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Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens off the ballot, the Baseball Hall of Fame is in trouble

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One rewriting of baseball’s record books began in earnest in 1986. That year, a fireballing right-hander in Boston won 24 games en route to the AL Cy Young and the AL MVP. Meanwhile, a wiry 21-year-old with a familiar name reached the big leagues in Pittsburgh.

Across the 22 years their careers would overlap, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens earned 17% of all the MVP and Cy Young Awards handed out. They each claimed their occupation’s top honor seven times, obliterating the all-time marks. They each had two careers worth of Hall of Fame dominance — with peaks in the 1990s and 2000s matching or eclipsing their most fearsome contemporaries.

Bonds replaced two of the sport’s most gilded numbers with his own. When they retired after 2007, Bonds and Clemens had cemented their place as the most valuable hitter and pitcher, respectively, of the post-integration era of baseball.

By then, a second rewriting of baseball’s record books had already begun.

Roiled by the use of performance-enhancing drugs and the ensuing outrage, the baseball world turned on Bonds and Clemens and many others who used and soared above a steroid-enhanced pack. Their symbolic place in history was loudly threatened before it was ever up for official debate on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot.

When they finally did appear, alongside other great players like Ken Griffey Jr., Chipper Jones, Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson, this latest revision of history was revealed to be woefully ill-conceived. Across 10 years, the writers sent many of the names whose greatness helped define Bonds’ and Clemens’ — often by paling in comparison — to the Hall. They sent in some players who they themselves had publicly suspected of using steroids.

The era’s brightest stars failed one final time on Tuesday night to reach the 75% threshold. Given a decade to sort it out, the writers never found a cohesive tale for why two main characters should be left out of Cooperstown’s story. If anything, recent voting cycles have made the narrative more difficult to piece together.

Increasingly, voters have grappled with off-field transgressions and failures of storied stars like Curt Schilling. Bonds and Clemens have real issues to deal with there, too — including domestic violence allegations against Bonds — that deserve careful consideration bypassed in earlier eras of voting. What’s become clear is that the writers, whose approval has long been treated as a hallowed lifetime achievement award, don’t have the wherewithal or proper tools to properly frame the game’s history.

The current process for selecting and inducting Hall of Famers no longer aligns with reality, and the Hall of Fame itself risks irrelevance every time it tallies the votes with a straight face.

SCOTTSDALE, AZ - MARCH 10:  Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants speaks during a press conference about his return to the organization as a special hitting coach for one week of Spring Training at Scottsdale Stadium on March 10, 2014 in Scottsdale, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
All-time home run leader Barry Bonds dropped off the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot after 10 years without winning induction. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Bonds, Clemens should be Hall of Famers, with asterisks

At the height of baseball’s steroid era revelations, the hottest debate on sports pages and talk radio shows revolved around the concept of an asterisk. Should there be an asterisk on Bonds’ home run total? On his 73-homer year? On Clemens’ awards and records? On and on. No one bothered to think too hard about the most important part of any asterisk: the further explanation it promises.

Bonds’ and Clemens’ final numbers should come with some explanation. Bonds admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs, but claimed he did so unknowingly. Clemens has never admitted using, but the league and federal authorities produced evidence that he did. Their descent into the shadows of cheating should be taught as a dark parable on the dangers encountered in the single-minded pursuit of greatness.

Yes, many of the duo’s later triumphs likely owe some degree of credit to the drugs, but it’s nearly impossible to assess the exact effects. The benefits of added muscle mass, improved endurance and shortened recovery times had to be at least somewhat mitigated by competing against many, many other players who were also using. They still ascended to the top of the leaderboards.

That asterisk would also provide a moment to explain something that has become a more distant memory after a decade of self-conscious, steroid-focused ballot decisions. Namely, that Bonds and Clemens were Hall of Fame players before they took steroids.

Prior to Bonds’ earliest suspected use in 1998, he had already won three MVPs, a feat that has led to Cooperstown for every player who retired before him. He had accumulated 374 homers, 417 steals, a terrifying .959 OPS and more career WAR than George Brett or Ken Griffey Jr.

If Clemens had retired prior to his alleged first use, also in 1998, he would have already had four Cy Young Awards and 213 wins, the same as Hall of Famer John Smoltz’s eventual career total.

