Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens belong in the Hall of Fame
The voters shouldn’t care what federal prosecutors think of them.
Tim Tebow was a pioneer. In 2007 he was the first underclassman to win college football’s Heisman Trophy for outstanding player. In the eleven seasons since, three other sophomores and two freshmen have won it. What was once an unspoken tradition which rewarded only seniors and (sometimes) juniors was broken. Today, the award goes to the most deserving regardless of class.
Progress often seems slow, but when it arrives, it quickly becomes normal. And yesterday, former Yankees relief pitcher Mariano Rivera became a baseball pioneer, becoming the first retired player to appear on 100% of Baseball Hall of Fame ballots.
He wasn’t the first to deserve the distinction, just as Tebow wasn’t the first underclassman to deserve the Heisman. But many members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, who vote on the Hall of Fame, had been of the mindset, “If Babe Ruth didn’t get 100% of the vote, nobody should!”
Such backward-looking old men, trapped by tradition, are being replaced by younger generations who see through the nonsense. Like Tebow, Rivera is the first. He won’t be the last.
There’s another positive trend in the Hall of Fame voting. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are ticking upward every year. When they both became eligible in 2013, they got 36% and 37% of the vote, respectively. This year they’re at 59%. Their eligibility for induction by the writers ends in 2022, and they must receive 75% to get in.
Their association with performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), which led to federal investigations, is the reason they’re not in already. Many say they both cheated by using PEDs, which are illegal if used the way Bonds and Clemens allegedly used them.
But federal prosecutors should hardly be the moral arbiters of their Hall of Fame credentials. What a person puts into his own body is not the business of the federal government (or any government). In any case, Clemens was acquitted and Bonds’s conviction was overturned.
Other prominent players, such as Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez, had been caught and punished by Major League Baseball for PEDs. Bonds and Clemens never were. They were never suspended or banned by Baseball. After playing, Bonds even served as a coach. As did Mark McGwire, an admitted PED user.
The objection is that Bonds and Clemens “got away with it” because Baseball didn’t have drug testing for PEDs during their peak years. But that’s not a real objection, that’s the point. As Bill James wrote nearly ten years ago, they violated “some ‘rule’ to which they [the players] never consented, which was never included in the rule books, and which for which there was no enforcement procedure.”
Where there is no enforcement, there is tacit permission. As I wrote ten years ago,
Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim offered some wisdom when interviewed this week by Mike Tirico on ESPN Radio. He said that in the absence of rules and enforcement, it is human nature for athletes to do whatever it takes to get an advantage. Especially, I might add, with the knowledge that others are doing the same thing. Boeheim implied that we would do well to let bygones be bygones and move forward with tougher rules and more stringent testing.
It’s more than probable that some contemporaries of Bonds and Clemens, who are now in the Hall of Fame, used PEDs even if the voters are convinced they didn’t. It’s impossible to keep PED users out of the Hall, so why not include the two best players of the generation?
What likely upsets the anti-Bonds/Clemens voters isn’t the PED use itself, but the impact their PED use had on the record book. Other PED users may be in the Hall, but they didn’t set single-season and career home run records. They don’t have seven Cy Youngs and are third in all-time wins.
But the gradually changing membership of the BBWAA seems to disagree. More and more aren’t slaves to history, tradition, and records. They recognize that Bonds and Clemens were the best players of their generation and belong in the Hall. Let’s hope they get inducted soon.