Barry Bonds is without a doubt one of the most polarizing figures in sports, certainly over the last decade and perhaps ever.
If we ever needed proof at how fast time flies, consider this: It’s been almost five years since Bonds’ last at-bat. Tuesday marked the fifth anniversary of Bonds’ 756th career home run, the one that moved him past Hank Aaron on baseball’s all-time list.
It was a surreal chase for Bonds. An accomplishment that two generations earlier led to Aaron receiving racially based hate mail and death threats was once again embroiled in controversy as Bonds broke Aaron’s record under suspicion of having been one of the many players in Major League Baseball to put up steroid-aided numbers.
As the record approached, there were questions about how it would be celebrated, if it would be celebrated. It was up in the air for weeks whether or not commissioner Bud Selig would be in attendance. Selig was around for the last few days leading up to No. 756, but he hardly looked like a guy getting ready to celebrate the crowning of a new home-run king.
Rather, Selig wore the mien of a man who was watching his sport get dragged further into the muck with each powerful swing Bonds took.
With his name set to appear on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time this winter, Bonds took a first step toward rehabilitating his shattered image in an interview with MLB.com’s Barry Bloom. Bonds said “there’s not a doubt in my mind” he belongs in the Hall of Fame but spent much of his interview with Bloom admitting there were many things he could have done differently to improve his relationship with the media, both during the chase for 756 and throughout his career.
Mark McGwire, who broke Roger Maris’ single-season home-run record in 1998 (a record later bested by Bonds in 2003), has been the test case for the stars of the suspect Steroid Era thus far, and the results haven’t been promising. McGwire hasn’t come close to receiving the required 75 percent of the vote from the members of the Baseball Writers Association of America.
Neither has anyone else who hit home runs in the 1990s or early 21st century, for that matter. Rafael Palmeiro, he of the 600 home runs and 3,000 hits, barely got enough support in 2011 to remain on the ballot for a second year. Jeff Bagwell, who has never been mentioned in more than a whisper in connection with anything steroid related, only managed 56 percent of the vote last year, his first time on the ballot.
It was a surprisingly low number for a guy who hit .297 and hit 449 home runs and drove in 1,529 runs in 15 seasons for the Houston Astros.
But the ballot this winter moves beyond test cases and right to the meat of the matter. Bonds will be on the ballot for the first time, as will Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa. The men who are arguably the greatest hitter and pitcher who ever lived have absolutely zero chance of being in Cooperstown next summer to be inducted.
For what it’s worth, I think it’s time the BBWAA started judging what happened from the late 1980s through the early 21st century for what it was. We will never have a clear reckoning of what happened, of who used and who did not.
Much like the players who never faced integrated competition, the players who never had to travel on jets or play in night games, the players of the Steroid Era should be judged on what they did in their time. If they stood head and shoulders above the crowd, then they should be in.
There are factions within the BBWAA who are using their ballots as a means for exacting some sort of vigilante justice against players linked to steroids. That is their prerogative.
However, at some point the writers need to start voting based on what the game was and is, not the rose-colored Shangri-La they wish it to be. Part of doing that is acknowledging the greatest players to ever play the game even while acknowledging that those players did what they did under a giant storm cloud of suspicion.
Let the truth be the legacy of the Steroid Era, both for the men who played in it and the people who covered it.