For the acceptance speeches alone, Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds should be voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. The Rocket might misremember his own career. Bonds might thank himself for . . . being himself.
The sound bites will live on in infamy and sports radio bits. Alas, the debate surrounding the Hall of Fame candidacies of Bonds and Clemens, who were officially put on the ballot Wednesday — two of the 37 players presented for consideration — isn’t based on what will come out of their mouths, but what they put into their bodies.
Under federal oath, Bonds admitted to “unknowingly” using designer steroids. Clemens was mentioned in the Mitchell Report and former trainer Brian McNamee claimed he injected the one-time Red Sox ace with steroids and human growth hormone, starting in 1998. Despite mounting evidence and a federal indictment for perjury, Clemens has preserved his innocence in a court of law, if not the court of public opinion.
If Bonds and Clemens are permanently denied entrance into Cooperstown, then voters are making a “you use, you lose” stand — and a sanctimonious mistake. Plaque these guys, please.
That’s not an endorsement of cheating or cheaters. It’s the reality of the entire unsavory era of baseball in which Clemens and Bonds played, a sordid chapter of baseball history that couldn’t be cleansed if every player who played in it were baptized in bleach. No vote is going to change that.
Here is where the dividing line should be for Hall of Fame candidates tainted by the patina of PED use. If a voter presumes that the player is predominantly Hall-considerable because of chemical enhancement (see: Palmeiro, Rafael, and McGwire, Mark) then tell him if he wants in the Hall he can buy a ticket. But if the player had a track record of success before his confirmed or presumed PED use, then vote on that body of work.
In the candidacies of both Bonds and Clemens, there is a clear case to be made that they had compiled Hall of Fame careers before they ever were connected with performance-enhancers.
The book “Game of Shadows” revealed that Bonds began using steroids after the Great Home Run Farce of 1998, when both McGwire and Sammy Sosa surpassed Roger Maris’s season home run record of 61. Erasing everything that Bonds accomplished from 1999 on — his season home run record of 73, four MVPs, the 351 homers that allowed him to become an ersatz heir to Henry Aaron as all-time home run king — still leaves him with a Cooperstown claim check.
Would a player who was a three-time MVP, eight-time Gold Glove winner, and the only member of the 400-400 club (411 homers and 445 stolen bases) not merit Hall of Fame consideration? That’s Bonds, pre-1999.
The twilight of Clemens’s career lasted longer than anyone anticipated after he left the Red Sox following the 1996 season, allowing him to finish third on the all-time strikeout list (4,672) and ninth on the all-time wins register (354).
Let’s assume everything the Rocket accomplished after leaving Yawkey Way was a Lance Armstrong-esque sham, and wipe away four Cy Young Awards, 162 wins, and 2,082 strikeouts.
You’re left with a three-time Cy Young Award winner, a four-time American League ERA champion (including an MLB-best 1.93 in 1990), the 1986 American League MVP, and the only pitcher ever to strike out 20 batters in a game twice.
Bonds and Clemens bulked up their bodies, their statistics, and their historical standing. But the guys they cheated weren’t their syringe-seduced contemporaries, but legends such as Aaron, Willie Mays, and Frank Robinson, and Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver, and Bob Gibson.
There are those who will point to the morals clause that comes into play in Hall of Fame voting, one of the most insidious and ridiculous criterion in all of sports. The voting rules for the Hall of Fame say, “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.”
Sportswriters have no qualification to serve as recorders of rectitude. Judging a player’s production is one thing, judging his probity is another. This isn’t confirming a Supreme Court justice. It’s just a game.
Immoral behavior and immortal status are not mutually exclusive in pro sports. That’s an unpleasant truth for anyone who has ever covered them.
The whole integrity and character part has been fraudulent since day one, especially when you consider that one of the most heinous humans in baseball history, Detroit Tigers legend Ty Cobb, was in the first Hall of Fame class in 1936 and received 98.23 percent of the vote, which was a record until Seaver surpassed it in 1992.
Cobb, whose .366 lifetime average is the highest in baseball history, once beat up a disabled fan who was heckling him. He was a rampant racist who slapped a black elevator operator and tried to stab a black hotel security guard. He also hit a black groundskeeper, and when that man’s wife came to his defense, Cobb choked her.
Apologists will point out that Cobb’s racism was a product of the era he lived and played in. The same is true for the drug use of Bonds and the alleged drug use of Clemens. They’re products of their era, the Steroid Error.
Also, don’t tell me on-field cheaters are barred from the Hall, not when Gaylord Perry and his Vaseline-soaked career are honored.
The Hall of Fame isn’t about mores or character judgments. Bonds and Clemens didn’t throw games or bet on baseball. They juiced up to keep up with the Joneses.
Ultimately, a Hall of Famer is akin to what late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once famously said of obscene material, “I know it when I see it.”
In Bonds and Clemens, you saw it.Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.