Barry Bonds’s Hall of Fame Opponents Can’t Handle the Truth

I’ve been writing about Barry Bonds for 20 years, in an effort to make what I have always thought to be an uncomplicated argument: Bonds is one of the greatest baseball players to ever pick up a bat. The stats speak for themselves. As Barry Svrluga wrote in The Washington Post:

The back of his baseball card looks like it’s filled with typos. Last year, for instance, Bryce Harper led the majors with a .615 slugging percentage. In 2004, Bonds posted a .609 on-base percentage.… In that ’04 season, Bonds walked 232 times, still a major league record—by a mile. The next closest: Barry Bonds in 2002, with 198. The next closest to that: Barry Bonds in 2001, with 177. The names that follow him: Babe Ruth and Ted Williams, two of the best hitters to dig into the box. Bonds owns the top OPS of all time—an incomprehensible 1.422 from ’04. Only three men have ever produced a single season with an OPS higher than 1.250—Bonds, Ruth and Williams. They combined for 12 of them.

In addition, in the sport’s bluntest stat—home runs—Bonds is, of course, the all-time leader both for a season and a career.

Yet, this week—in his last year of eligibility—Bonds was shamefully rejected yet again for entry to the Baseball Hall Fame. The ostensible reason for the pushback against honoring Bonds is the widespread belief that he used performance-enhancing drugs. But it’s more complicated than that. First, although it’s widely suspected that Bonds juiced, he never actually tested positive. There are also a rack of players already in the Hall of Fame who meet this description—players whom reporters saw with suspicious acne on their backs or had seasons where their home-run totals hit the moon. Yet these HoF juicers were generally liked and admired. Bonds always had a prickly personality. As one teammate once said, “When Barry says ‘fuck you,’ he actually means it.” This massive chip on his shoulder—an attribute inevitably affixed to unsmiling Black athletes—goes far toward explaining why writers/voters have closed the door on his candidacy.

In addition, Bonds was part of a steroids era, and some baseball writers believe they are the gate keepers for the game’s purity and that Bonds violated that purity. Yet that argument doesn’t explain some inconvenient truths. If we are making the Baseball Hall of Fame an institution for the pure, then why is the commissioner who oversaw and ignored the steroid era—”Bud” Selig—in the Hall of Fame? Why is manager Tony LaRussa, someone who oversaw or turned a blind eye to a de facto pharmacy in his locker room, in the Hall of Fame? Why was the popular, jovial David Ortiz, linked to PEDs, just elected on the first ballot?

Some of these writers also refuse to reckon with the fact that the game has never been pure. The ultimate performance-enhancing drug was the color line, which lasted from the turn of the century to 1947. White players didn’t have to tussle with Black talent and their stats inflated accordingly, yet this hasn’t kept the Babe Ruth or the Ty Cobb from Cooperstown. Then in the post–World War II era, players gobbled amphetamines or “greenies”—as if they were Tucker Carlson’s erotic ideal of sexy M&Ms. For those who say that using any form of synthetic testosterone is a category of “performance enhancing,” then we could go back way before Bonds era, as far as the 1960s in baseball, and witness their use. It certainly picked up in the 1990s thanks to Clinton’s bipartisan deregulation of the pharmaceutical industry, which launched what should be understood as an entire steroid era in baseball. This was an era that owners and commissioners overlooked, because people love home runs, and it was bringing fans to the park, particularly after the 1994 strike/lockout, which canceled the World Series for the first and only time in history. In this “steroid era,” no one could even come close to the player that was Barry Bonds and perhaps no one ever will. Steroids don’t increase your eyesight, and Bonds—those walk totals are obscene—probably had the best eye in the history of the game. Keeping him out of the Hall of Fame is nothing short of a grotesque hypocrisy.

Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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