Not enough juice to keep Bonds out
The writer's perspective on Barry Bonds? That's easy.
Bonds is (1) Generally impossible to truly like from either close up or a distance, especially when he (2) Uses an occasional well-timed TV appearance in a blatant attempt to wipe out weeks or months of surly behavior toward the media (and, by extension, the public), which is not to overlook his career-long tendency to (3) Alienate many or most of his teammates by (4) Making it abundantly clear that they need him and not the other way around, all of which makes it easy or even terribly tempting to believe that he (5) Achieved either some or a substantial portion of his greatness through chemical, BALCOian means.
Oh, and (6) He's a mortal lock for the Hall of Fame.
Conflicted enough? You bet -- and we're just warming up.
There is no acreage in the baseball universe in which the book on Bonds is either a clean or an orderly one. It just doesn't work that way. There is simply too much Bonds, taken from too many angles, for there to be anything approaching a nice little story around which someone could tie a ribbon and wrap a bow.
Great Player Has Great Career: It makes for a neat headline. And in other news, it is a pure fiction.
Still, if you're wondering about Bonds' chances of entering Cooperstown, waste ye not another moment. He goes in. He may be withheld from a first-ballot induction by voters who wish to punish him for his misdeeds, if in fact there ever comes a clear preponderance of evidence that he used steroids in an attempt to beat the system and enhance his greatness. But he goes in.
He may, for that matter, be regarded as one of the more unpopular great players in the modern history of the game. And 50 or 75 years from now, what will that mean? It will mean he was one of the great players in the modern history of the game, is what. The rest is almost purely of the moment.
The Cincinnati Enquirer recently polled more than two dozen people who have a vote for the Hall of Fame, and with only a couple of exceptions their responses were remarkably similar to what I've described above. They may dislike Bonds personally or professionally, they may get a serious case of the queasies when wondering just how much flaxseed oil and arthritis balm Bonds has ingested over the years, but when push comes to shove, they consider him both a Hall of Fame player and a person whose records need not be accompanied by an asterisk.
As Bruce Jenkins, the erudite longtime baseball observer for the San Francisco Chronicle, explained it, "I despise Bonds, as a person, more than anyone I've covered in baseball since I started covering the major leagues in 1972. That hasn't swayed my opinion of him as a ballplayer."
Cooperstown harbors a terribly mixed lot of great performers. Some were genuinely fine human beings; some were drunks and incorrigible racists; some existed on neither fringe but rather as run-of-the-mill people, good in some areas and lousy in others. The connective tissue is excellence on the field.
Bonds poses such a special situation mostly because of the age. It is an age of questioning in baseball, questioning what is real and what is unworthy -- even questioning how much the public really wants to know about those questions.
The steroids issue is almost perfectly illustrative: Baseball's own policies toward the use of the substances have been widely dismissed as pointlessly ineffective; the cloak-and-dagger nature of the proceedings makes it impossible to know with certainty who took what and when. (There is even, in some circles, disagreement on how much difference the drugs make, though that sounds an awful lot like willful naivete on the part of those who would back players like Bonds no matter what.)
We're not even completely sure where the line is drawn between fair and foul, or why. Steroids would seem an obvious place to start, since they're illegal in the U.S. without a prescription, but what about other performance-enhancers in baseball? What about the different types of amphetamines, greenies and beanies and the like, that players have used regularly for decades to get "up" for games?
When Mark McGwire openly acknowledged using the steroid-like substance androstenedione during his takedown of the single-season home-run record held by Roger Maris, McGwire did so fully with the knowledge that andro wasn't banned by baseball -- should have been banned, but wasn't. McGwire wasn't worried about the medical implications or the fact that the substance had been disallowed by just about every other major sports sanctioning body in the world. He was worried about one thing: Getting the most out of his body for as long as it took.
There can be no asterisk on Bonds' home-run records, the Hall voters say, because if you attach an asterisk to one record (and on what basis, precisely?), then what about the others? Are Babe Ruth's homer totals to be accompanied by a note that explains he was working in a Negros-not-welcome league? Pittsburgh's Dock Ellis claimed he once pitched a no-hitter while tripping on acid. How does one denote that in the record books, exactly?
Nope, whether anyone likes it or not, the most likely result here is that Barry Bonds goes into the Hall of Fame based upon his lifetime of staggering accomplishment in the game, and that's true whether or not the voters believe that, say, Bonds' 73-homer season was partly the product of chemistry. His attitude toward teammates, his distance from the world, his statistically suspect surge in performance past age 35 -- all side notes in the larger discussion of a body of work.
The voters may not like it. In fact, based upon several of the responses available to be read, they don't like it much at all. But they recognize the reality for what it is. In the end, the numbers stand. And so will Bonds.
Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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