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Baseball’s Hall of Fame Needs a Steroid Wing, and so Does Cooperstown

Barry Bonds is not in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. And unless the eligibility rules change, he may never get in. But the ball he hit for his record 756th homer is ensconced behind a glass partition at the museum in Cooperstown replete with the asterisk that was carved into it.

It’s on the second floor in a case next to jerseys worn by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, who both shattered Roger Maris’ single-season home run record of 61 in 1998. McGwire hit 70, Sosa 66. Three years later Bonds hit 73.

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Bonds is the all-time leader with 762 homers.

“Bonds denied knowingly taking PEDs, and never tested positive in MLB testing,” reads a black-on-silver placard next to the ball, which was purchased in an online auction for $752,467 by fashion designer Marc Ecko, who cut the asterisk into the leather and then donated it the Hall.

And that’s really the point, isn’t it? Bonds, Sosa, McGwire and 354-game winner Roger Clemens, all “never tested positive in MLB testing.” Bonds said he unknowingly used “the cream” and “the clear,” designer steroid formulations, during his grand jury testimony in the BALCO case. McGwire apologized for using when he rejoined the game as a coach under then St. Louis manager Tony La Russa. But Clemens and Sosa have never uttered a peep. Yet all three, like Bonds, have been left out of the Hall, probably forever.

This is all germane because its once again Hall of Fame induction weekend. The Class of 2023 is unheralded, with Scott Rolen getting in via the baseball writers and Fred McGriff selected by the umpteenth version of an Era Committee. They will be inducted behind the Clark Sports Center on Sunday.

It’s the most tepid class since members of the BBWAA elected nobody in 2013, the first time Bonds, Clemens and Sosa were on the ballot. That class included New York Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert (1915-39), a 19th century catcher named Deacon White, and turn of the 20th century umpire Hank O’Day, who called the Fred Merkle mishap at the Polo Grounds. That’s how far back he went.

About 2,000 people turned out in the rain that day and when the ceremony began late, 1,000 of them folded up their chairs and went back into town.

That may be how many people were in town Friday and Saturday, just before the Rolen-McGriff festivities. A blocked off Main Street was empty.

“We were expecting this,” said Mark Deso, the proprietor of Sal’s Pizza on Main Street. “You have to wonder what it’s going to be like here in the next 10 years. Bonds and Clemens? That would be nice. The village would be packed.”

The traffic for autographs was light, said Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman, who signed baseballs on Friday.

“It was a little surprising,” he said.

It’s been a tough few years.

The Hall hasn’t had a major induction since Mariano Rivera drew 50,000 people in 2019 as the only player ever unanimously elected by the writers. The pandemic hit in 2020, postponing the Derek Jeter ceremony for more than a year. Not one new player, umpire, manager or executive was elected in 2021, when that year’s Era Committee vote was cancelled, and the BBWAA whiffed again. The Jeter, Larry Walker festival was pushed off until September and under 20,000 attended.

30% drop in revenue that came close to $1 million in 2020 and another $400,000 dip in 2021 had a ripple effect on all city services, the town’s mayor said, affecting paving streets and replacing street lights. Local businesses closed, and the downturn seems to be continuing.

Last year’s induction ceremony, headlined by David Ortiz, drew 35,000, but even that was smaller than a star of his stature would have brought out in the past. Cal Ripken Jr. and the late Tony Gwynn drew a record 75,000 in 2007, about a month before Bonds broke Hank Aaron’s home run record in San Francisco. There were 800 credentials issued for that event in comparison to 200 this weekend.

Sure, the media landscape has changed since then, but there’s little interest in Rolen-McGriff. The next big one should be Ichiro Suzuki in the Class of 2025. After that, it’s Albert Pujols in 2028. After that, who knows?

It leads some baseball observers to worry.

“About the future of the Hall of Fame, I’m concerned,” Tony Clark, a former player and current executive director of the player’s union, said during recent All-Star Game festivities in Seattle.

Those who run the Hall need to wake up. They have to choose between riding the high horse of keeping the so-called steroid era candidates out, or settling into a progressive Hall that attracts tens of thousands of fans to a thriving downtown. It’s economics vs. ethics, and right now the ethics are not hacking it.

To be sure, Bonds, Clemens and Sosa fell short in their 10-year stint on the BBWAA ballot, and last December Bonds and Clemens barely earned any votes in their first pass before the 16-member Contemporary Era Committee, which unanimously elected McGriff. That committee doesn’t cycle around again until the Class of 2026. Given the current conditions, the results will likely be the same.

To address the steroid era and its excluded star players, the Hall should establish a committee for those who played during that time and draw up a set of criteria. There should be two categories: The first for players who were suspected of PED use but denied knowingly using and never tested positive. Already, there are players elected to the Hall who fall into that category: Mike Piazza, Ivan Rodriguez and Jeff Bagwell.

The second is for those who tested positive and were ultimately suspended under Major League Baseball’s joint drug policy. The most prominent current ballot contenders from that class are Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez. A-Rod was a non-analytical positive based on MLB’s law suit involving a Miami drug clinic. Manny actually failed multiple tests and was suspended. Fernando Tatis Jr., who failed a drug test last year and was suspended, could one day be a part of that cohort.

The Hall could even set up a special drug wing in its cherished plaque room, and it could give all the contenders a full vetting. Then Bonds, Clemens, et al., could have their day at the podium, and the businesses of Cooperstown would have their weekend of fans flocking to town for the ceremonies.

The Bonds’ ball shouldn’t be left standing as his only Hall recognition.

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