There are 37 players on the 2013 Hall of Fame ballot. And, over the coming weeks, we will consider all of their candidacies in turn. But there are two players making their debut on the ballot who tower above all of the others, and nothing useful can be said about the Hall of Fame class of 2013 without first considering those two. So let’s talk about Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.
Bonds and Clemens are two players who, in a just world, would be unanimous selections for induction but who, for reasons discussed earlier today, will almost certainly not make the Hall. Let’s first walk through their obvious baseball qualifications for the Hall — and bear with me, because I will assume in this first part that the performance enhancing drug issues don’t exist — and then deal with those pesky objections so many have to their candidacy.
The Baseball Bonafides
While it’s always hard to compare players between eras, it is not hyperbole to say that Bonds and Clemens would be finalists in a contest to name the greatest hitter and the greatest pitcher who ever lived. We all think we know how great they were because their careers just wound up five years ago, but even the most dedicated baseball fan can be shocked to take a look back over their stat sheets to see just how thoroughly they dominated their era.
I won’t go into hardcore statistics with you, but let’s just see where Barry Bonds resides on the leader board in various categories:
- He’s the all-time home run king;
- He’s the all-time walk king and the all-time intentional walk king
- Third all-time in runs scored;
- Third all-time in wins above replacement (WAR);
- Sixth all-time in on-base percentage;
- Sixth all-time in slugging percentage;
- Fourth all-time in OPS (on-base plus slugging) and Third all-time in adjusted OPS (which weights for era and ballpark);
- Second all-time in extra base hits;
- Fourth all-time in total bases;
- Fourth all-time in RBI;
- Second all-time in total times on base; and
- He’s the single-season record holder for home runs and base-on-balls (actually he holds the top three seasons in base-on-balls)
In addition, he has the record for most MVP awards (seven) and probably deserved to win the MVP a couple more times, most notably 1991. And he wasn’t all bat, either. He holds the all-time record for putouts by a left fielder, won eight Gold Gloves and stole 514 bases.
How about Roger Clemens?
- Third all-time in strikeouts (4,672)
- Ninth all-time in wins (354), but third among pitchers who didn’t spend the bulk of their career in the deadball era;
- Sixteenth all-time in innings pitched, but ninth among non-deadballers;
- Seventh all-time in games started;
- Third all-time in WAR for pitchers;
- Tenth all-time in adjusted ERA+ (which is analogous to OPS+ in that it weights for era); and
- First in several other complex era-adjusting statistics such as runs saved, win probability and the like.
Like Bonds and his MVPs, Clemens has seven Cy Young Awards and arguments for more. He also has one MVP award of his own.
When you look merely at their production and their dominance, the number of hitters better than Barry Bonds and the number of pitchers better than Roger Clemens in all of baseball history can be counted on one hand. Comparing Bonds and Clemens to people like Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Ted Williams and Walter Johnson is not just not hyperbole. It’s absolutely necessary, for their like has rarely if ever been seen in the game of baseball. Put simply, they are immortals.
But their baseball exploits are not the end of the story, obviously.
While Clemens and (to some extent ) Bonds continue to either deny or play down their use of PEDs, and while the criminal prosecutions against them were either misguided, unsuccessful or both, it is simply obtuse to believe that they weren’t significant PED users. Bonds’ use was painstakingly documented in the 2007 book “Game of Shadows.” Clemens’ use is far less clear cut, but just because the Justice Department couldn’t convict him of lying about it under oath doesn’t mean that we have to assume he never did it. For our purposes here, let’s make the exceedingly safe assumption that he did.
Bonds and Clemens use of PEDs will, for many, disqualify them from Hall of Fame consideration out of hand. The reason they won’t get 75% of the vote and induction on this year’s ballot is because far, far more than 25% of the Hall of Fame electorate believes that anyone who used PEDs should not be in the Hall of Fame, full stop. Many if not most fans feel this way too, as do no small amount of current and former major leaguers.
But should this be so? Absolutely not. And to explain why, I will take on the arguments commonly made against their induction one-by-one:
Argument: Bonds and Clemens may have amazing stats, but those stats were bogus due to their PED use.
Response: Sure, to some extent their statistics were inflated. But by how much? When did Bonds start using? When did Clemens start using? If, as is almost universally agreed-upon, it was during the middle-to-late years of their career, how were they so dominant early on as well? Bonds won three MVP awards before the “Game of Shadows” authors believed he began using. Clemens had an MVP, three Cy Young Awards and was generally considered the best pitcher in the game before his chief accuser, former trainer Brian McNamee, claims he began using PEDs. If you stopped their careers the day before they picked up their first syringes, they’d be first-ballot Hall of Famers.
But even taking their whole careers in, it is lunacy to suggest that, inflated or not, Bonds and Clemens weren’t vastly superior to their competition. Hundreds if not thousands of major leaguers took PEDs during the 1980s, 90s and early 2000s. Many of them, by the way, were pitchers who faced Bonds and hitters who faced Clemens. But that aside, no one matched Bonds’ and Clemens’ performance. It’s obvious why: the E in PEDs stands for “enhancing,” not “creating,” and thus one cannot ignore the fact that Bonds and Clemens were unique and historic talents who, even if the final tallies on their stat sheets should be somewhat discounted, clearly would have been among the all-time greats without the juice.
