My opening statement for any discussion involving the Hall of Fame candidacy of both Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens is always the same.
And it goes something like this: If you are keeping two of the greatest players in baseball history out of Cooperstown because they allegedly used performance-enhancing drugs, I have a simple question.
That’s right. Name a single player, let’s say from 1984 through 2007, who never once experimented with PEDs, or leaned on them to speed up the rehab process, or dabbled to get some extra kick during a contract year.
Roger Clemens HOF voting
2013: 37.6 percent (on 214 of 569 ballots)
2014: 35.4 percent (202/571)
2015: 37.5 percent (206/549)
2016: 45.2 percent (199/440)
2017: 54.1 percent (239/442)
2018: 57.3 percent (242/422)
2019: 59.5 percent (253/425)
Problem is, you can’t. Not with 100-percent certainty. Because there is no foolproof method for detecting every illegal performance-enhancer, every time, regardless of how thorough the league policy.
Alex Rodriguez was suspended for the entire 2014 season because of an incriminating paper trail that tied him to the Biogenesis drug ring, not because he flunked a drug test.
Before then, as far as Major League Baseball was concerned, A-Rod was clean (despite his previous mea culpas). See the problem here?
Bonds (seven MVPs, 762 homers) and Clemens (seven Cy Young Awards, 4,762 strikeouts) were never disciplined for performance-enhancing drugs during their careers, nor did they ever test positive, despite reams of court documents that accused them of rampant use. The commissioner’s office, then occupied by Bud Selig (a Hall of Famer), didn’t implement the penalty phase of any PED-testing violations until 2005, so players had carte blanche to medicate in any manner before that point.
Knowing what we know now, it’s probably safe to assume that many did (look at what happened with A-Rod and Robinson Cano).
Barry Bonds HOF voting
2013: 36.2 percent (on 206 of 569 ballots)
2014: 34.7 percent (198/571)
2015: 36.8 percent (202/549)
2016: 44.3 percent (195/440)
2017: 53.8 percent (238/442)
2018: 56.4 percent (238/422)
2019: 59.1 percent (251/425)
Is PED use, or even the suspicion of it, enough to ban someone from Cooperstown?
That depends on who you ask. The Baseball Writers’ Association of America, commissioned by the Hall of Fame to vote on their candidates, is not given any concrete guidelines when it comes to PEDs. In fact, this is the lone guideline, in its entirety:
Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.
One sentence, zero disqualifications. If the name appears on the 8 x 11 sheet of paper for consideration, mailed out every November, then he is to be counted eligible. So regardless of the very public trials Bonds and Clemens were subjected to, which in many people’s eyes branded them as cheaters, they keep showing up on this list, with consistently rising vote totals each year.
And that momentum threatens to be a serious problem for the Hall of Fame, a fear that surely led to Joe Morgan (Class of 1990) stepping up in an ill-fated effort to stem the tide a year ago. But Morgan’s email to BBWAA voters had the opposite effect, or at least on me, as being a bit too naive, given the sport’s rich history of deploying everything from amphetamines (more familiarly known as “greenies”) to various formulations of steroids.
“We hope the day never comes when known steroid users are voted into the Hall of Fame,” Morgan wrote in his November 2018 email. “They cheated. Steroid users don’t belong here.
“Players who failed drug tests, admitted using steroids, or were identified as users in Major League Baseball’s investigation into steroid abuse, known as the Mitchell Report, should not get in. Those are the three criteria that many of the players and I think are right.”
Two months later, four players reached the 75 percent threshold for HOF induction: Chipper Jones (97.2), Vladimir Guerrero (92.9), Jim Thome (89.8) and Trevor Hoffman (79.9). Clemens received 242 of the 422 votes, for 57.3 percent. Bonds was right behind with 238 votes, for 56.4 percent.
That was Year No. 6 (out of 10) for Clemens and Bonds, and it’s worth noting that, in the past 25 years, only two candidates have surpassed the 50-percent threshold and failed to be elected by the BBWAA: Jack Morris and Lee Smith. Morris reached 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 slid to 34.2 last year, his final chance.
Morris, however, got in last year, thanks to the Modern Era Baseball ballot, and Smith earned his nod last month, when the Today’s Game Era committee made him a unanimous selection (Harold Baines went in with Smith).
Could Bonds and Clemens also take advantage of that route to Cooperstown? Based on Morgan’s angry missive from a year ago, the answer certainly appears to be a resounding no, as they’ll have trouble rounding up support from their playing contemporaries. After this year, however, both still have three more tries left on the BBWAA ballot.
As of Friday, on the 181 ballots made public — and tabulated annually by Ryan Thibodaux at bbhoftracker.com — Clemens had garnered 73.1 percent and Bonds sat at 72.6 percent. By Thibodaux’s estimation, the public ballots represented roughly 45 percent of the BBWAA’s electorate. But as painfully close as both Bonds and Clemens seem to be to Cooperstown, history suggests their totals will dip when all the ballots are counted.
Take last year, for example. On the public ballots, both Bonds and Clemens scored an identical 61.2 percent. But the final count put Clemens at 57.3 percent and Bonds at 56.4. Even so, that’s a sizable jump from where they started in 2013, when Clemens pulled in 37.6 percent and Bonds 36.2.
So why have they become more Hall-worthy during the span of those seven years? Obviously, neither of their resumes changed, and no new off-the-field charges have been levied against them. But the Lords of Cooperstown pared down the BBWAA electorate over that stretch to a smaller pool of current, active members — instantly trimming more than 100 from the previous list — and the 400-plus who remain appear to be more receptive to a Bonds-Clemens Cooperstown.
Some voters have pinned their change of heart to Selig’s induction in 2017, reasoning that if the enabler of the Steroid Era was enshrined in the Hall, it would be hypocritical not to allow the biggest stars in as well. Other voters appear to have been swayed by public pressure — flexed on social media — as they eventually switched to a yes vote amid the drumbeat of today’s modern analysts backing the Bonds-Clemens candidacy. And the next generation of voters, newly minted each year, seems to be much less offended, if at all, by the PED scofflaws than the Old School crew before them.
But the question continues to linger. Will all this ultimately be enough to see Bonds and Clemens standing on that Cooperstown podium someday? Possibly with Derek Jeter in 2020, or A-Rod and David Ortiz two years after that?
It should be. Because a Hall of Fame without Bonds and Clemens is doing the game’s history a disservice, in the name of upholding a standard that wasn’t based in reality. After all, what’s a baseball museum without two of the sport’s greatest attractions?