BOSTON, MA - CIRCA 1988: Roger Clemens #21 of the Boston Red Sox poses for this portrait prior to the start of a Major League Baseball game circa 1988 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. Clemens played for the Red Sox from 1884-96. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
Roger Clemens originally rose to prominence in the mid-1980s with the Boston Red Sox. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

Baseball Hall of Fame character clause must evolve

Having to explain a ballot started out feeling like a deterrent for Bonds and Clemens votes, but eventually felt like the animating push for their enshrinement.

The public votes tracked by Ryan Thibodaux and his team on Twitter increasingly favored inducting Bonds and Clemens, and if the ballots revealed before Tuesday night’s announcement show ruled the roost, they would be in. The private ballots — more often cast by writers no longer working in the public eye of the baseball world — consistently came in with far less support.

Many sent in blank ballots, looking askew at all who dared grace the majors during the steroid era.

That tendency toward the blanket rule feels patently absurd, and would be far more appropriate for a litany of other offenses that have historically received no such regard.

Exacerbating the arduous task of seeking moral clarity is the Hall of Fame’s binary voting method and a total lack of institutional guidance. Whatever you think of writers deciding these sorts of things, the Hall of Fame has undeniably left them in a bind by declining to elaborate on its infamous character clause that instructs voters to consider character in addition to on-field exploits.

Many voters, understandably, could not stomach casting a vote for Capitol riot-endorsing, transphobic, hate speech-spewing Curt Schilling if taking steroids is a disqualifying moral failing. This year’s voting totals make that quandary apparent. Omar Vizquel, who had a tenuous case to begin with, lost 103 votes after a year in which his wife surfaced grisly allegations of domestic abuse.

Similarly, abstaining from voting for Bonds over the domestic abuse allegations his ex-wife made during divorce proceedings in 1995 is imminently reasonable given the choice between canonization and nothing. Few “no” voters have labeled that as their reason, but it is a laudable stance if applied across the board.

The trouble comes in reconciling that good-faith inclination with reality. Keeping Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens out of the Hall of Fame just makes them the No. 1 topic of conversation around the Hall of Fame. By trudging ahead as if nothing needs to change, the Hall of Fame is marching toward oblivion.

No one in 2022 lives under the illusion that our professional athletes are beacons of moral fortitude until proven otherwise. No one believes that what Bonds and Clemens are accused of would set them apart from dozens of existing Hall of Famers who committed a variety of offenses without drawing the Hall’s ire, from using performance-enhancing drugs to perpetuating racism in America.

The portion of baseball history dominated by Bonds and Clemens can be written accurately for consumption at the Hall of Fame, with an honest effort to widen the lens of the Hall of Fame’s process.

Writing for The Hardball Times in 2018, Britni de la Cretaz drew a distinction between Hall of Fame induction — which theoretically recognizes a player’s significant contributions to the sport — and a number-retirement ceremony that directly heaps praise upon the human being who we may choose not to honor quite so directly.

“Instead, there needs to be a way to recognize players as the full, flawed humans that they are — as great baseball players, worthy of recognition but also as men who used drugs to get a leg up on their competition and also perhaps as men who treated the women in their lives horribly,” de la Cretaz wrote. “All of these things can be true at once.”

The Hall of Fame could reflect that by revising the ways in which it considers candidates and presents inductees. A history museum about baseball simply has to include Bonds, for instance, the game’s all-time home run leader and the avatar of one of its most searing crises of confidence. But writers and Hall of Fame leadership could add steps or gradations to the task of electing a Hall of Famer to decide how his story is told.

One easy way to start would be separating election from an automatic glorifying Hall of Fame speech. Maybe inductees like David Ortiz are voted in, and also selected to give an acceptance speech. Others, like Schilling, could perhaps be voted in with no ceremony at all. And for more complicated cases like Bonds and Clemens, the Hall might appoint a historian or writer to deliver a broader, more contextual encapsulation of the significant figure being added to Cooperstown’s collection of memories, warts and all.

It won’t make things simpler. There’s nothing simple about taking stock of a person, or of an entire sport’s history. If the Hall of Fame doesn't realize that soon, whatever story it tells about baseball will cease to matter.