2013 HOF Debate: Bonds and Clemens Will Make MLB Hall of Fame – But Not This Year

I’ll throw this out there right now:  If I had a ballot for the Hall of Fame, I would not hesitate to vote either Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens.

However, if recent surveys among HOF voters are any indication, my opinion appears to be in the minority. Both Bonds and Clemens have significant ties to PED usage, and the current electorate does not appear to be softening its stance in denying PED users induction into the Hall.

Voters have not looked too kindly on the likes of Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro, who both have confirmed PED usage and have not received as much as 25 percent of the vote as a result.  Sammy Sosa, who joins the ballot for the first time this year, is expected to receive similarly low support.  And if Jeff Bagwell (56 percent in 2012) is any indication, even suspicions of PED usage without any tangible evidence is all that is needed to keep a player away from induction.

But while PED usage is the biggest issue, it is possible to make the case that the four players listed above do not belong in the Hall on statistical or achievement grounds.  This argument does not apply to either Bonds or Clemens, who are both first-ballot Hall of Fame selections by any conceivable measure.

Statistically speaking, the case for both players is overwhelming.  Bonds holds both the single-season and career marks for home runs and walks, averaged 30 homers and 30 steals a year for a solid decade, and has a strong argument for being the greatest defensive left fielder in the history of the game.  Clemens has the third-highest win total of any post-integration pitcher, is third all-time in strikeouts, and led the league in ERA on seven different occasions. 

Sabermetrics are equally kind, as both players are among the top ten in MLB history in Wins Above Replacement.

Voters who prefer popularity contests also have no argument against their induction.  Bonds is a 14-time All-Star, won 8 gold gloves, and is the only 7-time MVP in baseball history.  Clemens made 11 All Star teams, is one of only 24 pitchers to have won the MVP, and is the only 7-time winner of the Cy Young Award. 

If Bonds and Clemens were part of any other generation of players, the only argument that would be surrounding their candidacies would be where they rank among the greatest to ever play the game. 

Unfortunately, Bonds and Clemens have become the poster boys for the so-called “Steroid Era”, and Hall of Fame voters seem intent on punishing them as a result.

Granted, it is hardly unprecedented for sure-thing Hall of Famers to be held back by voters as the result of poor behavior.   Juan Marichal’s infamous attack on Johnny Roseboro is often cited as the reason the former Giants ace languished on the ballot until his fifth year of eligibility.  A drug arrest in 1983 is likely the reason Fergie Jenkins had to wait three years for induction.  Heck, only two years ago, everybody acknowledged that the spitting incident was the sole reason that Roberto Alomar was passed over on the first ballot.  

It’s also hard to make the claim that cheating has ever been a barrier to Hall of Fame induction.  Ty Cobb used to sharpen his spikes in order to attack defenders who got in the way of him and the base.  Future Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Monte Irvin were a part of a 1951 Giants squad that sign-stole their way to the pennant.  Gaylord Perry, perhaps the most notorious cheat of his generation, was so open about doctoring baseballs that he titled is autobiography Me and the Spitter.  And Hank Aaron, and Mike Schmidt are among the many players in the Hall who experimented with amphetamines.

This brings up an important point:  holding a player out of the Hall of Fame completely because of PEDs would be unprecedented. 

Truth be told, PEDs have been a part of baseball almost from the beginning.  Pud Galvin, who is widely acknowledged as MLB’s first juicer, openly took an elixir composed of animal testosterone in order to improve performance during the 1889 season.  The 1894 Temple Cup (a forerunner to the modern World Series) was tainted by a PED scandal.  Modern anabolic steroids, which have been around since the 1930s, were widely used in MLB clubhouses as early as 1973, according to a study cited by the Mitchell Report

And the fact that amphetamines were made illegal in 1970 has not stopped voters from inducting who knows how many players who experimented with “greenies” during their careers. 

The evidence is clear that professional baseball players have been doing whatever they thought they could get away with ever since the beginning.  So why does the current generation – Bonds and Clemens in particular – bear the brunt of such a longstanding problem?

Right now, any player on the ballot who is even suspected of PED usage during their career is effectively blackballed from the Hall of Fame.  But that does not mean this will always be the case; once a few years have passed and enough voters have realized the hypocrisy of their position, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens will be among the first players attached to PED usage to be inducted.

But it will not happen this year, and that is a shame.