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Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens And The Hall of Fame

In which I reveal how and why I’ve changed my mind on those two, and others.

Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The Baseball Writers Association of America is currently conducting its balloting for next summer’s Hall of Fame induction. Their votes must be in by December 31, and results will be announced January 18.

You might have been reading about some changes of heart from BBWAA writers due to the upcoming induction of former Commissioner Bud Selig. In particular, some took note of these tweets from Susan Slusser, an A’s beat writer and former BBWAA president:

She has a point, though it’s not quite that simple. A long article discussing this issue was posted Monday by Craig Calcaterra, in which he noted that Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are getting a significant increase in votes this year from the BBWAA, and discusses the “Selig Effect,” though he wonders why it’s happening now, when it was clear long ago that Selig was going to be elected to the Hall. Maybe now that the Selig induction is a fact, voters are re-examining their positions.

It’s certainly gotten me to re-examine mine. The Internet Baseball Writers Association of America, of which I am a member, also conducts a Hall of Fame vote — though, I will note, our vote is simply an exercise, as it has no impact on who’s actually inducted in Cooperstown. This year’s IBWAA ballot, in fact, does not include Jeff Bagwell, Edgar Martinez or Tim Raines, because those players have already been honored by the IBWAA in previous years.

After reading Slusser’s tweets, seeing this public BBWAA ballot tally by Ryan Thibodaux, and considering the impact of various players in baseball history, I’ve come to the conclusion that you can’t simply ignore an entire era. According to the book “Game of Shadows,” Bonds began taking PEDs after the 1998 season because he was jealous of the attention Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire were getting, when he felt he was the best all-around player in the game.

Bonds was right. As of the end of 1998 he was the best all-around player in the game, and had been for the better part of a decade. If he’d never played another game after 1998, he’d have been inducted into the Hall years ago and lauded as one of the best players of all time.

Which he is, and there’s never really been any question about that. Without PEDs in the picture, there’s a reasonable argument for Bonds to be one of the five best players of all time. Bonds’ alleged PED use and the denials and trials that followed tainted many observers’ view of him. It was much the same for Roger Clemens, who had put together a pretty good Hall case before 1996, when he suddenly had two really great years for the Blue Jays after two mediocre years in his final seasons in Boston. Clemens, too, stonewalled, never admitting what he did, which turned many -- including me — against him.

Earlier this month, Jayson Stark of interviewed Selig and asked him quite a number of pointed questions about Selig’s battles with the players’ association about PEDs in the early 2000s. I found this exchange between Stark and Selig quite illuminating, discussing a presentation on this topic that Selig had made to a class he teaches called "Baseball in American Society" at the University of Wisconsin:

"I went back through the whole negotiations," Selig said he told his class. "I went through everything. And I told them, 'There was nothing I could do. It's collectively bargained.'"

But was it really that simple? Is it ever that simple? Clearly, Bud Selig wrestles with those doubts to this day, because after giving his side of this story for 11 minutes, he then turned to me.

"Now let me ask you a question," he said. "And I'm being serious. If you had been me then, what would you have done?"

Frankly, I was amazed that he asked. But I also had no trouble admitting to the commissioner emeritus that I thought back on those times a lot. And like a lot of members of the media, I carry a deep sense of guilt about that era and the way it was covered. I told him I wish I'd done more. I wish I'd asked more questions. I wish I'd learned more. I wished I'd said and written more.

So that, I told him, was what I thought he could have done. He was the commissioner. So the one thing he could have done, without needing a bargaining table to do it, was raise this issue, speak about it more, admit to it earlier and bring it to the forefront.

"That's fair," Selig replied. "That's very fair."

A moment later, he looked me right in the eye again. "Maybe you're right," he said. "Maybe I should have said more."

There is no doubt that Selig should have said more. Hindsight: always 20/20, as you know. It is easy for us, now, in 2016, to say that the leaders of the game should have said or done more, 15+ years ago, when we were in the height of the so-called “Steroid Era.” I’ll give Selig some credit for admitting his humanity, admitting his mistake, admitting he could have done or said more.

For whatever reason, it didn’t happen. Many members of the BBWAA have apparently reached the conclusion that we can’t penalize an entire generation for the sins that have now (for the most part, as there are still offenders being caught) been mostly cleansed from baseball. We are all better for it, I think; there’s a level playing field, and players and fans are, in general, assured that most players aren’t cheating in 2016-era baseball.

Having said all that, and even understanding that it will, to some extent, be difficult to see players like Bonds and Clemens on a dais in Cooperstown accepting the sport’s highest honor (and there are rumors that there are steroid users already inducted), here’s who I submitted on my IBWAA Hall of Fame ballot this week.

Barry Bonds
Roger Clemens
Vladimir Guerrero
Trevor Hoffman
Mike Mussina
Manny Ramirez
Ivan Rodriguez
Curt Schilling
Lee Smith
Sammy Sosa

Calcaterra, whose work I respect, posted a long article Tuesday detailing his thoughts about everyone on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot. I concur with most of his takes and my ballot mirrors his; as noted above, Bagwell, Martinez and Raines don’t appear on the IBWAA ballot this year and I’ve voted for them in the past. The only ones we really disagree on are Larry Walker and Billy Wagner (he’d vote for them, I wouldn’t) and Lee Smith (who gets my vote but not Craig’s).

Craig notes that Bonds and Clemens, if they don’t get in this year, will probably be elected soon. That’ll be quite the induction ceremony to watch, I’d think.