With the votes tallied, published and discussed, I find myself unable to muster much of an emotional response about this year's empty MLB Hall of Fame ballot.
To put it simply: I don’t think it matters to anyone other than the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) whether Bonds and Clemens and other suspected or proven users of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) are allowed into the Hall of Fame or not.
The Hall of Fame is an organization and museum designed to enshrine players who’ve made an impact on the game and who also define extraordinary or excellent athletic achievement.
(Don’t panic—I’m not here to make a semantic argument about how PEDs help players make an impact on the game and thus become extraordinary. Nor am I going to rehash the valid argument, to which I subscribe, that Clemens and Bonds were Hall-of-Fame-caliber players before they began using PEDs. PEDs lengthened their careers, yes, but I do not believe they were somehow made better by them.)
What I’d rather focus on is why being barred or admitted into the Hall of Fame will make no difference to the way history views any player marked by the PED era. Because, let’s be honest, even without court convictions and admissions of guilt, will these two players ever be discussed by future generations without acknowledgment of their link to PEDs?
Hall or no Hall, the public has spoken
Even the most ardent supporters of Bonds and Clemens have to admit that the accusations have marked these players permanently and, fair or not, their greatness will always be linked to their questionable ethics.
Maybe, eventually, decades from now, people will speak less of PEDs and focus simply on the era's greatest players. For now, fans of either can say they were keeping the playing field level; critics will say they were cheating. Fans will say PEDs just staved off the ravages of time; critics will say that’s not fair to players who chose not to use.
If you believe, for instance, that Clemens was clean his entire career, you can argue it’s unfair to keep him out of the Hall of Fame due to accusations and suspicions. And I would agree.
But does putting him in the Hall erase those accusations? No. Does it repair his reputation? No. Does it make history view him as a better player? No. Why?
For the same reason there’s articles about players who were voted in and aren’t necessarily that great compared to other players, Clemens’ hypothetical admission will still be debated, years from now, as either a mistake or as exceptional, not simply as the reasonable and expected end to his career.
Put more directly, the accusations cannot be taken away nor made less powerful if the BBWAA puts Clemens into the Hall. Their acceptance of him will not be read as an overwriting of the era itself.
What's the real damage?
Members of the BBWAA must believe there is a risk to the value of the Hall of Fame if they let PED users—suspected, admitted, or proven—into the Hall. But what is the risk? Who loses value? Whose reputation is at stake?
Does the Hall of Fame become diluted if players of high caliber are elected based on tainted and untainted stats? Did it lose value by players with borderline stats being let in while others with great stats were not voted in?
I’d argue no. The value of the Hall is created by two entities: the members of the BBWAA and the fans of baseball who believe the Hall represents greatness.
Think about this: will the Hall of Fame ever be dismantled? Of course not. Did anyone quit MLB because of the Mitchell Report or A-Rod’s admission? Of course not.
If the MLB really felt there was something to lose, if the integrity of the game were truly affected by big-name PED users, wouldn’t people have been banned? Wouldn’t others have quit their beloved game?
No. The game is bigger than Bonds and Clemens.
Yes, MLB needed to do something about the use of PEDs. But no, I refuse to believe the Hall of Fame has any reason to fear that fans will lose respect for the Hall if Bonds and Clemens are allowed in.
Look at the stats
Accept this: Bonds and Clemens are two of the most dominant players of the last 25 years. Bonds hit a ton of home runs. I can be convinced that HGH allowed him to hit more HRs in a season than anyone ever did before. I cannot be convinced HGH is the only reason he was a good hitter; nor can I be asked to ignore his excellent stats from his time in Pittsburgh, before he was linked to PEDs.
But he wasn’t just a masher like Jose Canseco or Mark McGwire. Bonds hit the ball. Look at Bonds’ numbers with men on base, not even limiting it to “runners in scoring position,” just runners on base, and you can see that Bonds hit the ball when it mattered.
Or walked to keep an inning alive; sometimes he was intentionally walked, especially during his big year of 73 HRs. But the overall narrative of his career shouldn’t be rewritten because of his reported desire to earn more respect than McGwire and Sosa, the HR chase darlings. With or without the PEDs, Bonds was a great hitter.
Great teammate? Great human being? Who cares.
I shouldn’t have to educate anyone on the insane stats of Clemens’ career, but in case you’re a newcomer to baseball, consider that between 1986-1992 Clemens didn’t strike out fewer than 208 people per season.
In his rookie season (1984) a 21-year-old Clemens averaged 8.5 strikeouts per 9 innings pitched over a total of 133 innings. His career average SO/9 ended up being 8.6. He walked an average of 81/season for that 6-year period. His highest WHIP was 1.216, a number pitchers would kill for as their career low.
The guy could pitch. He earned the nickname the Rocket.
Likable? Who cares. Good husband? Good teammate? It doesn’t matter.
