has been retold many times and I’m not going to go into it here, but the long and short of it is that Barry Bonds used steroids to gain muscle mass in his pursuit of more home-run power. He was charged with perjury in 2007 and was eventually convicted of obstruction of justice in 2011 for ‘giving an evasive answer in court.’ The antics of the steroid era are just as well known; Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa‘s race to beat Roger Maris‘ single-season record made a lot of fans scratch their heads and wonder if something fishy might be going on. More than fans though, it’s been alleged that the success enjoyed by McGwire for eclipsing the record is actually what drove Bonds to use steroids in the first place; Bonds (rightfully) felt that he was the better player, and presumably merely wanted to be on a level playing field. Granted, he may have wanted the level playing field so that he could flout his dominance over the rest of baseball for arrogant reasons, but my point is that that doesn’t matter. All of these things happened, and they certainly are not feathers in Barry Bonds’ cap; they are blemishes on a spectacular career and scars on the face of his legacy. I’m not trying to argue that cheating wasn’t bad or that Bonds was not an asshole, quite the opposite actually. My problem isn’t with Bonds, my problem is with the voters and their decision to change what the Hall of Fame is for.

It’s not the Hall of Great Dudes who also Played Baseball; it’s the Hall of Great at Baseball. I mean, Ty Cobb is in there and he was literally a violent racist who beat a disabled fan nearly to death in the stands of a Major League Game. He regularly hit people for being black. He very likely killed a man while drunk and with a knife. Seriously, read that link; Ty Cobb was a sumbitch, and he’s in the Hall of Fame. Not only that, he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. He is one of the best players that ever set foot on the diamond, and it’s not the Hall of Nice Guys who Played Fair. It’s not up to the voting writers to determine how we tell the history of our game. People still know Cobb is an asshole, they know Mantle was a drunken womanizer; its part of the story, you can’t take out the parts that hurt, those are the parts that make it real. A lot of people will make the claims that while Cobb and Mantle were reprehensible men outside the diamond, they didn’t cheat; and that’s the difference. They don’t want cheaters in the Hall, but they seem to have a hard time figuring out what cheating actually is. MLB didn’t institute punishments for using performance enhancing drugs until the 2005 season, after Bonds’ dominant run ended. To suggest that professional athletes aren’t right this second using every single ounce of available supplement that hasn’t been banned yet to gain a competitive edge is absurd. Not only is it obviously the case; we, as fans, basically demand it of them. We admire them for being more-than-human, without ever questioning how they got that way. Until MLB (arbitrarily, in my opinion) declares a substance as off-limits, those who use that substance aren’t cheating – they’re just doing everything they can to gain an edge, just like you want them to. If tomorrow they ban Muscle Milk or Red Bull, the guys who used them up until now cannot be retroactively labelled cheaters, it just doesn’t work that way. I will further contest that the validity of a drug’s being banned needs to be placed under as much scrutiny as a player caught using one, but that’s for another article.

Anyone who followed baseball prior to 2006 is familiar with the term ‘Greenies.’ Greenies were a slang term given by players to a family of amphetamines that were about as widely used as baseball gloves for roughly half a century ending in 2006, when they were banned. This NYTimes story paints a hilarious picture of ballplayers milling about the park like characters in a cartoon trying to find alternatives to their now-illegal drug of choice. Mentioned among those having withdrawals are two guys who are near-locks to be inducted into the Hall within the next decade in Derek Jeter and Tom Glavine. Amphetamines are a performance enhancing drug that players were taking (abusing, really) to help compensate for their grueling travel schedules, the wear and tear of a 162 game season and the wear and tear of being a young man with a ton of money and a bunch of buddies around all the time. Many players from the 50s through the 70s were already using them, and the frequency only increased until it was most of the players in baseball before it was banned. In a game where you’re trying to hit a hundred mile an hour ball with a long, round stick, I personally would prefer the drug that adds to my concentration and reaction time than one that enhances my strength. When considering actual enhancement, it might be even more of a performance enhancer. Consider that the level I would be playing at while tired and hungover versus hopped up on amphetamines would be conceivably as large or larger than the gap between a clean player and the same player on steroids. With Mantle’s legendary boozing, it’s not hard to draw a line there and say that it’s likely one of the games greats may have been on drugs. Actually, Mantle has been rumored to have taken all manner of performance enhancers, including one (questionable) source, one Zev Chafets, indicating that his inability to keep pace with Roger Maris’ home-run record-season was directly related to a botched injection of a steroid cocktail. This doesn’t invalidate what they did on the field, as it’s more complicated than just “drugs = cheating.” Cheating needs to be defined as breaking the rules to tilt the playing field unfairly in your favor. If there aren’t any rules and the playing field is already very tilted, it becomes a very fuzzy grey area. I don’t want to get into the differences between a guy like Bonds, who was Hall-worthy prior to his size-increase and a guy like McGwire whose one-dimensional game was pushed over the line into the elite by the added strength, because that’s exactly what I’m trying to get at. The people who view the Hall will make those distinctions for themselves, it shouldn’t be about anything for the voters except for how good they were at baseball.

In the end, the Hall of Fame is supposed to be a place for enshrinement of the game’s greatest players and their stories. We look to the plaques of Ty Cobb and Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente and we marvel at the journey our beloved game has taken. It’s richer for the scary parts and the tragedies, and without them the game never could have grown into the progressive and intelligent entity that exists today. The voting members of the BBWAA should only be asking themselves one question when determining whether a player should be inducted:

“Was he one of the best that ever played the game?”

Barry Bonds is the only player in baseball history with 500 home runs and 500 steals; get off your high horses and give the man his plaque. Let history teach it’s own lessons.



For the opposite take on this issue, don’t miss my colleague Sam Clancy’s take on why Bonds (and Clemens) should be barred from induction: Drugs, Deceit and Denial: Why Two of the Game’s Greatest Liars and Cheaters Should Wave Good-Bye to Baseball’s Most Hallowed Grounds

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