Breaking down a ballot: Barry Bonds and the HOF

Baggs: 'A lot of people are making a statement with their ballot'

Breaking down a ballot: Barry Bonds and the HOF
January 8, 2013, 1:45 pm
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Andrew Baggarly: "Bonds was the most talented hitter I’ve ever seen." (USA TODAY IMAGES)

It started with Barry Bonds.

He wasn’t listed first on my Hall of Fame ballot when it arrived in mid-December -- a plain sheet of paper folded tightly amid a thick amber envelope. The names were arranged alphabetically. But my eyes scanned past Craig Biggio, past Jeff Bagwell and onto Bonds.

This is where it had to begin.

Before I moved onto any other name, before I checked or bypassed any other box, I had to make a decision on Bonds that would render me equal parts judge, prosecutor, juror, journalist, statistician, fan and historian.

How I approached Bonds would affect how I approached the rest of the ballot, and every proceeding ballot that would be chock full of the greatest hitters and pitchers to emerge from baseball’s steroid era. Some were thought to be clean. Some were proven to be otherwise. Many more lay somewhere in between, in those wicked weeds of suspicion and innuendo.

It’s always been imprecise to compare players from different eras, who played in different ballparks, with different technology and against a talent pool that didn’t include anyone of color until just 66 years ago. It’s always been a challenge for someone like me, a journalist who writes for an ephemeral media, to fill out a ballot with such historic and long-term consequences.

But what happens when the statistics, the metronome of baseball, become so warped that they lose nearly all their meaning? Even if you know who took steroids and who didn’t, and precisely how much over an exact period of time, what does it all mean? In the end, who is a Hall of Famer and who isn’t?

It’s a simple, yet devilishly complicated question: Does Barry Bonds belong in Cooperstown?

I already knew which way I was leaning. Back in March, when I taped four episodes of Jeopardy! as a contestant, the coordinators warned me that during the interview segment, Alex Trebek would skip right past those other fluff anecdotes I provided and hit me with the hard stuff on the very first show. He meant to find out where I stood on the subject of steroids and the Hall of Fame.

Already a bundle of nerves, I tried to answer him honestly, and with a minimum of dodging. Yes, it will be very difficult for voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America to decide this issue. Some may exclude players who likely wouldn’t have posted Hall of Fame numbers without artificial enhancement. Others may decide that any steroid use makes a player ineligible. As for me, I will not be a moralist with my vote. The best players belong, regardless.

If I had more time during the interview, I would have added this: Baseball is not golf. It is not a gentleman’s game, nor does it pretend to be. Baseball has a culture of cheating that goes back to its inception, of loading up the baseball and stealing signs and corking bats and yes, of drug use. All amphetamines became controlled substances by 1965. Players who took them did so illegally, just as steroid users did. Of course, amphetamines didn’t shred the record books in the same way. But just because the impact of amphetamine use was more minimal didn’t make the act of taking them any more right or wrong than steroid use.

Nobody should reward cheating, of course. It’s not the example we want to set for young, impressionable people. It goes against our social bargain. But we shouldn’t pretend it hasn’t been part of the game, either.

So, with some discomfort, this would be my stand: I would not exclude players who admitted to steroid use or were connected to them in a substantial way. But I would judge their statistics accordingly.

(Looking back, I should have responded in the form of a question.)

That established, we come back to Bonds.

You’ve heard all the arguments from the pro-Bonds crowd, including this one: He was a Hall of Famer before the time period when there is evidence to support he began using steroids. I do subscribe to that mode of thinking, to a large extent.

But I kept coming back to a season later in Bonds’ career, and it wasn’t his 73-homer tour de force in 2001 or even his eight-homer, 45-at-bat postseason in 2002. It was 2004, the first season I covered the Giants beat. Go back and look at what Bonds did that season. It will never be seen again.

He had a .609 on-base percentage. He walked 232 times. He was intentionally walked 120 times. (Last season, the Cincinnati Reds led the majors with 54 intentional walks as a team. Mickey Mantle was intentionally walked 127 times in his entire career.)

So Bonds had the bat completely taken out of his hands in 24 percent of his plate appearances in 2004. He saw one pitch to hit, maybe, in a three-game series. I was there. I know.

And when he got that pitch, he was ready. There was no way to disrupt his timing or ice the kicker. He hit 45 home runs, drove in 101 runs and won the batting title with a .362 average. In perhaps the defining moment of the steroid era, he saw a 101 mph fastball from Eric Gagne. He pulled it foul.

