Now that Mariano Rivera has succeeded in breaking the “unanimous” glass ceiling, it is worth taking one more time to address the elephant(s) in the Hall of Fame’s living room – which would be the twin steroid cheats, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, who, again, made only incremental gains in the voting and with three years left on the ballot appear to be long shots for election by the Baseball Writers Association.
Still, slightly less than 60% of the electorate are voting for them, choosing to disregard Article 5 of the voting rules, “Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contribution to the team(s) on which the player played.” Those writers who have chosen to ignore “integrity, sportsmanship and character” when it comes to Bonds and Clemens, as well as other steroid cheats, Sammy Sosa and Manny Ramirez, have offered a variety of reasons, which we’ll get to in a minute. But first I would like to bring up something that has been lost in all of this debate, which needs to be “re-remembered” (to paraphrase Clemens), and that is Hank Aaron’s lonely chase to Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record.
It’s been said that much of Bonds’ and Clemens’ support has been coming from the newer, younger writers on the Hall-of-Fame voting roles, and to that I am not surprised because they weren’t there when Aaron was closing in on Ruth’s then-record 714 homers. If they had been, they would know how brutal that quest really was. In fact, you could make the case, in breaking the record, Aaron went through more abuse, more personal anguish and more torment that summer of 1973 and the 1974 offseason than Jackie Robinson in breaking the baseball color line. Aaron was the subject of numerous death threats in addition to threats to his children, and the vile hate mail (which he still has) became so voluminous he had to hire a secretary to help him sort through it each day. “A lot of the letters threatened me and it got to the point that the FBI was reading them before I ever saw them,” Aaron wrote in his autobiography “I had a Hammer.”
Even the reporters who covered Aaron and wrote favorably about him received regular “(N-word) lover” hate mail. Making the record pursuit even more discouraging for Aaron was the lack of support from his own Atlanta fans. “All year long, Atlanta overwhelmed me with indifference,” Aaron said. “Early in the season, we averaged less than 8,000 fans at home and more than three times that much on the road, and it seemed like Atlanta frankly didn’t give a damn.”
It is not an overstatement to say that Aaron’s lifetime mark of 755 home runs was the hardest-earned record ever. So imagine how Hank Aaron felt 33 years later when a juiced-up, body-armored Bonds obliterated his record with relative ease. Imagine how he still feels today when some 60% of the voting Baseball Writers choose to ignore the integrity, sportsmanship clause and want to reward Bonds with baseball’s highest honor because he broke the all-time homer record as the so-called “best player of his time.”
Aaron will never say it because he’s got too much class for that. The closest he ever came was at the Hall of Fame inductions in 2009 when he said that perhaps the Hall should put an asterisk besides the names of any steroids cheats the writers elected. "I played the game long enough to know, and it is impossible for players - I don't care who they are - to hit 70 home runs. It just does not happen." You can be sure there is still plenty of lingering pain from what he went through for the record, only to then watch it obliterated by a cheater.
What’s interesting is the arguments writers have cited for ignoring the integrity clause and voting for Bonds, Clemens, et al. (My god, 22.8% voted for Manny Ramirez, a three-time drug offender who was twice suspended from baseball!)
It was the era. Nobody knows who all was cheating, and Bonds and Clemens were clearly the best players of the era and neither of them ever tested positive
Blaming the whole era is a cop-out. And while we’ll never know who all was cheating we DO know for sure Bonds and Clemens, even without a positive test, were. All you have to do is read “Game of Shadows” by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, and “American Icon” by Teri Thompson, Christian Red, Nathaniel Vinton and Michael O’Keeffe. Their juicing is all there in vivid, irrefutable detail.
They were Hall of Famers before they started juicing
This is another cop-out. It’s like saying "Shoeless" Joe Jackson was a Hall of Famer before he got himself involved with his teammates conspiring to fix the 1919 World Series. Cheating is cheating, no matter when someone decides to do it.
Do you think it’s any consolation to Aaron that Bonds cheated himself to the record only in the final one-third of his career?
Once the Veterans Committee put Bud Selig in the Hall of Fame – who’d presided as Commissioner over the steroids era and looked the other way when it reached full bloom in the late ‘90s - it was okay to vote for Bonds and Clemens
This is the newest excuse writers are using to justify voting for the steroids cheats. And that’s just what it is, an excuse. Selig being elected to the Hall doesn’t change anything about what Bonds and Clemens did. And, yes, if you want to bang Selig for being slow to address the budding scandal before him, fine. But doesn’t he also deserve credit for dragging the union kicking and screaming to the bargaining table and enacting the most comprehensive drug testing program in all of professional sports?
It should also not be forgotten the baseball writers were just as complicit as Selig in looking the other way on steroids. Who among us didn’t celebrate Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa? When Steve Wilstein of the Associated Press in 1998 reported having seen a bottle of androstenedione, the popular muscle builder, in McGwire’s locker, suggesting everything might not be on the level with the home run explosion baseball, he was branded a snooper and vilified by players, MLB officials and even his fellow baseball writers, who worried this reflected badly on them.
Only when Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci’s explosive interview with the late Ken Caminiti in July 2002 blew the lid off rampant steroid abuse in baseball, did baseball people start to take notice. So please, spare me the indignation over Selig going to the Hall of Fame.
When it comes to the steroids cheats and the Hall of Fame, I plead guilty to being an uncompromising hard-ass. But after witnessing and chronicling what Hank Aaron went through to become baseball’s all-time home run king, I could not look him in the face if I ever voted for Barry Bonds to have a plaque in the same room as his in Cooperstown.