A Hall of Fame vote for Barry Bonds

Posted By on April 14, 2011 10:31 am

I’m on a run here of HOF posts, like this and this, but there’s really no escaping the topic today, as it relates to Barry Bonds. In the wake of his conviction, everyone wants to know what Hall of Fame voters are going to do with him. Since I’m one of them, here goes.

I plan to vote for Barry Bonds — although I reserve the right to change my mind. Pretty sure every time I’ve ever written on the topic, I’ve said I would vote for him. I’ve made my reasons clear, and I’ll reiterate them in a bit.

As for the immediate news hook of reviving this discussion today, the verdict on Wednesday means absolutely nothing for Bonds HOF status. Zilch. He was convicted of obstruction of justice, not perjury, not using steroids. Essentially, a jury determined that he gave evasive answers during his grand jury testimony. If giving evasive answers was a disqualifier for the HOF, it would be a pretty empty place.

So, I don’t care about this conviction, and I don’t believe that many of my fellow HOF voters do either.

All of that testimony about Bonds’ steroid use, which mostly mirrored the reporting already done in Game of Shadows, may not have been enough to convince 12 jurors to unanimously agree beyond a reasonable doubt to put Bonds in jail, but HOF voters have a different standard. We’re bound only by the highly subjective wording on the HOF ballot

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.

Nothing on there says how much weight to apply to each of those, which is where some of my voting colleagues and I part ways. Some voters believe integrity and character trump all else, and it’s their right to do so. Certainly, those people will not vote for Barry Bonds.

Bonds needs 75 percent of the votes to be inducted. Just how many will he lose based on “integrity and character”? It’s hard to say, but Tyler Kepner of the New York Times came up with an interesting calculation in his story. He compared Mark McGwire and Harmon Killebrew, two very similar players. In Killebrew’s first time on the HOF ballot, he got 60 percent of the vote. In McGwire’s first year, he got 24 percent. By Kepner’s logic, that means about 36 percent of voters used the character clause to eliminate McGwire.

I submit that is quite an underestimate.

You can’t really compare the voting pool in 1981 to 2007, because the latter was about 30 percent bigger and generally younger, with different ideas. For example, Orel Hershiser and Catfish Hunter had very similar careers, and both were considered swell guys of impeccable character. In Hunter’s first time on the ballot, in 1985, he got 54 percent of the vote. In Hershiser’s first time, in 2006, he got 11 percent of the vote. So, that 43-percent gap is … what?

A better comparison would be to take two similar players, one connected to steroids and one not, who were at least somewhat contemporaries of each other, so the voting pool would be relatively the same. Take Rafael Palmeiro and Eddie Murray (comparison). Murray’s first time on the ballot was 2003, and he was comfortably elected with 85 percent of the vote. Palmeiro’s first time was this year, and he got 11 percent.

That’s not a perfect comparison, because there was still a difference between Murray’s era, from 1977-’97, and Palmeiro’s from ’86-’05. Murray did his damage before the peak of the steroid era, and Palmeiro was right in the heart of it. Still, you get the idea.

The “steroid gap,” for lack of a better term, for Killebrew-McGwire was 36 percent, and for Palmeiro-Murray was 74 percent.

Either way, that doesn’t look very good for Barry Bonds.

But there is one big thing that helps Bonds. Let’s call it the Sliding Scale of Integrity. The better a player you are, the less integrity matters. In other words, Barry Bonds was so good, that even if you deduct points for his lack of integrity, he still meets the HOF standard. I think there will be some voters, maybe even some who didn’t vote for McGwire or Palmeiro, who use this logic to vote for Bonds.

Another way to look at it is to simply chop off Bonds career after 1998, which is what is generally believed to be his last “clean” year. At that point he had played 13 years, hit .290 with 411 homers and won three MVPs. He was a HOFer before he started using steroids, they’ll reason.

While that’s true, it won’t dissuade many of the “integrity” voters. They’ll argue that if integrity is a reason to exclude him, you have to exclude all of him. You can’t vote for the ’86-’98 Bonds and not the ’99-’07 Bonds.

So, where am I in all that?

Well, I simply choose to assign my own weights to the voting qualifications. I take integrity into account, but it’s not a deal-breaker for me. I think your performance on the field is much more important than your integrity. As we all know, a lot of guys in the HOF were real scumbags. I think being a racist, alcoholic or a womanizer is probably worse than using steroids, and none of those things should exclude you from the HOF.

I think the during most of the time that Bonds was using steroids, it was a common practice. Lots of guys did it. They did it because the was nothing stopping them. Some of them did it because they felt it was the only way to keep up with the other guys who were doing it. (This doesn’t apply so much to guys like Manny Ramirez, though.) They did it for the same reasons that players in the ’60s and ’70s used amphetamines.

Like it or not, steroids were part of the game. I’m not smart enough to separate the users from the non-users, and to determine which stats were real and which were enhanced, and enhanced by how much.

I’m not going to come in, 10 or 15 years after the fact and say: “I don’t like the way baseball was played during this era, so I’m going to ignore it.”

I’m in the minority, though.

I believe that the real number of voters who will ding Bonds because of steroids is easily more than the 25 percent who can keep him out of the Hall. Probably closer to 50 percent, conservatively.

The good news for Bonds is that he won’t even show up on a ballot till December 2012, and then he’ll get 15 years. Between now and 2027, opinions can change. Think about how the BBWAA electorate has shifted on, for example, the importance of wins for the Cy Young, just over the past 10 years.

Maybe baseball will accept some safe performance enhancers that are legal — what, we already have them? — and people will see that using science to be better at your job is just the way the world works. Or maybe someone who is currently in the HOF will admit he used steroids, forcing voters to reconsider how egregious of a character-flaw it is.

As we sit here in 2011, though, none of that seems imminent. What we have today, and what we will have when Bonds shows up on the ballot in 20 months, are a lot of voters just waiting to stick it to him. Bonds may get to the Hall of Fame, but it’s going to be a long wait.


2 Responses to “A Hall of Fame vote for Barry Bonds”

  1. Marvin says:

    What about the issue that Bonds was not really a very nice guy and not very genial with many people, especially some guys in the media. Will that play a role in giving people the steroid excuse for keeping him out?
    What about the argument that if everyone was using steroids, and we really don’t know, Bonds still had all those homeruns, etc. He enchanced, in a way not banned by baseball at the time, a great career into a really great career.

  2. Aaron says:

    Here’s my feeling on Bonds and the HOF: if you don’t elect Bonds then you can’t reasonably elect anyone for the next 20 years. I think anyone who is realistic has realized over the past 5-7 years that while we know many names that had ties to PED we don’t know all of them. That means that guys we assume are clean may not have been. Ultimately I think HOF voters have to assume everyone was dirty and then compare players form this era not to players from other eras but to each other and only each other. That might not be fair to any players who were actually clean but those players failed to speak up and speak out about this issue during their playing careers. Clean players had to know what was going on and they opted to be good teammates above all else, and should have to sleep in the bed they’ve made. Bonds was clearly the best player of his generation and was the best while competing against pitchers and other position players who were also using, so if he doesn’t get in then nobody should be allowed in.

    I’m also of the opinion that playing the media relations game, while great for the media and for fans, really doesn’t say all that much about how good of a person you really are. There are a lot of guys with “good guy” reputations that are not good people (and Jeff I’m sure you know of more than one). In a weird way I sort of respect the way Bonds was consistent in being an ass because unlike a lot of players we actually got to see who he really is.

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