Argument: You can’t just discount their stats. Bonds and Clemens cheated, cheating is wrong, and thus they should be excluded.
Response: Cheating is wrong, no question. But Hall of Fame voting is not a rule-enforcement mechanism or a court of law. That’s the job of the Joint Drug Program agreed upon between the league and the union. If someone breaks the drug rules and gets caught and gets punished, it’s up to the league to punish them, not baseball writers who comprise the electorate.
But that little technicality aside, the Hall of Fame has long welcomed cheaters with open arms, and no current rule says that a cheater, be he a drug cheater or otherwise, can’t be allowed in (I’ll get to the issue of character in a minute). Gaylord Perry threw a spitball. Don Sutton and Whitey Ford (and probably almost every other pitcher in history) scuffed or cut balls. Scores of batters corked their bats. The 1951 Giants won the pennant after rigging up an elaborate, electric sign-stealing mechanism. John McGraw, both as a player and a manager, invented and carried out more ways to break rules than anyone in history, ranging from umpire distracting and cutting the corners on bases and tripping or obstructing opposing runners. Ty Cobb sharpened his spikes in an effort to maim opposing players who would dare try to tag him out. While we single out the 1919 White Sox as a unique stain on the game, many players — including Hall of Famers — fixed baseball games prior to the Black Sox scandal.
While many have attempted to argue that using PEDs is different in kind than all of those other examples — examples which are often laughed off as quirky or colorful — the fact is that there are PED users in the Hall of Fame already. Only, instead of steroids, they used amphetamines or “greenies” as they were called. Players who have either admitted to or have been credibly accused of taking such things include Pete Rose, Mike Schmidt, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays. And this leaves out all of the drug and/or alcohol users who took things which hindered their performance, which also impacted the competitive nature of the game, albeit adversely to their team’s interests. And it also assumes that there are no steroid users already in the Hall of Fame, which I do not believe is a reasonable assumption.
The common thread here: all of these examples of baseball cheating involved players breaking rules in an effort to gain some sort of edge on the competition. Rule breaking that, in turn, put the competition in the unenviable position of having to decide if they too should break the rules to keep up.
The point here isn’t that two wrongs make a right. The point is that the Hall of Fame has never cared about wrongs in the first place. Why it should start caring about them now is beyond me.
Argument: The Hall of Fame ballot has a character clause on it, and even if the past cheaters were let in, voters are nonetheless obligated to abide by the character clause now and keep Bonds and Clemens out.
Response: Yes, the Hall of Fame ballot has a character clause. It reads like this:
“Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contribution to the team(s) on which the player played.”
It should be noted, though, that this clause was not invented to keep bad seeds out. It was invented to let good eggs in, even if they weren’t quite up to Hall of Fame standards otherwise. It was designed to be a bonus, not a detriment. Specifically, as Bill James argued in his seminal book “Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame,” the clause was written by baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis in an effort to get a player named Eddie Grant inducted into the Hall on the basis of his heroism in World War I (Grant was killed in action in Lorraine, France). The attempt to get Grant inducted never worked — he just wasn’t a good enough player — but the clause stuck.
It stuck despite the fact that character — like cheating — has never been true criteria for Hall of Fame induction. The Hall is filled with racists, segregationists, cheaters, drug users, criminals both convicted and merely accused, and depending on how you view Tom Yawkey’s treatment of former Red Sox trainer Donald J. Fitzpatrick, an argument can be made that an enabler of sexual abuse has a plaque in Cooperstown as well. Heck, as Joe Posnanski noted a few years ago, way back in the 1930s a guy who murdered his wife and children got a couple of Hall of Fame votes.
But the point here isn’t exactly the same “well, other bad seeds are in the Hall” point mentioned above. It’s more about how irrelevant the clause is to one’s prowess or fame as a baseball player and, more to the point, how ill-equipped baseball writers are at judging a player’s character. Indeed, the presence of all of those bad seeds shows how ill-equipped they are. The clause was always there, yet those guys got the votes. It’s possible this was the case because all of the writers accidentally forgot to apply the voting rules. It’s far more likely, however, that the writers, in their wisdom, realized that they were in no position to look into the hearts of men and judge their moral worth. It’s something that some writers are now starting to realize about the PED crowd. It’s something they all should do.
In the final analysis, I hope we can all agree that there is no baseball reason whatsoever to keep Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens out of the Hall of Fame. Their baseball accomplishments — both those which can be measured by statistics and those which cannot — are so far beyond sufficient for induction that it’s almost laughable to list them. To oppose their candidacy, then, one must make a moral or ethical case based on their drug use and the voter’s opinion of their character. And that case will almost certainly be made from a great distance and with imperfect information.
You may feel comfortable doing such a thing. I do not. And I believe that any Hall of Fame that does not include two of the best players to ever swing a bat or throw a ball, no matter what their flaws, is an utter joke.