Bonds That Tie: The Cooperstown Reformation Project
Something that we knew was likely coming for a decade finally happened this week, as Barry Bonds was left out of the Hall of Fame by voters from the BBWAA. The baseball media controls who enters Cooperstown via the most traditional path. Writers who have spent ten consecutive years involved in the BBWAA receive a HOF vote and are able to vote for a decade even once they are no longer active. This means that some people who aren't tuned into the game are able to cast ballots on what enters the museum...and that's what this is really about.
The Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is a museum.
The Hall claims that it's all about "the relationships forged, stories shared, cherished memories created..." Who amongst us hasn't joked about the fact that Barry Bonds was regularly walked even when it would put runners in scoring position? Or even more hilariously when the bases were loaded.
Aren't stories (positive and negative) shared about Bonds' efforts in the Pirates' loss to the Braves in the 1992 NLCS? The Pirates' last winning season for two decades? About the fact that Bonds had more intentional walks than the Tampa Bay Rays' entire franchise in several thousand fewer at-bats? Don't cherished memories of Bonds exist in San Francisco, where he saved the Giants' franchise and helped them build their beautiful ballpark downtown? Didn't we forge relationships rooting for or against Bonds?
Here are the facts: Barry Lamar Bonds is by far the greatest player ever based on bWAR at 162.7 wins above replacement (WAR), even better than his Godfather, Willie Mays (156.1). In an era that was tainted by performance enhancing drugs (which were largely ignored by the powers that be at the time), Bonds was far superior to his colleagues. Hitting a baseball is near impossible, and Bonds was the best at that skill. But Bonds was more than who he was at the plate. He was a marvelous athlete, winner of eight Gold Gloves. Young Barry was a terror on the basepaths. He's the only player to belong to the 500/500 home run/stolen base club.
The case against Bonds is simple in its scandalous nature and lack of ability to process context. The guy was alleged to use steroids, he wasn't nice to the media, and he had a huge ego. I won't touch the last one because these are professional athletes, and ego is a driving force for a lot of them to achieve great things. It's not good, but it's everywhere.
The first point, I understand. It would be one thing if that were a consistent rule, though. At this point, there is almost certainly an inductee who used performance enhancing drugs. Whether that's anabolic steroids, or amphetamines, or they were spitting tobacco juice to affect the rotation of the ball. That happened, and the Hall is in the perfect spot to be able to give context to the achievements of those players. If necessary, they could put the Steroid Era guys in their own wing. It's just an improper use of the Hall to tell half the story and leave players who are otherwise deserving out based on suspicion.
Also bothersome in relation to steroids is that there's a lack of consistency that is particularly evident this year. David "Big Papi" Ortiz, the jovial giant who broke the Curse of the Bambino with his clutch hitting against the Yankees in 2004 and proceeded to win three more World Series' in Boston while clubbing 541 Home Runs, was elected on the first ballot this year. Most notably, Ortiz rose to be a leader in Boston, helping to heal the city after the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings. Ortiz was always friendly with the media in Boston and nationally. His easygoing nature, hearty laugh, and thousand watt smile are disarming, charming, and endearing. Kenan Thompson plays a friendly caricature of the heavily accented Ortiz on Saturday Night Live. Ortiz is part of the media analyzing baseball now, appearing on FOX and on a podcast with Barstool Sports. Papi is almost universally liked. I like Ortiz. I think he's one of the most lovable characters in baseball during my lifetime and was a fearsome slugger. I think he belongs in the Hall for the exact reason that you can't talk about baseball history and the curse-breaking Red Sox without discussing Ortiz's prowess for the clutch hit.
The thing is that Ortiz registered a positive PED test when MLB finally attempted to reign in the steroid issue, beginning with an effort to recognize how widespread the issue was with anonymous submissions in 2003. The failed test became public knowledge in 2009. Ortiz never tested positive once MLB implemented a formal testing scheme in 2004. Bonds was alleged to have registered positive tests in 2000 and 2003 that became public knowledge during a perjury trial. He never tested positive under MLB's formal testing scheme. Bonds ultimately had his conviction of obstruction of justice overturned in 2015.
So where is the biggest difference here? Is it that Bonds wasn't friendly with the media? It certainly can't be that Ortiz was a better player than Bonds. Ortiz's WAR counter places him in the bottom five of all inductees. In fact, Bonds nearly achieved Ortiz's entire career WAR (55.3) in just his seven seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates (50.3). Bonds has 7 MVP awards to Ortiz's zero. In fact, if you just took Bonds' achievements prior to the alleged November 2000 positive test, Bonds would be the only member of the 400/400 home run/stolen base club. Bonds had 3 MVP awards before he was ever alleged to have cheated.
We have to do better to fulfill the missions stated by the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. With that in mind, I have a handful of changes that I'd like to see.
First, I'd like to see all ballots be made public after the results are announced. In 2016, the BBWAA voted by a significant (80-9) margin to publish all ballots publicly by 2018. The Hall of Fame refused to do so. The results of private vs. public ballots may surprise you. Bonds appeared on 77% of public ballots, which means that he would have surpassed the 75% threshold required for induction. However, he only appeared on 53% of private ballots. That is a 24% difference. On the other hand, Omar Vizquel, who allegedly sexually assaulted a former batboy, benefitted from secret ballots, outperforming his public ballots by 28%.
Second, I think we should go back to a 15 year tenures for possible inductees. I believe that as younger members of the BBWAA achieve voting power, they may let their positive memories, connections, and stories about great players of the Steroid Era like Bonds or Roger Clemens guide them. We have already seen anger over the players in the Steroid Era dissipate. An additional five years may very well allow passions to be relaxed and time to provide context.
Third, I think that expanding the number of votes per year beyond the cap of ten players is a good idea. In crowded years, that could allow good players like Johan Santana to receive additional consideration.
Fourth, lower percentage thresholds may provide players deserving of additional consideration like Nomar Garciaparra with valuable time to be discussed. A one percent threshold to stay on in the first three years, and then a five percent threshold to stay on the ballot beyond year three is something that I've seen proposed and makes sense.
Finally, I believe that some players should vote. One idea is to allow players who achieve at least 10 years of service time at the Major League level the opportunity to vote on their colleagues.
If some of these proposals are adopted by the Hall, I believe we can make Cooperstown more representative of the game and more likely to achieve its stated goals.
Tarun Sharma is a current 3L at the University of Minnesota and former Baseball Operations Professional for the San Francisco Giants and Arizona Diamondbacks. He is an occasional co-host on the Conduct Detrimental podcast and handles some social media and legal research for the Conduct Detrimental Group, as well. You can find his thoughts in the weekly Sports Law Review Newsletter by Conduct Detrimental or on twitter @tksharmalaw. Sign up at conductdetrimental.com to get the week’s biggest sports law news in your inbox!