It has come to this: In a little more than a year, we’ll know whether arguably the greatest baseball player of all time will never make the Hall of Fame.
This reckoning came quickly, did it not?
When Barry Bonds retired in 2007 as Major League Baseball’s all-time home run king, two decades worth of impassioned debate over his fitness for induction looked like a lifetime.
Yet, after the Hall of Fame reduced the years of ballot eligibility from 15 to 10 years, the years certainly flew by, did they not?
And so we are left with two more elections – this year and next – to determine if Bonds’ significant connections to performance-enhancing drug use will prevent his induction in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Bonds’ penultimate year on the ballot may shed significant light on whether a 2022 miracle is in the offing.
You know it well by now: Bonds is the only seven-time MVP winner, the game’s single-season (73) and all-time (762) home run leader. A disciplined and punishing hitter all at once, he’s also the all-time leader in intentional walks.
His power, speed and hitting combo is unprecedented in baseball history: 762 homers, 514 stolen bases, 2,935 hits, including a pair of batting titles.
Bonds’ .444 on-base percentage ranks sixth all-time, and while his gaudiest OBP campaigns came in the years he was connected to PEDs, it can also be noted that the top 15 players in career OBP played much or all of their careers before baseball was integrated.
He is the all-time leader in Wins Above Replacement, his 162.8 WAR topping Babe Ruth’s 162.1. Beyond the numbers, Bonds fits snugly into any discussion of the greatest player of all time, along with Ruth, his godfather Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ty Cobb and, perhaps someday, Mike Trout.
Bonds finished his career with 762 home runs. (Photo: Jack Gruber, USA TODAY)
Spoiler alert: It’s not his adequate, at best, throwing arm.
No player’s connections to PED use are more exhaustively probed than Bonds’. His road into and through the world of doping were the focus of a 332-page, meticulously reported book, Game of Shadows, which was released in 2006, just two months before Bonds passed Ruth for No. 2 on the all-time home run list.
Those details are largely a curse but in some ways a blessing, in that they establish a relatively clear and confirmable line of demarcation – 1999 – when Bonds transformed from all-around excellent player to enhanced and unstoppable slugger.
With that in mind, it’s easy to isolate Bonds’ exploits up to that point – from his 1986 debut through the 1998 season – and intuit that he’d certainly become a Hall of Famer without a chemist’s aid.
Litigating the game’s so-called “steroid era” via Hall of Fame balloting is a near-impossible task, but some voters – this one included – are inclined to support Bonds given that he was induction-worthy before PED use. And three of his greatest BALCO-era seasons – 2000, ’01 and ’02 – came before baseball had anything resembling a coherent drug-testing policy.
Yet his transformed physique and cartoonish production – Bonds truly did show the world what the game’s greatest hitter might look like if he joined the hundreds of ballplayers who doped – contributed to a warping of the game. It is a sin many voters cannot get beyond.
Bonds’ coalition in the electorate is an interesting bunch – some who don’t care at all about PED use, others who do but also feel random and haphazard punishment is unfair. His lone discernible bump in support came in 2017, when balloting was completed in the weeks after commissioner Bud Selig was named by a committee to the Hall of Fame.
The hypocrisy apparent in coronating the commissioner who presided over the steroid era while ignoring its greatest player spurred many voters to reconsider Bonds: His support leaped from 44.3% in 2016 to 53.8% in 2017.
Yet the gains have been nominal since, peaking at 60.7% in 2020 – barely a bump from the 59.1% a year earlier.
Bonds can gain momentum on the edges as newer, less PED-hawkish voters are added to the rolls while older, more conservative voters cycle out. Whether that’s enough to make a leap to 75% this year or next is certainly questionable.
After eight years debating the so-called morality of Bonds’ candidacy, voters now must confront a more difficult question: Is the Hall of Fame, a shrine to the greatest and most impactful players, diminished without Bonds’ inclusion?
It feels almost certain that Bonds will get a 10th-year bump from voters who ponder that question. That makes this upcoming vote all the more crucial to find out how long the road to 75% will be in 2022 – his last chance.
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