Like it or not: A case for Bonds, Clemens

Greatness on diamond too great to not be in Cooperstown

January 11th, 2018

At the end of the 1998 season, Barry Bonds had a career split of .290/.411/.556. He was the only player in Major League history to have 400 home runs and 400 stolen bases. He had won three Most Valuable Player Awards and eight Gold Gloves. He had 100 wins above replacement. He was the greatest all-around player in the game since Willie Mays. Bonds was 33 years old.

At the end of the 1996 season, Roger Clemens was 192-111 with a 144 ERA+. To compare, Sandy Koufax was 165-76 with a 131 ERA+. Clemens had won three Cy Young Awards and an MVP Award. He was a four-time ERA champion, three-time strikeout leader and he led his league in fielding independent pitching six times. His 56.1 wins above average was already more than Bob Gibson or Steve Carlton managed in their entire careers. It was roughly the sum of Jim Bunning and Don Drysdale. Clemens was 33 years old.

I don't say that to make the argument, in the popular retelling of the story, that Bonds and Clemens were both sure Hall of Famers before they were believed to have started using performance-enhancing drugs. That's certainly true. But I wonder if it is beside the point.

Hall of Fame coverage

Best I can tell, roughly half of baseball fans believe that PED users from those days before drug testing should never go to the Hall of Fame. And roughly half the fans believe the best of them should. There are many polls that show many different percentages -- we really need Nate Silver to break them down -- but a rough 50-50 split seems to match up to my experience.

The feelings are equally raw on both sides. If as a voter you choose to vote for Clemens and Bonds, as I do, you are guaranteed to get hammered by extreme outrage as people will tell you that cheaters should never be allowed in the Hall, and to vote for them is to support crime, and that you must be a terrible parent, and they want you to know they will never visit the Hall of Fame again if Bonds or Clemens get elected.

Then again, if as a voter you choose to not vote for Clemens and Bonds, you are guaranteed to get hammered by extreme outrage as people will tell you that you know nothing about baseball, and you are a self-righteous jerk, and you are a hypocrite because you've already voted for cheaters, and they want you to know they will never visit the Hall of Fame again because two of the greatest players ever are not even in the place.

These arguments are so tired and static that they are not even arguments anymore. Arguments suggest that there can be some movement, that there is middle ground to be found. There's no middle ground here.

There have been attempts to find middle ground. It has been pointed out that the Hall of Fame has cheaters in it. It has been pointed out that the Hall of Fame has numerous players who specifically used illegal drugs like amphetamines to enhance their play. It has been pointed out that it's very likely that there are players in the Hall of Fame who used steroids.

It also has been pointed out that if we assume that Bonds and Clemens used PEDs -- and it is still an assumption because neither ever failed a drug test, and Clemens, in particular, has denied using -- they did so at a time when few cared. Baseball had no drug testing. There were no drug campaigns to prevent PED usage. We in the media didn't cover it until it was very late in the game. Few players -- really, almost nobody -- spoke out.

None of these arguments has moved the needle at all.

"The Hall of Fame has cheaters in it" counterargument: "That doesn't make it right."

Greenies counterargument: "Steroids are an entirely different type of drug and an entirely different level of assault on the game."

"There are steroid users in the Hall" counterargument: "You don't solve that by making the problem worse."

"Before drug testing, steroid use was tacitly encouraged" counterargument: "Let's be clear: These players absolutely knew that what they were doing was wrong."

None of these counterarguments has moved the needle at all.

One argument that I wish would create some middle ground is the "Hey, if you believe they used steroids then mark down their career 10 percent, or 20 percent, or whatever you think is fair" argument. But that too dies in committee. Too many people believe that using steroids is a Hall of Fame disqualifier, that you can't just penalize the players because if you used PEDs you are forever unworthy of the Hall of Fame.

We are left with the reality: Unless something dramatic changes, I simply don't see any realistic possibility for the 75-percent consensus necessary to vote in Bonds and Clemens. It is true that their vote percentages have crept upward in the past couple of years, but I don't think that's likely to continue for two reasons.

1. I think that the 54 percent they got last year is right at their ceiling. I think it will be difficult for either of them find a lot more yes votes.

2. When Hall of Fame vice chairman Joe Morgan sent out his letter essentially asking voters to pass on Bonds and Clemens, I believe he was expressing a concurring viewpoint of the Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame has somewhat tepidly said that Morgan was speaking for himself, but it is in their best interest to appear neutral. The fact that Morgan -- the Hall's most prominent board member -- sent the letter from an official Baseball Hall of Fame e-mail address seems to suggest the Hall is not opposed to the message.

And while a few voters might want to defy the Hall, I can't see 75 percent of voters doing so.

Bonds and Clemens will not get into the Hall of Fame for a very, very long time.

So if I believe that, why do I still vote for them? Well, that is why I put those facts at the top of this column: Bonds and Clemens are the two greatest baseball players of my lifetime. They were the greatest in the years before they were suspected of using steroids. They were certainly the greatest after. I don't approve of them or anyone else using steroids, and I would readily mark down their careers accordingly, even taking it all the way back to the year people suspect they started using, if we all could agree to that compromise.

But we can't agree. So I'm left with this: Bonds and Clemens are the best players I ever saw. And, in the end, I believe the Hall of Fame is for the best players.