Barry Bonds isn’t more or less guilty of cheating now than he was when he retired from baseball. There are no new facts, and the context in which the choice was made by Hall of Fame voters to exclude him from their ballots is exactly the same. He never failed a drug test of any sort, and all the evidence against him is circumstantial: hearsay from journalists, a spike in his performance, and dramatic changes in his physical appearance. The latter two indictments could also be made against Jim Thome, who was voted into the Hall of Fame in his first year on the ballot. But Thome is one of the all-time nice guys and Bonds was more or less a dick to everyone who crossed his path. We assume that Thome worked hard and Bonds cheated. For the record, I share that opinion, but I own a Thome jersey. I’m not exactly unbiased, so it wouldn’t take much effort to make the opposite case if I’d grown up idolizing Bonds.
Most of the guys who were embroiled in the steroids controversy are now either in the Hall of Fame (Bagwell, Piazza, Pudge Rodriguez) or have been judged to have been too marginal as candidates to justify giving them the benefit of the doubt (Sosa, McGwire). Rafael Palmiero and Manny Ramirez have the stats to get in, but their guilt is so beyond question that they won’t make it until there is a sea change in attitudes, which probably means after everyone who was around for the steroids era is dead. Alex Rodriguez’s guilt is also beyond question, but his stats and his post-career charm offensive may get him in when he is eligible in 2021. That will be a big debate, but it’s not here yet.
That leaves Bonds and Roger Clemens, and the debate on them won’t end until they get in (and will doubtless color A-Rod’s chances). Some of us are still debating Pete Rose and Joe Jackson, after all, so why should these two be any different? In most any ranking with any credibility, Bonds is one of the top ten offensive players of all time and was considered an elite defensive player into his thirties. Clemens is one of the top five pitchers. If their careers had ended the day before they were rumored to have started cheating, they would each still be in the top twenty at their specialty. They gain support from voters every year. Is that because the logjam of eligible candidates has eased with the induction of thirteen players in the last four years? Or are attitudes finally shifting?
We all know that they cheated, the same way we know that O.J. did it, that Rick Pitino knew about the ethics violations that got him fired, and that Donald Trump cheated on his taxes. We know because it’s the most logical explanation for the events that took place and because people who would know say they did it. But neither of them ever failed a test or was suspended. Neither of them ever had a bottle in his locker like McGwire did, or made a tearful public confession. That may mean they were just smarter than everyone, or it might mean they were clean.
Most of the people voting for the Hall of Fame appear to assume they are guilty. Some are voting for them anyway. Those who are not are doing so only for punitive reasons. Is that valid? Well, voting is a lifetime gig. Like the Supreme Court, they can cast their ballots any way they want. Many of the people blackballing Bonds and Clemens voted for stars from the 60s and 70s despite having firsthand knowledge that those guys took amphetamines. As someone about the same age as Bonds and Clemens, and who was around for the entire steroids era, the judgmental attitudes seem a bit like condemning Thomas Jefferson for being a slaveholder. We are judging from the perspective of a time where standards have evolved.
At some point in the 90s, a whole lot of baseball players suddenly started looking like Popeye. Everyone knew something was going on, but there wasn’t a huge collective cry of outrage. It was more like, so that’s how it’s going to be now? The guys you liked were doing it as much as anyone else, so you couldn’t get too upset, and it was fun for a while watching guys put up crazy stats. There were cases that were just too ridiculous, like Brady Anderson going from eight home runs to fifty, but we just rolled our eyes at those. Only a few writers expressed any outrage. If you’ve ever been on a college campus and seen the football players driving around in new cars and decided not to worry about it, it was something like that.
At some point around the turn of the century, possibly when Bonds hit his 73 home runs, folks decided that things had gone too far. Like sinners who find Jesus, the reformers suddenly decided that anyone whose neck blended into his shoulders was guilty of something. There was a gap of a couple of years between the start of the outrage and any actual testing or enforcement, so rumors took over for facts. That’s when guys like Bagwell were suspected without any proof. There were new stories every week about this guy or that guy, and defending anyone was unfashionable.
It took the better part of a decade for Hall voters to sort out their feelings, and there’s no way to be certain if they got it right. There are almost certainly steroid users in the Hall of Fame, and there are also guys who came close but are not in because a few voters decided they were guilty without any evidence. My philosophy is, in the absence of a failed test, to simply judge guys on what happened on the field, because that’s all we know for sure. On that basis, Bonds and Clemens are no-brainers.