Now that it seems quite possible that Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are headed into the Baseball Hall of Fame someday, the people who will be assigned to write the bios for those two plaques could be starting to sweat.
Barry Lamar Bonds ... A slugger without peer and a 14-time All-Star. ... Left fielder with Pittsburgh, where he won his first Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards. … In San Francisco, he broke two of baseball’s most hallowed records, hitting 73 homers in a season to surpass Mark McGwire and finishing his career with 762 home runs, topping Hank Aaron. ... Hat size rivals the length of his home runs. ... Late-30s devotee of flaxseed oil ... Made many public appearances, especially with the government, even years after the end of his career. ... Ugh, how many words did you say they need for these plaques? ...
It’s going to take some finesse to gussy up the fact that Bonds and Clemens would arrive on the hall’s doorstep with a baggage full of suspicion regarding drug use. It’s not often that you get a pair of players so good at baseball who were also indicted on federal charges of lying about the use of steroids and human growth hormone.
It’s an awkward situation that has spurred a conversation that won’t be over any time soon considering that the list of tainted hall hopefuls will grow. They include Alex Rodriguez — a guy who insisted he never did drugs, then admitted using drugs, then insisted he was clean, then was caught again, then sued both Major League Baseball and his own players’ union because Bud Selig, the commissioner, had initially slapped him with a lifetime drug suspension.
Do any of these players belong in the hall when the voting guidelines say to choose candidates based “upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played”? Not if voters follow those rules strictly.
Some baseball fans and voters, though, don’t want to see a morality play, either on the field or in the hall. After all, they reason, this is just sports.
Consider Rodriguez. His past didn’t keep him from being invited onto national television as a featured commentator for last season’s playoffs. So what if he spat in baseball’s face, again and again?
And in the balloting for the newest members of the hall, the results of which will be announced next week, some members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America chose to vote for Bonds and Clemens when they hadn’t in the past.
They did so, primarily, after a separate veterans committee voted Selig into the hall last month. If Selig is going to be in the hall, they reasoned, then why shouldn’t Bonds and Clemens be there, too? Selig presided over the steroids era. Bonds and Clemens participated in it. What really is the difference?
So where does all this leave the hall and its character clause? Actually, it has become as intricate as the federal cases against Bonds and Clemens were.
Bonds was convicted in 2011 of obstructing justice, although his trainer and the man accused of being his supplier, Greg Anderson, refused to testify and weakened the government’s case. Bonds’ conviction was overturned in 2015.
Clemens stood trial not once but twice for what prosecutors said was his decision to lie to Congress about his drug use. Their case had merit, although jurors seemed fed up with the government’s choice to go after a sports star instead of focusing on bigger targets. The first trial ended in a mistrial. The second ended in his acquittal.
I sat through all three Bonds and Clemens trials, listening to often graphic descriptions of the two men’s suspected drug use as if they were play-by-plays of a game. At the Bonds trial, I heard tales about his back acne, his short temper and other hints of possible drug use, some told by his former mistress, who at one point testified that Bonds had threatened to cut out her breast implants “because he paid for them.”
From my seat in the courtroom, I never became aware of even a speck of evidence that made Bonds out to be an admirable citizen. Except maybe that he was loyal to Anderson, who, in turn, felt enough loyalty to Bonds that he went to jail for him.
And then there was Clemens, who evidently couldn’t stir up that same loyalty in his own trainer, Brian McNamee, because McNamee was the prosecution’s lead witness against him.
In both cases, few observers came away with the thought that the two were good guys with integrity, the attributes that fit the hall’s suggested profile. They came away feeling grimy.
So pity the main man who will have to deal with the legacies of Bonds and Clemens as they move closer to Cooperstown. That man is Jeff Idelson, president of the hall.
For the past 10 years, he has pondered what he would do if players with ties to performance-enhancing drugs were voted into the hall.
“Have I thought about it? Of course,” he said when I talked to him last week. “Have we all thought about it? Of course.”
Idelson has also thought a lot about performance enhancers. So much so that last year he received an award from the Taylor Hooton Foundation for fighting drug use in sports. The foundation was formed by the parents of a Texas teenager who died by suicide after using anabolic steroids.
After Jose Canseco published his 2005 tell-all about baseball and steroids, a sign in the hall appeared, stating that there was mounting evidence of drug use in the sport and that the museum would address baseball’s story “honestly and impartially.” In 2007, a copy of the Mitchell report, baseball’s investigation into drug use that prominently cited Clemens, was added to Cooperstown’s library.
In 2008, Bonds’ historic home run ball that broke Aaron’s career record also ended up in the museum, an asterisk etched into it by the person who donated it. The bat that Rafael Palmeiro used to hit his 500th home run is in there, too, with an explanation that Palmeiro testified to Congress that he never used steroids, not long before testing positive for steroids.
In 2012, the same year that players like Bonds, Clemens and tainted slugger Sammy Sosa first appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot, Idelson started a campaign aimed at students that warned of the dangers of steroid use. He said the timing was purely coincidental.
In our conversation last week, Idelson wouldn’t say how he and the hall would handle the possible induction of players like Bonds and Clemens.
“I’ve made a policy of not dealing with hypotheticals,” he said. “So I don’t know how I’d handle it, until it happens.” He said he would continue to use the hall to present the facts about drug use and baseball, no matter how ugly they might be.
“Our job is to let families see the facts and start a conversation,” he said.
As for the character clause that some voters now seem to be kicking aside, Idelson said the hall’s board of directors had no plans to revisit it or change it. It’s up to the writers, he said, to decide what character means to them when they cast their vote.
So if Bonds and Clemens do reach the 75 percent of votes they need to be inducted, there will be a conversation about how to move forward. And some unlucky people will have to come up with wording for their plaques.
And if those words just happen to mention the steroid issue that continues to loom over their careers, Idelson doesn’t think Bonds and Clemens will protest all that much.
“It’s so difficult to get in and so prestigious, when players are elected, they are just so thrilled,” he said.
Thrilled because they proved, once again, that rules — for the hall and for the game — were meant to be broken? How fitting.