I can’t say precisely when it happened, but, at some point over the past few years, between the time they first became eligible in 2012 and today, I came around on the idea of including Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens – specifically – in the Hall of Fame.
While I am not immune to the concerns of the Steroid Era, and I do think some players unfairly and illicitly benefited from pharmaceutical sources, I increasingly found it hard to stand in any kind of righteous judgment of particular players when we know the problem was so widespread. Not just in terms of the volume of players using, but also in terms of the way MLB permitted the rise of PED usage.
In retrospect, it’s embarrassing to think about how blind I allowed myself to be for nearly a decade, and how easily you can look back now and see the scope of the usage. No, I’m not saying you can look at a player’s performance in that era and know for sure he was using; instead, I’m saying only that, when you look at performance in the aggregate, together with what we do know about that era, it becomes clear that PEDs were so rampant that trying to play “the moral decider” in retrospect just doesn’t work for me.
None of them were using, they were all using. Whatever. I can evaluate players’ performance within the context of the era and form conclusions about the elite among the elite. Maybe it’s not OK for me to take out the moral component like that, but it’s the only place I can land where I don’t feel like I’m being completely arbitrary without enough facts.
So, then, when it comes to players like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, whose performance was among the best in baseball history even when adjusting for the era in which they played, I cannot say it is logical to exclude them from the Hall of Fame because they’ve been tied, formally or informally, to PED usage. If I had a Hall of Fame vote, Bonds and Clemens would be among my selections. (Sammy Sosa, in case you were wondering, probably would not.)
I do not have a Hall of Fame vote, however, so mine are merely words.
To that end, I found two reads from Ken Rosenthal and Jerry Crasnick on this issue to be very interesting, as each writer has now flipped his own position, and will vote for Bonds and Clemens. Rosenthal was clearly conflicted in his vote, but it sounds like he doesn’t want to keep splitting hairs between admitted users, test failers, and suspected users.
For his part, Crasnick points out how Hall-worthy each player was before he started doing inhuman things in his later 30s, and has decided it’s time to stop playing the part of the moralizer.
Neither of Bonds nor Clemens has eclipsed even the 40% mark in voting so far, and they might not get much beyond that this year (75% is required for enshrinement). But I suspect that they’ll see steady increases in the coming years for many of the same reasons Rosenthal, Crasnick, and I have expressed here.
For what it’s worth, Bonds’ 164.4 career WAR trails only Babe Ruth (168.4). No other positional player is even over 150.
Clemens’ 133.7 career WAR is higher than any other pitcher in baseball history.
There’s an argument to be made that you can include these two guys in the Hall of Fame and not feel like you have to include every suspected PED user who put up great numbers. These two players, in particular, were just so absurdly and obscenely good that, if you’re going to stop keeping guys out for reasons that seem more untenable every year, then these are the two guys you have to start by including.