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The Complicated Legacy of Barry Bonds

There are two ways to start this conversation.


You can start with what Barry Bonds did on the field, where he built a credible case to be the greatest position player in the history of baseball. He set the single season and career home run records and collected a record seven MVP awards. His 162.4 career WAR (Wins Above Replacement) is the second most by any position player, trailing only Babe Ruth (163.0 as a position player). The fear he inspired amongst pitchers is unmatched in baseball history—his 2,558 career walks and 688 intentional walks are both MLB records, and he is one of just five players in history to draw an intentional walk with the bases loaded. For good measure, he also ranks a respectable 33rd all time in stolen bases. By almost any metric you care to use, Bonds’ achievements at the plate represent the gold standard for hitters in the Major Leagues.


Or you can start with what he represented off the field, where he built a credible case to be the most hated player in the history of baseball. Bonds was the poster boy for a shameful era of baseball that the league would rather forget, and his impressive statistical achievements will always be tainted by the unethical means he used to achieve them. Bonds and the other juicing giants of the late ‘90s (most notably Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa) rendered an entire decade’s worth of statistics suspect, and the worst part is how blatant it seems in hindsight—look back at photos of Bonds with the Pirates and you’ll be shocked at how small his head used to be. For an entire generation of baseball fans, the steroid era was a stain on our romantic, sepia-toned notions of America’s Favorite Pastime. And Bonds, already unpopular because of his surly and unlikable public demeanor, was the perfect target for the ire of all those fans who felt that they had been lied to.


This is all being brought back to our attention because the Baseball Hall of Fame will be unveiling its induction class of 2017 this Wednesday and, after being rejected in his first four years of eligibility, this may be the year that Bonds is finally enshrined. He’s far from being a shoo-in—there is still a lot of bitterness over the PED era among baseball writers, tinged with an undercurrent of embarrassment for the praise they once heaped on its biggest villains—but for the first time it doesn’t seem unrealistic. Part of that can be attributed to last year’s induction of former commissioner Bud Selig. Selig may not have done steroids, but his willful ignorance of the situation did more to encourage PED use in baseball than any individual player—and now some people are wondering if it’s fair to stonewall Bonds from the Hall for doing steroids after inducting the man who let him get away with it.


So does Barry Bonds belong in Cooperstown, sins and all? It’s a complicated question given his transgressions. The problem with players taking steroids is not just that it enhances their abilities—it’s that we have no way of knowing how much it enhances their abilities. Bonds jacked a record 762 homers in his career—how many of those were credited to natural talent, and how many were the work of Deca-Durabolin and other performance enhancers? He may not have set the record without the help of his friends at BALCO, but it’s not implausible that he might have hit in the 500-600 range, which still puts him in elite company.


While we may not know how much Bonds’ drug regimen affected his performance, we do at least know when he allegedly started taking steroids. In the 2006 book Game of Shadows (the book that essentially destroyed Bonds’ reputation), San Francisco Chronicle reporters Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada described Bonds’ increasing anger and jealousy in the 1998 season as he watched Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s well-publicized race to break the single season home run record. Bonds knew that he was the most dangerous hitter in the game, and he was well aware of the source of his rivals’ newfound hitting prowess (of McGwire’s record, Bonds famously asserted that, “They’re only letting him do it because he’s a white boy”). Anyone who read that book (or paid attention to the BALCO hearings) knows what happened next—Bonds began acquiring steroids from his friend and personal trainer Greg Anderson, and soon Anderson put Bonds in touch with Victor Conte and the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative. Bonds spent the next several years fortifying his workout routine with a veritable cocktail of chemical enhancers obtained through BALCO, culminating in a stunning 73-home run campaign in 2001.


So let’s say, for the sake of argument, that everything Bonds did after 1998 is tainted by PED use and thus inadmissible for consideration in his Hall of Fame case. Eliminate his numbers from 1999 on and we get the following stat line:


.290/.411/.556, 411 HR, 455 steals, 99.6 WAR, 3 NL MVP Awards


That by itself is a Hall of Fame-caliber career. His 99.6 WAR would be third all-time among left fielders, and he led the league in that category for four straight years from 1990-1993. In 1996, he became one of just four players in history to join the 40-40 club (40 homers, 40 steals). However you want to judge his performance after he started juicing, it is undeniable that he had already established himself as one of the finest hitters in the game.


Of course, some people might say that it’s not about the actual statistical impact of his steroid use—it’s about the principle. Bonds’ blatant and unapologetic cheating demonstrated a marked disdain for the sport of baseball. Much like Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson, his on-field accomplishments are invalidated because he was willing to tarnish the integrity of the game. After all, Rule 5 of the Hall of Fame’s voting rules specifies that, “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” (emphasis mine). In a 2011 interview with reporter Joe Posnanski, Hall of Fame president Jeff Idleson said, “There’s a certain integrity required when it comes to baseball’s highest honor, which is being inducted into the Hall of Fame.” So there you go—Bonds, and all the other greats whose careers were tarnished by PED use, disqualified themselves from Cooperstown through their own actions.


But is that fair? The league looks back on the steroid era with a sense of shame, but that’s nothing compared to the much longer era of segregation—and yet the Hall has found space for someone like Cap Anson, a vocal segregation proponent who once refused to let his team take the field against a black pitcher. Then there’s Ty Cobb, who was infamous for his violent rages (including the time he assaulted a handicapped fan) and for deliberately spiking opposing players. Cobb was so unpopular in his time that on the last day of the 1910 season, the St. Louis Browns deliberately allowed Cleveland second baseman Nap LaJoie to record eight bunt singles so he would pass Cobb for the American League batting title. Yet Cobb’s notoriety didn’t stop him from becoming the leading vote-getter in the Hall of Fame’s inaugural induction class of 1936.


You could argue that those guys, whatever their personal shortcomings, are not comparable to Bonds—they might have been personally deplorable, but they weren’t breaking the rules of the game. But what about Whitey Ford, and Gaylord Perry— Hall of Fame pitchers who we know full well wet down, scuffed, and otherwise tampered with baseballs to make their breaking pitches more unpredictable? What about Willie Mays and Willie Stargell, who were implicated in the Pirates drug scandal that uncovered the widespread use of “greenies” (performance enhancing amphetamines) in MLB? Heck, Mays was also part of the 1951 Giants team whose members later admitted to using an elaborate ritual to steal signals from opposing catchers. And George Brett’s famous pine-tar incident didn’t stop him from punching his ticket to Cooperstown either. Time and time again, Hall of Fame voters have given a pass to players who took unsportsmanlike liberties in the name of winning.


Last of all, it’s important to put Bonds’ sins in context. As we have established, he was already a dominant hitter when he began cheating. However, he was a dominant hitter who was increasingly struggling to keep pace in a league where PED use was becoming the norm. And that PED use wasn’t limited to hitters—many of the pitchers Bonds was facing had received an inorganic performance boost of their own. Bonds may have transformed into a cartoonishly engorged Superhero version of himself, but it’s hard to argue that it gave him a significant advantage when he was playing in a league full of man-beasts. In the end, the gap in performance between Bonds and McGwire, Sosa, Manny Ramirez and the rest of his associates in anabolic infamy still comes down mostly to talent.


Maybe this year isn’t the year. Maybe baseball fans—and particularly the baseball media, who are responsible for voting players into the Hall of Fame—are still upset about playing the role of suckered sycophants in Bonds’ deception. But the fact is that it’s become pretty hard to pinpoint a compelling reason that Bonds should be denied entry into Cooperstown. The Hall has made space for sign-stealers, spitballers and segregationists—surely it can find a spot for one of the greatest players the sport has ever seen.

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