Well, here it is – another year gone by. But not just any year. It was the year we self-isolated and socially distanced. The year we missed all the trappings of life before COVID-19: seeing our friends, going to the movies and even engaging in the time-honored tradition of arguing with family members around the dinner table.
We learned to stay put, to mask up, and that a human actually can watch 18 straight hours of Netflix, as long as she tries hard and believes in herself.
With that in mind, it seems only right to say farewell to 2020 by reclaiming a luxury of years past – the luxury of arguing about something relatively inconsequential (relative, at least, to the life-and-death questions this year has wrought).
So gather around the metaphorical dinner table, friends, because I’m about to deeply annoy half of you: When the Baseball Writers’ Association of America announces the 2021 Hall of Fame inductees in mid-January, the list should include Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.
The thing about this endless debate is that neither side can convince the other that's it's right, and likely with good reason. Those who think Bonds and Clemens don’t belong in the Hall rightfully say their careers were sullied by the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Those who think they should be in correctly argue that they were the best players of their generation and far from the only ones who benefited from a medicinal boost. Never the twain shall meet.
So why err on the side of including them? Why not throw them on the discard pile of Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose? Simply because it’s the right thing to do.
Let’s first take the case for Bonds. He testified under oath that he first took steroids at some point in 1998 after his personal trainer allegedly told him it was arthritis cream and flaxseed oil, which means we can throw out anything he did after that ’98 season, beginning at the age of 34.
So what about before that? In his first 13 seasons, Bonds already had put together a Hall of Fame career: He compiled a 99.2 WAR, was named MVP three times and was an eight-time All-Star. He hit 411 home runs, stole 445 bases and drove in 1,216 runs. He had a .966 OPS.
Bonds has the fourth-best WAR of all time, according to Baseball-Reference. If you use his pre-steroid numbers, his WAR still is among the best – 33rd in MLB history, right behind Hall of Famers Joe Morgan and Warren Spahn and ahead of Hall of Famers such as Carl Yastrzemski, Phil Niekro and Cal Ripken Jr.
This wasn’t a mediocre player transformed into a great one. This was a great player transformed into an other-worldly one. All he needed to do was remain consistent for the balance of his career, and Bonds had been consistent since rookie ball.
Sure, he was getting older, and he benefited from the way steroids accelerate healing, but there’s every reason to believe he would have continued to be an excellent player, even without the PEDs.
But so what, you might say. He cheated, and cheaters don’t belong in the Hall of Fame. And while this should be true, the conversation is a bit more nuanced than that.
Baseball’s steroid policy in the ‘80s and ‘90s was essentially don’t ask, don’t tell. Everyone and their grandmother knew Jose Canseco was taking steroids, and MLB did nothing to curb it at the time.
In 1991, commissioner Fay Vincent announced via team memos that steroids were banned – this happened three years after Congress made it illegal to distribute or possess anabolic steroids, by the way – but showed no inclination to enforce it.
Meanwhile, the home runs kept coming. In 1998, Mark McGwire left a steroid hormone called androstenedione in his locker – his locker! – but it wasn't deemed illegal (yet), and he went on to hit 70 home runs.
It took Major League Baseball five more years to implement random drug testing, but players weren't punished for testing positive. Starting in 2004, a first offense would net you counseling and a second offense made for a whopping 15-game suspension.
And there’s a reason for all of this. Baseball was profiting off Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa and even pitchers like Roger Clemens. Teams went from hitting 3,813 homers in 1986, Bonds’ first season, to 5,528 in 1999. Attendance went up in line with the extra action: About 47 million in ’86 to 70 million in ’99. And that doesn’t even take into account the TV money and the monetization of the McGwire/Sosa home run race in 1998.
Bonds succeeded in a system that was designed to encourage cheating. Baseball was aware of PEDs, and Bonds’ physical transformation was a clear indicator that something was up. Someone like commissioner Bud Selig, who was supposed to serve as protector and steward of the sport, should have noticed. But what if he didn’t want to? Isn't that complicity?
Frankly, if Selig is in the Hall of Fame – and he was inducted in 2017 – Bonds should be, too.
And even though we all know Bonds took steroids, he never tested positive. Excluding him from the Hall – which conceivably could be the right choice for such a prolific user – produces the slippery slope that kept Mike Piazza out for three years: Piazza had bacne, so he must’ve been taking steroids.
Clemens, too, never had a positive test. He, unlike Bonds, never admitted to taking steroids. And though the Mitchell Report said Clemens took PEDs, even the courts couldn’t prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. He was acquitted of all six counts of lying to Congress when he denied using steroids. Additionally, all the Mitchell Report allegations state that Clemens used steroids before baseball’s crackdown in 2003 (whether or not that’s true is another story).
And please, let's not forget that he is simply one of the most dominant pitchers in MLB history. He has seven Cy Youngs Awards and was an 11-time All-Star and an MVP. He pitched for 24 seasons and led the league in ERA seven times, strikeouts five times and wins four times. He’s eighth in WAR with 139.2. That gives him the third-highest WAR for a pitcher, behind Cy Young and Walter Johnson.
And though this is a tired argument, it has to be said: There are plenty of alleged cheaters in the Hall of Fame. Pudge Rodriguez was dogged by rumors of alleged PED use but was inducted in 2017, right alongside Selig. Gaylord Perry and his spitter have a plaque in Cooperstown.
If we want to exclude the best players in the history of the sport in a shrine dedicated to the best players in the history of the sport, we have to figure out a way to do it uniformly. After all, the decisions are going to get even harder in the next few years, when we have to deliberate on players such as Alex Rodriguez, who admitted to using PEDs, served lengthy suspensions and will go down as one of the best infielders of all time.
Bonds and Clemens have this year and the next to gather the votes they need. In 2020, Clemens garnered 61.0% of the vote and Bonds took home 60.7%. They need 75%. To my fellow writers, I say, let’s do what ought to be done and put them over the top.
And hey, who knows, maybe they’ll finally make it to Cooperstown. If it happens, here’s to getting to be there in person, or arguing about it around a real dinner table.
Here's to new beginnings, even for baseball's prodigal sons.