Bonds was the most talented hitter I’ve ever seen. He was a savant. He predicted pitch after pitch from the dugout, leaving his teammates in amazement. Perhaps only Ted Williams had his combination of cunning, vision and confidence. Sadly for Bonds, he will never get credit for being one of the two or three most intelligent hitters in baseball history. He’ll be remembered for his brawn and not his brains, and the way he built those cartoonish muscles. That is the great shame of Barry Bonds. In trying to build his legacy, he destroyed it.

It doesn’t take away from his base talent, though – and on his level, he is almost certainly without peer.

I cannot imagine any list of the game’s greatest players without Barry Bonds, just as I cannot imagine that list without Pete Rose. (That is a column for another day, though.)

In the end, I had to admit what so many opposing pitchers admitted to themselves over the years. Bonds was just too good. No matter what he did, or what he injected into his glutes or let dissolve on his tongue, or how many times he glared at the media or brushed off the opportunity to perform a small kindness, no matter how many teammates he alienated or people he burned, Bonds was one of the ultra-elite – one of the all-time greatest players in baseball history.

Other than being petty or sanctimonious or both, I couldn’t think of any rationale for deciding that he didn’t belong in the Hall of Fame. So I made my first action. I checked Bonds’ name.

Next, I checked the names of candidates that merited my vote a year earlier: Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, Edgar Martinez, Larry Walker.

Raines is the easiest for me. He was a more efficient base stealer than Rickey Henderson and got on base just as often as Tony Gwynn. Just look at what he did in 1987 (.330/.429/.526, 123 runs, 50 stolen bases out of 55 attempts) and then realize that he was cheated out of the first month of the season because the owners colluded to depress salaries and nobody signed him as a free agent. If not for Rickey, Raines might be considered the most accomplished leadoff hitter in baseball history. If anything, Raines should earn points, not demerits, for the way he handled his later issues with cocaine use, too.

Bagwell, by any statistical measure, ranks among the most productive first basemen in major league history. If Jim Rice made the Hall largely because of the fear he instilled in pitchers, then Bagwell is a cobra to Rice’s garter snake. With his wide stance, Bagwell almost seemed to hiss as he uncoiled and unleashed on pitches. Yes, he had huge and veiny forearms. Mike Piazza had terrible back acne. But I refuse to be a detective with my ballot. Some players got caught. Some didn’t. Some used steroids and we’d never suspect otherwise.  (Alex Sanchez, who hit all of six home runs in more than 1,600 plate appearances, was suspended for steroid use in 2005.) Some others who fit the ‘roid profile might have been as clean as a meadow after a rain. Only they know for sure. I just know I cannot feel comfortable voting for one guy and not another because of suspicion, or because one player might have been smarter or luckier about where they sourced their stuff. (I also believe there is at least one current Hall of Famer who used steroids toward the end of his career, by the way, even if I cannot responsibly mention his name.) I believe I have to judge Bagwell and Piazza on their accomplishments and statistics, and those make them slam dunks for the Hall.

As for Larry Walker, sure, his home splits were ridiculous. But as Joe Posnanski pointed out, so were Rice’s splits. Walker, when healthy, did it all. He was a pure hitter and tremendous defender, and incidentally, he also hit the longest home run I’ve ever seen – off Jesse Orosco at Coors Field. (Yes, that includes all the Bonds homers I saw over the years.) Walker is very borderline, but he passes the bar for me. He’s also an ambassador as the most accomplished Canadian in baseball history, and that means something.

Martinez was a DH, he didn’t get to 3,000 hits or those other benchmarks that we associate with the Hall and he wasn’t really good at anything other than hitting. But what a hitter he was. Bonds aside, he’s probably as good a pure hitter as the game has seen in the past two decades. He was a beloved figure and he had a major hand in saving baseball in the Pacific Northwest. Again, he’s no slam dunk. But he did enough for me.

I do not vote for Jack Morris, although I deeply respect his reputation as a big-game pitcher as well as his durability and longevity. He was the last of his breed – the starting pitcher who exceeded 250 innings every single season and seldom walked off the mound before recording 24 outs. But he does not rank among the game’s immortals for me. Even if you take out his last two seasons, his 3.73 ERA is still too high. Also, I re-examine Dale Murphy, Alan Trammell, Don Mattingly and Lee Smith every year. They still fall short for me, and to avoid writing a book here, I’ll leave it at that.