Won't somebody think of the children?
The BBWAA members who refuse to vote for Clemens and Bonds have a point. The mysterious, immaterial, but all-too-important integrity of the game is affected by player behavior, especially when it comes to behavior that directly affects performance on the field.
Oil Can Boyd’s use of crack didn’t help him pitch better; Darryl Strawberry’s use of cocaine didn’t either. Ty Cobb’s racism didn’t help him hit the ball. So, those character flaws can be overlooked; I get it.
PED use cannot be overlooked the way a player’s role as a DH, for instance, can be overlooked when comparing him to a guy who played the field. That’s logical. I get it. My feelings about players aside, I get it.
But does anyone really believe these two players were only Hall-of-Fame-worthy because of PEDs? No. The argument is about the morals of the BBWAA, not about the guidelines.
Does the BBWAA fear that children will be idolizing cheaters? It can’t be that because children are not prohibited from idolizing cheaters by the Hall of Fame vote. Kids watch baseball, they don’t visit the Hall of Fame to find their favorite players.
Besides, cheating aside, Clemens and Bonds can be idolized for all the money they made and awards they earned that will never be taken away. They performed at the highest competitive level and succeeded. If a kid wants to idolize a player, the player’s presence or absence in the Hall of Fame will never come into the equation.
Further, if the concern is the idolization of morally or ethically questionable humans, then lots of other players should be barred entry based on character for more important reasons. Would I want my kid idolizing a guy who cheats on his wife or beats his kids or drives drunk? Of course not. But the Hall of Fame does not bar entry to guys who cheated on their wives, does it?
Again, it doesn’t really matter if Clemens or Bonds get in. The BBWAA members want to make this about legitimacy and integrity of baseball, but it seems more about the BBWAA itself. Major League Baseball doesn’t care if these players get in or not, otherwise they’d ban them like Pete Rose, a guy who acted inappropriately as a manager but not as a player.
Clemens has a plaque at Yankee Stadium. Bonds will have his number retired in SF. Neither are not banned from baseball. Neither is Rafael Palmero, who tested positive. Nor Miguel Tejada. (Heck, McGwire is a hitting coach. If that’s not a joke about the way MLB views PED and HGH offenders, then I don’t know what is.)
OK, these players did not violate rules and Pete Rose did (as a manager). But if Clemens and Bonds didn’t violate rules, only a perceived ethical/moral obligation to both remain competitive and also not use certain means, then what’s the point of keeping them out?
Well, the BBWAA is proud of the fact that it’s hard to get into the Hall of Fame. Consider this quote from the post-voting results conference call with BBWAA secretary/treasurer Jack O’Connell:
So, with 53 percent you can get to the White House but you can’t get to Cooperstown. It’s the 75 percent that makes it difficult.
This pride seems misguided. First of all, the purpose of these two votes is much much different. One is enshrinement, an award, while the other is civil service, a job position that cannot remain empty.
Secondly, failing to vote Bonds and Clemens in is actually the only acceptable act for the BBWAA since it was a majority of the nation’s sports journalists who did not report on the use of PEDs. If they were accused of overlooking the issue to begin with, then voted in two of the biggest names attached to the PED issue, wouldn’t that eliminate any moral authority they believe they have?
Call this penance, then, for past failures. The BBWAA members who didn’t vote for Bonds and Clemens may not have been guilty of a failure to speak up; but they would be labeled as hypocrites by association.
As O’Connell continues:
The guidelines are right there and how you interpret them is up to each individual voter. And an individual voter can even ignore it if he or she wants to.
The voters can ignore the guidelines. Which is exactly why I don’t think it matters if Clemens and Bonds get in. The vote has become a representation of the BBWAA’s authority and not a representation of MLB player excellence. People vote with conscience instead of voting according to guidelines.
The BBWAA, for good and bad, wants to put Bonds and Clemens into the Hall, but if it does so, will lose authority to pressure MLB on other important issues, including future PED issues. Since Major League Baseball has no intentions of sanctioning players, this is the last line of punishment either man can face (especially considering how the federal cases turned out).
Despite this self-appointed role, or perhaps because of it, I believe that Bonds and Clemens will get into the Hall of Fame before their 15-year window has expired. Both were once first-ballot players. If stat-minded writers can argue for the inclusion of once-rejected and clean players like Bert Blylevin, a case can be made for Clemens and Bonds.
But both players will have to watch the BBWAA scratch and claw at itself before it happens. I also believe, though I cannot prove, that a portion of votes from this year were the only punishment individual writers intended to apply. Next year, I will not be surprised when the numbers for Bonds and Clemens increase, though the clear first-round status of Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine will certainly prevent a dramatic increase.
But do not be surprised as their percentages continue to climb as writers and fans begin to care less and less about what Bonds and Clemens did before and after PEDs. Their successes will outweigh their ethical mistakes and unlikable personalities.