The ballot for the 2013 hall of fame election has circulated recently and it is peppered liberally with names that have become synonymous with the steroid era and the long ball game MLB knew the chicks dug. After poor showings in previous ballots players like Mark Maguire, whose homers did more than most to make MLB huge, has resigned himself to never making it to Cooperstown he has been tainted so badly by performance enhancing drugs.
One name on the ballot this time around stands out head and shoulders above everyone else in terms of what he means to baseball and also what he means to the steroid era itself. I am talking, of course, about Barry Bonds. Bonds is the all time home run king both single season and lifetime but he was a player blessed with much more than that. In his early years with the Pirates he was a great base stealer and has achieved 30-30 (home runs-steals) seasons and is one of only four men to hit the 40-40 mark. In the post moneyball climate he is also the king of walks racking up 2558 in his career and amassing an on base percentage of .609 in 2004. Without a doubt Bonds was destined for Cooperstown with or without steroids.
I don’t propose to defend the steroid use of Bonds or his peers but I do want to make a case that he deserves his place in the Hall of Fame. In fact I want to suggest baseball and its fans need to reassess what the Hall of Fame is and how we view it.
Induction into the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown is how baseball honours its greats, those who have transcended the game they played so much they become part of our collective memory acclaimed by children and adults who never saw them play. Baseball likes to think of itself as constant, that modern players can be definitively compared with those from history by means of their stats but as fans we have hundreds of arguments and debates with friends over who was the greatest that show the numbers tell only part of the tale. Baseball is a game of eras: the dead ball; the live ball; post and pre colour line; expansion; floodlights and on and on. When we debate as fans we take our favourites and heroes in the context of the times they played and argue because these things are subjective.
By taking things on a purely numbers basis we do two things: First we assume baseball exists in a vacuum. Every player plays under the same conditions and the same statistics between players equals the exact same achievement. Secondly entry to the Hall becomes less about greatness and more about hitting arbitrary targets – 3000 hits, 300 wins, 300 home runs etc. Taking blinkered, stats only view qualification for Cooperstown starts to appear more like a performance evaluation in work and the romance that is heart and soul of baseball is removed. It is not that a player makes 3000 hits that we love its how they are made. Which pitchers did he face? Was he playing hurt? Which team was he on and did his hits drive them on to great things? Baseball is a game about stories and when we read about baseball history we read those stories not tables of numbers.
Take baseball’s first Hall of Famer Ty Cobb. He was arguably the greatest player of all and nobody would dispute his right to be honoured at Cooperstown. He played the game as if it was a war, battling opponents, officials, teammates and fans alike in his personal quest to be the best. As a player there was much to admire in Cobb but as a man he was a monster, a rabid racist who drove away his wife and died alone he certainly had few friends once he left baseball. But when we think of Cobb now we think of him as a product of his environment, a southerner from a segregated Georgia before the civil rights movement began to change America and we accept Cobb as a great with his flaws.
In fact the Hall of fame is full of flawed men, even some who are known to have used performance enhancing drugs during their careers. During the 50’s and 60’s amphetamine use was extremely common by players including by some of the all time greats. Management and the league were aware of their use and there were even rules against it but MLB and the owners pretty much ignored it. Sound familiar? We know which players used greenies, as they were known, mostly because the players told us themselves in various biographies over the years but there is no clamour to strike anyone’s name from the Hall for their use. Likewise some of the great pitcher’s fill their biographies with tales of dirtying up the ball to get that extra edge on the batter but this doesn’t detract from their greatness it adds to it. Our heroes appeal to us more when we see they are human.
I think it is in this spirit we need to view Bonds when he is considered for Cooperstown next year. It might not be a view shared by the writers who vote or Baseball itself but the steroid era and Bonds is as much a part of baseball and its history as any era, landmark, change, fashion, controversy or innovation. Bonds will be punished but it should be by the fans when we debate baseball as we always have done:
“Yeah Bonds was great but take away the steroids and he couldn’t touch Aaron”.
Cooperstown belongs to the immortals. This is where they come to finally rest, battle scarred with the roar of the crowd echoing in their ears: Cobb; Ruth; Wagner; DiMaggio; Mantle; Mayes; Koufax; Aaron; Williams. Men whose skill transcended the game they played so much we forgive them for their feet of clay; their drinking, womanising, racism, and fractured relations with fans. Bonds sinned against the game but he was a product of his era just like Cobb’s racism was of product of his era. These flaws should not be forgotten or excused but neither should they let us forget what these immortals could do on the diamond. If you can get into the hall of fame because you old drinking buddies on the veterans committee say you can or you hit an arbitrary magic number without flair or style but through longevity you should certainly get in as a genuine all time great however flawed.
Bonds belongs to Cooperstown, two baseball institutions as flawed and as beautiful as each other
By James Leader