The Greatest Hall of Famer that never was
The baseball Hall of Fame will elect its 2018 class this Wednesday afternoon. Among those expected: 612 home run hitter Jim Thome, 601-save closer Trevor Hoffman, and former MVPs Vladimir Guerrero and Chipper Jones.
But the greatest player of all-time will likely be withheld from the Hall of Fame in his sixth year of eligibility.
Yes, I’m talking about Barry Lamar Bonds.
While Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell, former players suspected of using steroids, received their calls to Cooperstown in recent years, the all-time home run king is still isolated from his rightful throne. Bonds has never failed a drug test, despite years of suspicion, and beat four counts of perjury and one count of obstruction of justice relating to the government investigation of BALCO, the Bay Area lab that employed Bonds’ trainer, Greg Anderson. Bonds admitted to unknowingly using “the cream” and “the clear”, described to him as nutritional supplement flaxseed oil and a pain-relieving palm for arthritis, but even if the substances were indeed steroids, Major League Baseball did not ban them at the time.
And if they were steroids, what does it matter? The culture in MLB at the time overlooked, and in all honesty accepted, performance enhancing drug use in a majority of its players. Baseball twice had chances to put its stamp on doping: in 1991 when Commissioner Fay Vincent sent a memo banning steroids but not implementing a testing policy, and again years later when Bud Selig did the same thing.
MLB front offices benefitted from the steroid era tenfold. As Sammy Sosa was clubbing home runs onto Waveland Avenue, the Cubs were filling Wrigley Field to the gills, generating a hefty profit off the Dominican slugger. As soon as Sammy was no longer welcome, he was cast aside and ostracized from the organization. Even after the franchise has shifted owners and won a World Series, the new owners expect Sammy - the grey ghost himself - to roll over and admit what he did, as if he owes the Ricketts anything.
Even beat writers contributed to the matter. In Roger Clemens’ biography The Rocket that Fell to Earth, Jeff Pearlman claimed that the soon-to-be inducted Piazza, who admitted to briefly using Androstenedione early in his career, would tell reporters off the record that he used PEDs.
It’s impossible to know who was, and wasn’t, on the juice during that era. Everyone from Ken Caminiti to Bret Boone to Manny Ramirez have been accused of, suspended for or have been speculated of juicing at one point. But one thing is for certain: even before the speculation, Barry Bonds was a Hall of Fame baseball player.
Before the big home run boom of 1998, Bonds was arguably the best player in the game. His impressive combination of power, speed, contact and vision is the stuff of legend, and quite honestly we haven’t seen a player like him since (Mike Trout stans be damned). Just peep his stats from 1986, when he entered the league with the Pittsburgh Pirates, to 1998:
• 411 home runs
• 403 doubles
• 63 triples
• 445 stolen bases
• 1,364 runs scored
• 1,216 RBI
• 3,679 total bases
• .966 OPS (164 OPS+)
If he ended his career after that, with 8,100 career plate appearances under his belt, Bonds is in the pantheon of the elite. He’s already in the 400-400 club, and would have finished with a top-10 hypothetical OPS. Ken Griffey Junior's numbers during this era pale in comparison to Bonds’ as well.
Starting from 1993, when Bonds joined the San Francisco Giants, to 1998, the last year both players were at full-strength:
Taking out Griffey’s 1995 season, where he missed close to three months with a severe wrist injury, it’s clear Bonds posted better numbers than Junior in that time span. Griffey was a home run machine in that era, hitting more than 40 bombs in each season but ’95, including the strike-shortened season of 1994, but Bonds was a better hitter for average, and got on base at a more consistent rate. His K/BB ratio compared to Griffey was unreal, as their totals were a complete flip-flop from one another. In 1993 and 1996, Griffey walked more times than Bonds struck out. From 96-98, Bonds took a base on balls at least 130 times. Griffey never walked more than 96 times in a year during that period. Bonds was also better on the basepaths, averaging 32 steals during his age 28-33 seasons. Griffey’s highest stolen base total during that stretch was 20.
It is easier with the naked eye to believe Ken Griffey never use PEDs, even after his body broke down in Cincinnati and he was a shell of his former self. He more than deserves a place in the Hall of Fame,as his near-unanimous induction a few years ago indicated. But so does Bonds, who even before the suspicion, left his mark on Major League Baseball.
Oh, and if we’re talking about keeping the integrity of the game in tact, consider this:
- The book The Baseball Hall of Shame’s Warped Record Book includes an account of Babe Ruth injecting himself with an extract from sheep testicles.
- According to writer Zev Chafets, Mickey Mantle’s fade in his 1961 home run race with Roger Maris was attributed to a botched injection of a chemical cocktail including steroids, amphetamines, and other substances. Mantle also allegedly used a corked bat in the 1960s.
- In his autobiography I Had a Hammer, Hank Aaron, increasingly frustrated by his lack of performance at the plate, admitted to taking an amphetamine before a game in 1968.
- Mike Schmidt admitted to writer Murray Chass in 2006 to using amphetamines “a couple of times”, and in his book Clearing the Bases, he said amphetamines were “widely available in major-league clubhouses” and it is far more common and has been going on a lot longer than steroid abuse.
- Goose Gossage admitted to using illegal amphetamines during his playing career.
- Manager Bobby Cox was accused of beating his wife and calling her a bitch, continuing a pattern of violence that allegedly includes a black eye and a broken wrist.
- Ty Cobb was a known racist, accused of beating up black men simply because they were black and handy. He once notoriously stabbed a black waiter in Cleveland, and according to Hall of Famer Tris Speaker, he brutally pistol-whipped black men just for sharing a sidewalk with him.
- Gaylord Perry regularly used an illegal spitball to get an edge on opposing batters.
Every one of these men have been elected into Cooperstown, including Cox after the fact. If these men are deserving of such an honor, why are we so adamant that Bonds isn’t?