Five years ago when I was still living in sunny San Diego, I once sat in a bar watching Josh Hamilton hit like 124 home runs in the All-Star Home Run Derby. It was a pretty awesome thing to see, and it ended up keeping me around well after I finished sipping my Vanilla Coke.
Seated two stools next to me was a man who was unmistakably from Boston. The Patriots tattoo, the missing R's in his sentences and his insistence that Pedro Martinez did nothing wrong by brawling with 104-year-old man—all easily identifiable characteristics. But the most distinguishable trait of all was his cynical outlook on sports fans in California, and for that matter, the entire west coast. Besides our mutual dislike of AJ Piersynzki and Jon Voight, there wasn't a single thing we could agree on, especially on the topic of Barry Bonds and his Hall of Fame candidacy.
He sneered at my suggestion that Bonds should be a first ballot Hall of Famer, and then nearly round-kicked me when I pointed out his hypocrisy in supporting Bill Belichick all throughout Spygate. His reasoning: Bill's a good guy who didn't think there was anything wrong with videotaping the signals of the opposing team, while Barry was a world-class jackass who shot up three times a week so he could turn into a bull shark and steal a bunch of baseball records.
Yes, that's right. Bill was such a great guy that he ran up the score, refused to shake hands with coaches at the end of games and made his players play through their own concussions. But I digress.
Anyway, the electorate has apparently agreed with my bar pal (who I haven’t spoken to ever since I refilled his beer glass in the restroom), as Bonds’ and about 20 other guys were blacklisted from baseball's holiest shrine.
The only thing that surprised me about the vote was that for the first time, Barry wasn't singled out for cheating.
Just so we’re clear, I'm not one of those sycophants who believes that Barry Bonds is innocent of using performance-enhancing drugs. I know the reason Bonds hit 73 home runs wasn't because he suddenly started seeing the ball better (well actually he did, since PEDs improve hand-eye coordination as well as muscle buildup). Barry took steroids. So did hundreds and hundreds of other players, several of whom were also on the same Hall of Fame Ballot.
Some of them, like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro, won't EVER get into Cooperstown.
So what's the deal? What makes Bonds different from any of the other proven cheaters on this list? Personality? Please. Bonds was only slightly nicer (or more accurately, less loathsome) than most of the other ticks that he finds his name next to on this ballot. He was helluva a lot nicer than Roger Clemens (which is like being a better speaker than Rocky Balboa), a far greater teammate than Sam-Me Sosa and next to Curt Schilling, you could probably make him a star on his own reality charity show. Simply put, Barry was arrogant and unapproachable and believed the sport and the media was still stuck in a 1960s mindset.
The only thing that set his attitude apart from everyone else was his honesty. If you weren't a Giants fan you hated Barry, and that made rooting for him even easier. Some say he was a guilty pleasure, others say he was just fun to watch. All I know is there’s something cool about having a guy on your team that could bring out the worst in every stadium across America.
Barry said it once himself: They wouldn’t boo you if you weren’t any good.
And Barry was good. Very good.
Good enough to be a first-ballot inductee. He actually punched his ticket to the Hall well before he started taking steroids, back when he was 150-pound leadoff hitter for the Pittsburgh Pirates. There he was a two-time MVP and indisputably the best player in the game. He stole 32 bases or more six times, led the league in walks, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS+ in 1992, and finished with 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases twice in 1990 and 1992.
Then Barry decided to “take his talents” to San Francisco where he won his second straight MVP (and third overall) and became the second player in baseball to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases (though he should have been the first because of a chump named Jose Canseco, more on him later). He led the league in walks four times from 1994 to 1997, and hit more than 34 home runs in seven straight seasons despite an injury-riddled campaign in 1999 where he blew out his elbow trying to pick Charlie Hayes off the ground.
In 1998, Barry became the first player in the major leagues to hit 400 home runs and steal 400 bases, and no one outside of San Francisco noticed or cared. Thousands of miles away in the Midwest, two juiced-up sluggers were chasing the most sacred record in sports, and Bonds’ achievements became almost as irrelevant as an episode of House.
Like so many before him (not just athletes, mind you), Barry decided nothing good came out of playing by the rules when no one else around him was doing the same.
So he cheated. It was the wrong thing to do.
But man it felt so right.
In 2000, Barry hit a career-high 49 home runs and finished second in MVP voting to teammate Jeff Kent. The next year he broke the single-season home run record and led the majors in on-base percentage, slugging and OPS from 2001-2004. He walked 232 times in 2004 (120 of which were intentional) and had an absurd on-base average of .609. He finished his career as the all-time home runs and walks leader, stole over 500 bases and won eight Gold Gloves. He was intentionally walked 43 times in his final season, sixth all-time behind Willie McCovey, Albert Pujols and himself three times.
Barry Bonds was the second best player in baseball history, and it’s a safe bet that had he stayed clean, he would have finished somewhere in the top 20.
Not so with Mark McGwire, who began cheating during his early days with the Oakland Athletics when fellow bash brother (let’s call them the “rash brothers”), Jose Canseco, was injecting him with steroids in the bathroom stalls at the Oakland Coliseum.
There was only one thing McGwire could do in his career, and that was hit home runs. Take away the one thing that was helping him do that (a sleazy Cro-magnon with a mullet and a syringe) and he becomes about as useful as a speedstick in Tony LaRussa's locker.
Then we have Sammy Sosa. What is there really to say? America fell for that phony smile until that fateful day in 2003 when his bat splintered and cork spilled out onto the grass. Everyone suddenly saw Sammy for what he was: a lying, sneaky muscle-headed fraud. His career was on the same trajectory as Shawon Dunston until 1998, when he arrived to spring camp looking like he had trained for the UFC. He won the MVP that year and went on to become the first player in major league history to hit 60 home runs in a season three times.
The best thing you can say about Sosa is that, like Bonds, he managed to perform incredibly when he cheated. But, unlike Barry, who was a Hall of Fame player before he started taking steroids, Sammy wasn’t even good enough replace a squirrel in right field.
It’s funny how many sportswriters are saying that Bonds and Roger Clemens should have been inducted into the Hall of Fame, but both candidates finished with under 38 percent of the vote.
So who’s doing all the voting? Surprisingly, people who have absolutely no knowledge of the game. The BBWAA is comprised of writers who haven’t written a word about baseball since the Reagan administration. It wouldn’t surprise me if they thought Joe Theismann was supposed to be on the ballot. Seeing as how no single player reached the required 75 percent of votes for induction, it’s clear that the writers sought to make this less about achievement and more about justice.
Given that Barry Bonds is the chief supervillain in the modern steroid era, it’s likely he won’t make the Hall until the human race abandons currency.
The Hall of Fame is not a place for activist voters. While integrity shouldn’t be ignored, the attempt to purge an entire generation of players to make a public statement to that effect is ludicrous. We’re not choosing anyone for sainthood here; the point is to celebrate individual glory and Bonds’ achievements (before and after Balco) speak louder to that than anyone over the last quarter century.
If the voting was really based on character and integrity, Ty Cobb and all the rest of the racists and hooligans would have had their membership revoked 60 years ago.
The prestige and importance of the game’s highest honor is immediately questioned every time the best players are filibustered because of character concerns, and it may take a big step from the Hall itself to insure that greatness is recognized in its full context.
Bonds may have disgraced the game with his actions, but he was not the first, nor will he be the last flawed superstar to grace the walls of history.
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