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It’s happening. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are getting in to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. It won’t be this year, and it probably won’t be next year, either, but it’s very possible by 2019, and if not then, they will ascend the Cooperstown stage in 2020 or 2021.
All of this, of course, is dependent on the Hall of Fame not recognizing the coming tide and yanking the vote from the Baseball Writers Association of America, an organization finally remedying the folly of its illogic regarding Bonds, Clemens and steroids in general. The Hall already tried to gerrymander steroids away from its hallowed grounds – ones merely polluted with the vile racism of some enshrined and hopped up on the amphetamine kick of others – by unilaterally limiting a player’s time on the ballot to 10 years instead of the previous 15. This will be a good test on the lengths of the Hall’s moral authority.
Because this is the year it is changing, and Bud Selig is to blame. Seriously. It’s almost as if all of Selig’s slippery rhetoric on how baseball didn’t ride performance-enhancing drugs back to relevance after the strike was burbling in a big karmic fireball waiting to fire itself at just the right time.
In early December, 15 members of the 16-man Today’s Game Era committee voted Selig into the Hall of Fame. And in the minds of some writers who had excluded Bonds and Clemens – each inarguably among the five best hitters and pitchers, respectively, ever to play baseball – the ability to turn them away amid the enshrinement of the man who oversaw the sport felt wrong.
“When Bud was put in two weeks ago, my mindset changed,” Kevin Cooney, a longtime Philadelphia-area writer, said in an email. “If the commissioner of the steroid era was put into the HOF by a secret committee, then I couldn’t in good faith keep those two out any longer.”
For years, Cooney said, he had given priority to the players with clean records, something he admits “may have been silly.” He said he saw a tweet from Susan Slusser, the esteemed San Francisco Chronicle writer, pointing out the hypocrisy of Selig and Tony La Russa – who won championships with juiced players – being in the Hall but the players themselves seemingly blackballed. “The light bulb went off,” Cooney said.
He’s not the only one. Slusser said she will vote for Bonds and Clemens. So did Boston columnist Steve Buckley and New York writer Peter Botte. And aside from Cooney, five of the 57 writers who have publicly revealed their ballots this year have punched the Bonds-and-Clemens ticket for the first time.
The early results are staggering. Among the 57 public ballots, Bonds and Clemens have 42 votes. That’s 73.6 percent, an enormous jump from last year, when Clemens finished with 45.8 percent of the vote and Bonds with 45.5 percent, far short of the 75 percent necessary for induction.
(Full disclosure: My ballot is one of the 42. I have checked off Bonds and Clemens each of the three years I voted for the Hall of Fame. My ballot in its entirety can be seen here.)
Now, it must be said: Nobody expects that significant of a jump to stay when the 400-plus expected ballots are revealed in January. The exit polling from the indispensible Ryan Thibodaux is rarely dead on. It provides a solid sense of coming jumps, though, and nobody is making one like Bonds and Clemens this year. At the 50-ballot mark in 2016, they were at only 52 percent, compared to 70 percent this year. The jump of 18 percentage points is the highest among anyone on the ballot, besting Edgar Martinez at +16, Mike Mussina at +14 and Tim Raines – who at this point looks like a lock with Jeff Bagwell – at +12.
Certainly the induction of Mike Piazza, long suspected to have used PEDs, along with Bagwell and perhaps Pudge Rodriguez – two players who aroused suspicion but, like Piazza, never were proven to have taken anything – was a Pandora’s Box for some who no longer could rationalize penalizing players when our breadth of knowledge about the true nature of steroid use in the game is basic at best. Selig being honored – by a committee of six Hall of Fame players, five front-office members, three media members and two Hall of Fame executives – offered only another rationale.
“As I continued to think about this and go back and forth,” Tom D’Angelo, a longtime writer for the Palm Beach Post, said in an email, “the thing that sealed my vote was when Bud Selig was voted in.”
This is a good thing. A group long known for its intransigence is evolving to do what it should have in the first place: foster an honest discussion about PEDs and their place in sports. Not every doping case is as simple as pointing at someone and yelling: “Cheater! Cheater! Cheater!” Nor is every user simply exercising his or her right to unlock greatness from within. Reasonable rules exist, and whenever this happens, perhaps it will force baseball to confront what will feel like an existential crisis but instead will offer a grand opportunity to do what it should have done all those years ago.
Ballot glut will give MLB and the Hall time to prepare for their responses. Thibodaux estimates Bonds and Clemens could end up somewhere between 55 and 60 percent this year – and if it’s higher than that, this has a chance to move quickly, especially with the annual purging of older voters who haven’t written in years and skew more conservative toward PED use. Even if Rodriguez sneaks in this year with Bagwell and Raines, Trevor Hoffman and Vladimir Guerrero probably will wait another year. Martinez, nearing the end of his eligibility, should get the Raines bump soon enough. Chipper Jones is a first-ballot lock and Jim Thome likely the same in 2018, and Mariano Rivera is a no-doubter in 2019 with Roy Halladay the only other candidate with a shot.
In 2020, Derek Jeter is the only one worthy of consideration, and 2021 is an empty year. Those will be Bonds’ and Clemens’ eighth and ninth seasons, and if the groundswell hasn’t placed them in by then, it will happen one of those years and allow the electorate to look at David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez – each eligible in 2022 – through a far different lens.
Because we must remember: The Hall of Fame is not some sanctuary. It is a museum. It exists to celebrate the best of baseball – and to remind us of the worst. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens embody this duality, and the best thing the Hall could do, rather than try to play obstructionist, is play the role it does so well: Use Bonds and Clemens, and their plaques, to tell the story of steroids in baseball. This is their legacy. Greatness tarnished. May their scarlet letter forever be bronzed.
But it’s incumbent on the writers to ensure Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens get it and get that moment with the past Hall of Famers who will be forced to confront their double standard toward PEDs considering the red juice they slugged and greenies they popped. It will force them, and all of baseball, really, to face head-on something from which they’ve sprinted for far too long.
Because this is not something they can outrun. Ever. This is the sport’s legacy, too, its history, and it cannot be whitewashed any longer. The writers, finally, are doing their job. They’re letting the true story of baseball be told.
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