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The Barry Bonds Conundrum

Since we still have several hours before the Cubs take on the Rockies in Denver tonight, I thought I'd stir up a hornet's nest stimulate some conversation this morning by writing about Barry Bonds.

Let me first make it clear what this post is not about.

It's not about whether Bonds should or shouldn't have been convicted in federal court this past week. That's a topic already being discussed in this FanShot; keep any opinions and talk about that issue over there, please.

It's also not going to be a post saying "Void all his numbers! Put an asterisk on them!" Why? Because you simply cannot do that. The home runs were hit. Games were played, and won and lost. "Take away" Bonds' home runs, and hits and walks and runs scored, and then what do you do? "Take away" the Giants games that were won and lost as a result? Void their NL pennant winning season in 2002? As I have written before: the numbers are what they are. You can hope that someone breaks both of the home run records that Bonds holds, the single-season and career marks, and perhaps someone will. But they exist. However, simply because Bonds hit more home runs in a season than anyone else, and seven more career home runs than Hank Aaron, doesn't make him the "greatest" home run hitter in history. He hit more home runs, true. But "greatest" is a subjective judgment, and that brings me to the real topic of this post: whether Bonds should be elected to the Hall of Fame.

We have just emerged from what is generally being referred to as the "Steroid Era", which can roughly be labeled as the years 1990-2007 (give or take a year or two on either side). It's generally understood and acknowledged that steroid use was rampant among major league players during that era; that may have given some players advantages over others, although in some cases it might have been juiced pitcher facing juiced hitter, evening the matchup.

Some players were caught and punished (Manny Ramirez, Rafael Palmeiro); some players admitted PED use and have largely been forgiven (Andy Pettitte, Alex Rodriguez); some players admitted PED use and are greeted with embarrassed throat-clearing (Mark McGwire), and some players have had rumors swirl around them but have never done any of the above (Sammy Sosa).

And then there's Bonds.

The book "Game of Shadows", which details the alleged steroid use of Bonds (and some others) says that Bonds began using PEDs after the 1998 season, supposedly because he was jealous of the attention that Sosa and McGwire were getting for the home run chase that year. Bonds felt he was the best all-around player in the game and that he, not those two, should have gotten more recognition, according to the book.

He was right about that. At the end of the 1998 season, Bonds was hitting .290/.411/.556, a .967 OPS, with 403 doubles, 411 home runs and 445 stolen bases. He would have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer if he had never played another game after that season; his power numbers at that time were comparable to Billy Williams or Andre Dawson -- except he had all those steals, and more than 1300 walks, too.

And then he went on to have four seasons -- 2001-2004 -- that were so far superior to anything he had done before 1998 that suspicions began to be raised. This is simply not possible unless you are artificially enhanced. Those years encompass his age 36-39 seasons. No major league player in history on a normal career progression has ever done that. The reasons appear clear. And I simply do not buy the argument that steroid/PED usage in the 1990s and 2000s is the same thing as players using amphetamines/greenies in the 1960s and 1970s. The latter gave you an energy boost. The former increased a player's body and head size to grotesque proportions and can shrink a man's testicles, as was testified to in graphic form by Bonds' former girlfriend Kimberly Bell at his trial. The two things are not remotely comparable.

It's a real shame that Bonds felt he had to do this for "recognition", because most knowledgeable baseball analysts and fans absolutely knew he was the best all-around player of his generation, despite his surly and unfriendly nature. But that wasn't enough for him. He wanted to be loved as Sosa and McGwire were loved. This is an understandable desire on the part of any professional athlete, but he went about it in the wrong way.

Instead of being cheered, as McGwire and Sosa were, by fans in the other cities they visited, Bonds was reviled and hated. Fans in San Francisco loved the act; fans in other baseball towns thought they were witnessing a freak show. I cannot say what the reaction would have been if Bonds had been a Cubs player; likely the same, I'd guess, especially if Bonds had been a Cub and led them to a World Series. That still doesn't make what he did right.

To me, the bottom line is that the Hall of Fame isn't just about statistical achievement. It's not the "Hall of Statistics" where you simply draw numerical lines and say "this guy's in, this guy's out". There are other factors. The Hall of Fame's guidelines for voters include this:

Voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.

Integrity? Sportsmanship? Character? I would argue that Barry Bonds showed none of these in his playing career. Players who played against him or were teammates often are quoted as saying they never saw talent like the abilities Bonds had -- but they rarely if ever talk about Bonds as a good teammate, or good human being.

Last summer, when Andre Dawson was inducted into the Hall, he spoke eloquently about the right way and the wrong way to approach the game:

Baseball will from time to time, and like anything else in life, fall victim to the mistakes that people make. It's not pleasant and it's not right. Those mistakes have hurt the game and taken a toll on all of us. Individuals have chosen the wrong road and have chosen that as their legacy. Others still have a chance to choose theirs. Do not be lured to the dark side. It's a stain on the game, a stain gradually being removed.

But that's the people, not the game. There's nothing wrong with the game. Never has been. I think people just forget why we ever got involved in the game in the first place. When we were nine and ten years old, we just loved playing the game. What we found was that if you put your heart into this game, if you love this game, the game will love you back.

Bonds and Dawson weren't quite contemporaries; Dawson is ten years older, but their careers overlapped for seven seasons (1986-1992), and it's clear that Dawson was aiming at him (among others). It's further clear to me that Bonds loved only himself, not the game of baseball. The Hall of Fame is about honoring those who gave the game great honor. Barry Bonds did not do that. He cheated. He dishonored the game. He should not be given its highest honor. Yes, I know Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry cheated, too, by doctoring baseballs. Yes, I know there are knaves and scoundrels in the Hall. That doesn't make putting Barry Bonds in the Hall the right thing to do. Further, Bonds was quoted in 2007 as saying he wouldn't go to his induction ceremony if the Hall went ahead and displayed his career-record-breaking 756th HR ball with the asterisk put on it by the man who bought it and then donated it to the Hall.

Bonds, in my view, has no respect for baseball. Why should baseball give him its highest honor? No to Barry Bonds in the Hall of Fame.