As for the other first-time names on the ballot, I marked three in addition to Bonds: Piazza, Craig Biggio and Roger Clemens.

Piazza is the best offensive catcher in baseball history. You knew he was a Hall of Famer when he was just a few years into his career. He had that kind of presence. I was covering the Dodgers the night that Fox executives traded him to the Marlins, and it ranks as one of the strangest experiences of my career. The Dodgers held a press conference in the Stadium Club in the ninth inning of a game against Montreal, and GM Fred Claire began it by saying something to the effect of, “I want to make it absolutely clear how this transpired: I was informed of the deal by Fox executives Chase Carey and Peter Chernin…” You knew ol’ Fred wouldn’t be in his chair much longer. Anyway, the important thing is that Piazza was more than a franchise player. We knew that in 1998, and we know it now.

Biggio is one of the game’s most underrated players, as Jayson Stark has so thoroughly demonstrated. Yes, I had that moment when I considered not supporting a player who “compiled” 3,000 hits. Then I looked at where Biggio ranked in runs scored (15th all time), and the names that surrounded him on that list. And I looked at where he ranked in doubles (fifth all time), and realized that everyone above him was left-handed or a switch hitter. That’s right – nobody in baseball history has hit more career doubles from the right-handed batter’s box than Craig Biggio. And he played three valuable positions – catcher, center field and second base – equally well. He should be in, and on the first ballot.

That leaves us with one name to discuss, and for me, it was the hardest one to check. I don’t have much fondness for Clemens, who strikes me as baseball’s version of Lance Armstrong in the way he’s vigilantly confronted charges of drug use amid so much evidence to the contrary. It certainly does seem like the Rocket turned on the afterburners all of the sudden when he arrived in a Blue Jays uniform just as his career was about to fizzle, and then dominated for the next decade. Maybe the development of his splitter made all the difference. Maybe it was more. There certainly seemed to be something beyond competitiveness on the mound that night he threw Piazza’s splintered bat. But when you look at Clemens’ overall career, he’s obviously one of the top 10 pitchers in baseball history.

I could have left him off my ballot, as I did for Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro, in the belief that they wouldn’t have put up the numbers to be worthy of Hall of Fame consideration without using steroids. (Sosa hasn’t admitted to using steroids as McGwire did, nor was he suspended for a failed test as Palmeiro was. But he reportedly tested positive as part of survey testing in 2003, and he got caught with a corked bat, which counts for something.)

Ultimately, I decided that Clemens was almost certainly a Hall of Fame pitcher based solely on his time with the Red Sox. So in the interests of being consistent, I had to treat him the same way I treated Bonds.

And that is where this process ties me in knots. All voters want to establish some kind of standard and apply it consistently. But are we truly establishing a standard, or are we gerrymandering our own rationales to make our ballots fit some kind of defensible version of consistency? I’ve thought about it a lot. I still don’t have an answer.

Here is my other internal debate: What is the Hall of Fame, really? Some say it’s a museum, and no museum should ignore an entire era of history just because it’s unsightly or uncomfortable. Others say it’s a shrine and only players who were great and honorable should be rewarded with a place there. (Despite the character clause that appears with the voting instructions, you can count plenty of scoundrels and bigots who have plaques).

As for me, I’ve always felt the Hall of Fame is there to house the players who left an indelible impact on the game, whose deeds on the field inspired lasting memories among the fans who saw them and connected with them. Whether we are reporters or fans, we invest ourselves in these players. Some had richer careers than others.

After wrestling with my ballot for weeks, I am less sure than ever about what the Hall of Fame means and who belongs there – and that makes me certain about one thing. I have to go to Cooperstown. I have to see and experience this place for the first time, to walk the halls and view the relics and study the faces of others as they soak in their surroundings.

Maybe then I’ll have a better idea of what the Hall of Fame truly means, and who truly belongs there.

And I need to go soon, because next year’s ballot will be an even bigger mess. That’s because I don’t expect any of my eight selections to get in, and with Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and Frank Thomas all eligible next year, that 10-vote maximum is going to force me, and many other voters, to leave off players who otherwise would earn our support.

Maybe I’ll just ask Trebek to fill out my ballot next year.

Jeff Bagwell
Craig Biggio
Barry Bonds
Roger Clemens
Edgar Martinez
Mike Piazza
Tim Raines
Larry Walker

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