The Asterisk Hall of Fame

I wrote yesterday about the four newest inductees to the Baseball Hall of Fame and praised the career achievements of some of the biggest names in the game from the early years of my baseball fandom. It’s simple to talk about the ones who get inducted because the consensus on their place in the annals of America’s Pastime is quite high, as reflected by the standard for entry. Because of the lofty standard upheld by the guardians of baseball history (the BBWAA), there are scores of very good players who languished on the ballot for a decade or more, failed to get inducted, and lost hope of entering the Hall—but, as we’re so often told, it’s not The Hall of Very Good.

While we’re all thrilled for the men who got their call to Cooperstown yesterday, the arguably larger story was two players in their sixth year on the ballot who were not inducted. As fate would have it, two of the central figures in baseball’s steroid era became eligible in the same year and those two men, who grabbed way too many headlines yesterday, are Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. Let’s take a quick look at both before I tell you whether I think they should be in baseball’s Hall of Fame.

The Ace

Roger Clemens

The Rocket’s career spanned 24 seasons and his numbers are absolutely eye-popping. He won seven Cy Young awards—the most ever—and was a two-time world champion. He won the league MVP in 1986 (not an award you see given to pitchers all that often) and amassed 4,672 strikeouts, good for 3rd all time. In short, his statistical case for the Hall is ironclad. He was the best player at his position for a bunch of seasons and his 354 career wins (9th all time) is a number we we will never see another player reach again.

There is a lot of incriminating evidence, but Clemens never tested positive for performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) and was never convicted despite being indicted for lying about it before Congress. The general narrative among fans and sports writers is that he definitely used PEDs. Clemens famously threw a splintered piece of a bat at Mike Piazza as he jogged towards first base and we all pretty much chalked it up to ‘roid rage. McNamee said Clemens did it, the Mitchell Report said Clemens did it, and Andy Pettitte kinda said Clemens did it, but no smoking gun ever emerged.

In Wednesday’s vote, Clemens came the closest he ever has to induction receiving 57.3% of the vote, up from 54.1% last year (remember you need 75% to get in). In his first year on the ballot, back in 2013, he received just 37.6% so he’s certainly made some progress, but it’s beginning to look like a shift in voter attitude for him to ever make it in.

The Slugger

Barry Bonds

Barry played 22 MLB seasons and, in my opinion, has an even stronger statistical case than Clemens. His 762 career home runs are the most ever and he holds the single season record with 73 of them in 2001. He also has the career record for walks (2,558) and intentional walks (688). All four of these records are going to stand for time and all eternity; I’m not even kidding, check it out. Barry has seven MVP awards and nobody else has more than three. The superlatives go on seemingly forever.

Much like Clemens, Bonds was never caught even though it seems like there is a mountain of evidence and incriminating circumstance. He was convicted of obstruction of justice, but that was later overturned on appeal so there really isn’t a smoking gun here again. However, we’re all sure that he used PEDs. In fact the very founding of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO) seems to get blamed on Bonds all the time. Since he last played at the end of the 2007 season, we’ve only become more sure that he cheated if only because of the visible change in his hat size and body shape from his early days to the end of his career.

 

Bonds received 56.4% this time around (4 votes less than Clemens) and has also been trending upwards on each ballot since 2014. My guess as to why Bonds is behind Clemens at all is that we find it easier to blame a power hitter than a pitcher, but there are a lot of factors at play. For the fans of advanced metrics, Baseball Reference, has Bonds as the better HOF candidate. I always like to say that Bonds is baseball royalty; the son of MLB great, Bobby Bonds, and the godson of HOFer Willie Mays.

The Hall Verdict

The question has been asked whether the baseball writers are simply being petty in keeping these two out at this point as both players were surly types who never really got along with the media. There may be something to that narrative since a higher percentage of writers acquiesce with each passing year, but assuming this is sheerly a personal vendetta mischaracterizes the BBWAA. I believe the writers see themselves as the “guardians of the game” and, while I do find it admirable that they want to Hall to be pure, the time for altruism has passed.

The steroid era happened and we have no way of knowing the full scope of it. We will never be able to say with certainty that any individual was clean and the loss of that innocence is awful, but I think the Hall of Fame is better off telling the whole story of the game’s past. There is a way to: 1- put these guys in the Hall as players who defined a generation, 2- tell the story as we understand it at this time, and 3- admit that a lot of failures took place that allowed it to come to this.

I love baseball and openly admit that I worshipped the stats as a kid: 61 home runs for Maris, 755 home runs for Aaron, 56 game hit streak for DiMaggio, 7 no-hitters for Ryan, and so on. Having said that, I recognize that times change, nothing lasts forever, and I am wrong a lot.

I would love to hear your opinion in the comments below.

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