At the entrance to the plaque gallery of the Baseball Hall of Fame, there is a sign hanging to help guide museum visitors through what they are about to see. The first paragraph talks about how players are in the Hall for “their achievements in the game.” The next paragraph says that other areas of the museum “address the entirety of their careers.” The final paragraph ties it all together: “The mission of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is to preserve history, which is what we seek to do throughout the Museum.”
If indeed that is the Hall’s mission, today it is nothing short of an abject failure. Barry Bondsarguably the greatest hitter in baseball history, arguably commendable, almost certainly won’t hit the 75% threshold in his final year on the writers’ ballot. Over the past nine years, at least a third of the baseball writers who adjudicate such matters have found Bonds’ use of performance-enhancing drugs to be disqualifying, and the disclosure of Tuesday’s vote is not expected to provide a different judgement. He’s not alone, but Bonds’ rejection, in particular, epitomizes how all these decades later, baseball is still screwing up the PEDs issue, valuing a moral referendum. lazy and unhistorical about preserving history.
It’s hard to pinpoint what’s most frustrating. Perhaps it is that there are already players in the Hall accused of using PEDs. Or that the commissioner whose tenure spanned the entire steroid era, Bud Selig, is already enshrined with his badge. Or that generations of players before Bonds, including several Hall of Famers, took amphetamines as part of their pregame routine. Or that other honorees with bronze representations include multiple racists, domestic abusers and even a player who last year resigned from the Hall’s board of directors after a woman made credible allegations of sexual misconduct.
Really, maybe it’s as simple as the guy with the most home runs in history should have his plaque in the museum that exists to tell the story of baseball.
The campaign against Bonds has spanned decades, involving flaws in fairness and logic across multiple cohorts.
It begins with Major League Baseball and the blind eye that Selig, his office and the game’s administrators turned to PEDs. From there came the duplicity of taking advantage of the steroid wave to build new stadiums and have bigger TV deals and exponential revenue growth while mistreating the very people who powered it. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa and everyone else brought before Congress were big scapegoats, but the league’s treatment of Bonds has extended far beyond that. Selig was furious that Bonds was breaking the eminent Henry Aaron’s home run record, almost placing an asterisk along with Bonds’ final tally of 762 and a single-season record of 73. After the 2007 season, when Bonds, at 43, was still one of the best hitters on the planet, no team offered him a contract. Although an umpire ruled it wasn’t a conspiracy, it clearly was something: Baseball told Bonds he wasn’t welcome.
The message traveled to Cooperstown, where that same year, McGwire’s candidacy forced the Hall of Fame to consider the question that would dominate the next 15 years: Will voters honor PED users? Among the writers who decide such things, there was confusion. What did the Hall want? Although the institution never lobbies for or against players, it could have offered some guidance on players who had used PEDs. Does the so-called “character clause,” which tells Hall voters to consider a player’s “character” as one of six attributes when considering value, apply to the use of PEDs? Or should the writers keep in mind that these players existed in an environment where cheating was extremely prevalent?
It was a moment where the Hall could have embraced and taken the right stand: As ugly as this story is, not telling it in full would amount to whitewashing this pivotal moment in the game. Instead, the Hall absconded from his leadership duties and cleared out. “We’re telling the story of the steroid era the same way we tell the story of any era in baseball, and we’re telling the story in its simple truth,” said Jane Forbes Clark, the Hall’s longtime president, a decade later, in 2017. “And this is how the museum is going to deal with it.”
The simple truth is that Barry Bonds is the history of the steroid era. He’s a player whose physical gifts knew no bounds, and whose desire for something beyond greatness took him to a place he never had to go. His greed mirrored that of the league: the relentless pursuit of bigger, better, more. This is the story that demands to be told, and there is no better place to tell it than in the Hall of Fame plaque room.
You shouldn’t run away from it, you shouldn’t deny it, not if you are a museum. However, the closest writers who wanted some clarity on how to handle PED users have gotten from the Hall came in a November 2017 email written by Joe Morgan and sent to voters by the Hall. “The Hall of Fame is Special” ran the caption, and from there, Morgan spewed out more than 1,000 words of anti-PED propaganda. “Steroid users don’t belong here,” Morgan wrote, even though she knew they were already there.
Six years before that, when Bonds was getting 36.2% of the vote, Clark had said, “I think the writers are doing a pretty good job.” At the time of Morgan’s email, that number had risen to 53.8%, and the threat of him and Roger Clemens making it to the Hall was beginning to look like it just might happen.
The Baseball Writers Association of America assured that he will not do it under their watch. Even as support jumped to 61.8% in 2021, nearly two out of five writers who cast their votes saw Bonds not as the scariest hitter they had ever seen, but as the league and Hall portrayed him: a large anthropomorphic needle filled with disgusting disgusting juice.
We should be able to acknowledge that Bonds is a cheat, lament his actions, and persuasively argue that he belongs in Cooperstown anyway. Even those who take the Hall of Fame seriously enough to believe that by excluding Bonds they are protecting it are forced to acknowledge that history, the museum’s mission, can be complicated, disappointing and sad.
Playing with history is a dangerous game, especially coming from a group charged with writing it. But that’s what the BBWAA will do if it fails to pick Bonds today, and it will shift the responsibility to … the Hall. In December, it will convene its Today’s Game Era committee, which is tasked with voting for anyone who played between 1988 and 2017 that the writers missed. This group of 16 voters, made up of Hall of Famers, executives and members of the media, voted to induct Selig in 2017 and two years later selected Harold Baines, who did not have Hall of Fame numbers but he had enough friends on the committee to end up in Cooperstown.
Bonds should be on that ticket, though if Morgan’s letter is any indication, his candidacy is dead on arrival. Getting 12 out of 16 votes from era committees is hard enough without being a cause célèbre. His name will remain on the ballot, and his fate in the hands of the Today Game committee, into infinity.
We can spend all the time in the world wishing it were a less complicated, straightforward, black-and-white, hero’s journey. That doesn’t always happen. All these decades later, Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose are still outcasts in the sport; and with Bonds, Clemens and Curt Schilling, the Hall is disinviting three more: the first two for using PEDs, the last for saying egregious things.
Unlike Jackson and Rose, Bonds is not banned from the sport. Those who view this entire process and find it abhorrent may continue to mystify Bonds, to suggest that it may not be in the best interest of the museum that exists to tell the history of baseball that it essentially ignore someone so imperative to its mission. After all this time, Clark was right: the simple truth is self-evident.
The National Baseball Hall of Fame needs to induct Barry Bonds. There are so many simple solutions, which would fulfill the Hall’s stated mission and acknowledge that it is possible to celebrate the player that Bonds was while regretting the decisions he made. All that is needed is the correct words on the plaque. And since the Hall is not doing it this year, it seems like the right time to try your luck.
BARRY LAMAR BONDS
Pittsburgh NL, San Francisco NL, 1986-2007
Baseball’s home run king, with 762, won seven MVP awards and walked more than any other player in history. With a fearsome left-handed swing, he set a single-season home run record with 73 and redefined hitting for a generation. His use of performance-enhancing drugs clouded his achievements and epitomized MLB’s steroid era. Hero and villain at the same time, they possessed a rare combination of power and speed further enhanced by the naked eye that helped lead the NL in on-base percentage 10 times.
That’s Barry Bonds, and that’s how history is preserved.
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If Barry Bonds doesn’t get into the Hall of Fame at the end of the day, that’s a failure for the Hall of Fame.