July 26, 2020. Coopers town. Derek Jeter, the first-ballot Hall of Famer everyone knew he would be, is waiting his turn at the podium before a crowd packed so tightly that barely a blade of grass can be seen in the surrounding lawn.
First up, however, is Barry Bonds.
Then Roger Clemens.
It’s a nightmare scenario to some, but it no longer is far-fetched to think that Bonds and Clemens, after more than a decade living in the shadow of steroid-tainted careers, indeed will get their day in the sun — and immortality with a plaque in Cooperstown.
In fact, it now looks more probable than not. And given the Hall of Fame voting results that were revealed Wednesday night, that awkward induction ceremony has crept closer to becoming a reality.
Dismissed as hopeless in 2013 — and rightfully so, many insisted — on their first year on the ballot, Clemens and Bonds have climbed steadily since because of a number of factors. And if history is any indication, both are likely to end up in Cooperstown.
Wednesday’s tabulation put Clemens at 54.1 percent, up from 45.2 a year ago, with a gain of 40 votes. Bonds jumped to 53.8 percent, an increase from 44.3, as he picked up 43 votes.
A candidate needs to appear on 75 percent of the ballots cast by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America for induction, so both have some ground to make up. But after five years on the ballot, Clemens and Bonds are only at the halfway point of their eligibility, giving them plenty of time.
And look where they started from. In 2013, Clemens received 37.6 percent, Bonds 36.2. Here’s something else in their favor. In the past 25 years, only two candidates have surpassed 50 percent of the vote at any point and failed to reach Cooperstown: Jack Morris and Lee Smith.
Morris made it as high as 67.7 percent in 2013 before falling off the ballot the following year. Smith got to 50.6 percent in 2012, then gradually slid to 34.2 percent this year, his final chance.
Obviously, they had neither the resumes nor the PED stigmas attached to Clemens and Bonds, and these days, the latter seems easier to overcome among the shifting BBWAA voter bloc. Though nothing has changed regarding the records of either player — and no more incriminating evidence has surfaced off the field — there is a growing sentiment that Clemens and Bonds should be in Cooperstown.
“I think they both deserve it,” the newly inducted Tim Raines told MLB Network on Thursday. “They proved in their careers they’re Hall of Fame players.”
That sentiment was shared by Raines’ 2017 classmates, Jeff Bagwell and Ivan Rod riguez. Unlike Raines, however, Bagwell and Rod riguez have endured their own PED accusations — similar to 2016 inductee Mike Piazza — yet still made it through the Hall’s exclusive gates. Perhaps even more remarkable, Rodriguez did it on the very first try. For Bagwell, it took seven years. Piazza needed four.
So what is causing these changing trends? Here are a few reasons.
THE SELIG FACTOR
Bud Selig’s recent election to the Hall of Fame, by the 16-member “Today’s Game Era” committee last month, has been cited by many BBWAA voters as the motivation to not only reconsider PED-tainted candidates from Selig’s reign but actually flip their previous stance on players such as Clemens and Bonds. According to their reasoning, Selig presided over the “Steroid Era” while this abuse was taking place and failed to take action to stop it until Congress intervened. Therefore, if the Hall has no issue with inducting Selig, why should the players be kept out?
As a BBWAA voter myself, I’ve always checked the boxes next to Clemens and Bonds, so the Selig factor carried no influence. And I also don’t subscribe to the logic. What was Selig supposed to do? March into clubhouses and inspect lockers himself? It’s not as if the players’ union made drug testing a priority, either.
But that’s my opinion. Apparently it was enough to influence a number of voters, as many changed their stance. According to public ballots posted by Ryan Thibodaux (@NotMrTibbs), 13 of 14 first-timers on his tracker went in favor of Clemens and Bonds. So if overall, the pair picked up 40 and 43, respectively, that represents a decent percentage of BBWAA voters who flipped.
When it comes to Selig, however, it’s important to remember that he was elected by a special 16-member committee made up of former executives, players and some media members. He was not subject to the BBWAA’s voting bloc.
THE GENERATION GAP
The longer Clemens and Bonds remained on the ballot, the more we expected the attitudes toward their transgressions to shift as newer — and younger — members of the BBWAA were awarded a Hall of Fame vote, which takes 10 years of service to earn.
Just look at this year. As we mentioned earlier, 13 of 14 first-timers on the public tracker voted for Clemens and Bonds, a whopping 92.9 percent, and there’s no reason to believe that trend will reverse itself in the coming years. In a poll of a handful of BBWAA members who will become Hall voters in the next year or two, all anticipated giving a thumbs up to Clemens and Bonds, emphasizing their Cooperstown-worthy accomplishments above all else.
As we move further away from the Steroid Era, maybe the animosity toward its biggest names — and perhaps greatest offenders — is beginning to fade. Another important distinction: It seems that players who were penalized, such as Manny Ramirez (twice suspended), face a higher hurdle than Clemens and Bonds, who never actually were disciplined by MLB.
THE POWER OF 10
A decade can be a long time, and as we just saw with Raines, who got the necessary 75 percent in his 10th and final year on the ballot, voting for the Hall remains a fluid proposition.
In 2008, Raines’ ballot debut, he earned 24.3 percent, well below Smith (43.3), Morris (42.9) and even Tommy John (29.1). Ultimately, after further debate, and increased exposure, Raines prevailed.
Nothing changed about Raines’ candidacy, and the same goes for Clemens and Bonds. When they first appeared on the ballot, many voters said they would reserve judgment until more evidence surfaced — either against those two or more widespread PED revelations among Major League Baseball itself. But that hasn’t happened.
Only the attitudes seem to be changing, as some hard-liners appear to be softening and others no longer see the point in banning from Cooperstown one player with 762 home runs and another with 4,762 strikeouts. Also, the BBWAA will make all of its ballots public next year — rather than on a voluntary basis — and that transparency could influence some previously hidden voters to bend to the building momentum for Clemens and Bonds.
It’s a theory. But we won’t know for sure until 2018, when this debate rages anew.