It could have been the greatest Hall of Fame class since Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb were installed in the very first vote back in 1936.
It would have been if those eligible had allowed their natural ability to carry the day.
Barry Bonds never needed steroids to be great. It was already in his genes, and the numbers he put up before he suddenly grew larger than life would have been enough to make him a first-ballot choice the moment he was eligible.
Roger Clemens already had four Cy Young Awards and an MVP by the time his former personal trainer said he started injecting he pitcher with human growth hormone — an accusation Clemens vehemently denies to this day but one that will taint him forever.
Sammy Sosa might have gotten in even without the cartoonish home run totals he and Mark McGwire put up beginning in the late 1990s.
They’re all on the ballot released Wednesday by the Hall of Fame, ready to be judged for the first time by more than 600 longtime members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. They need 75 percent of the vote to be enshrined among the greats of the past.
And they’re not going to get it.
Not this year, anyway. Not with the Steroids Era still looming over Major League Baseball.
The guardians of the game stand in their way, ready to do something Bud Selig and the rest of baseball refuse to do — hold players responsible for soiling the sport. Enough writers will take a stand so that Bonds and Clemens will at least have to wait and Sosa may never get in at all.
The bottom line is that numbers define the Hall of Fame. Always have, ever since the Babe gained entry with his 714 home runs and Cobb got in at the same time with 4,191 hits.
The numbers among this generation don’t add up.
Believe, if you want, that Bonds hit 73 home runs in a year without the help of modern chemistry. Fans in San Francisco certainly did, at least until an attorney for Bonds admitted in court that the player took steroids — but did so unwittingly. They suspended disbelief at Wrigley Field, too, while home runs flew off Sosa’s bat and he dueled with McGwire to obliterate the single-season home run record held for so long by Roger Maris. And Houston fans surely tried to buy that Clemens finished with the best ERA of his career (1.87) at age 43 because he was a workout fiend. But the folks who vote for the Hall of Fame are a bit more cynical than the average Joe. They’ve been around baseball long enough to know that crazy stats are just that if they haven’t been seen in the previous 100 years. Some voters aren’t comfortable being judge and jury when baseball itself has no intention of changing anyone’s numbers or records. The facts of who might have taken what and when — or didn’t — will always be in dispute, so they’ll rely on just the numbers in making their decisions.
Others won’t, because what they saw still disturbs them greatly, no matter the denials. They’ve rejected McGwire six times now, and they’ll vote to reject Bonds, Clemens and Sosa in their first try to get in.
“Nay on all three,” said Mike Klis of The Denver Post. “I think in all three cases, their performances were artificially enhanced. Especially in the cases of Bonds and Clemens, their production went up abnormally late in their careers.”
In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a member of the BBWAA, though I don’t have a vote for this year’s class because there’s a 10-year membership minimum. If I did, I would carefully look at the numbers for all the players and the impact they had on the game. Then I would crumple up the ballot and toss it in the trash. That might not be fair to Craig Biggio, another first-timer on the ballot who was never suspected of taking steroids. But he’s in the 3,000-hit club, so his time will come. I like Mike Piazza, too, but if the numbers of others in his era can’t be believed, can his? And I don’t believe Curt Schilling is a Hall of Famer; his bloody sock shouldn’t be there, either. If this ballot is an uncomfortable one for baseball, Selig and his cohorts have no one to blame but themselves. They were silent as players became bloated caricatures of themselves. They did nothing but cheer as records that stood the test of time were erased in the space of a few seasons. They and the baseball players’ union had to be publicly shamed before even acknowledging that steroids had made the game a joke — much less finally doing something about it. If you’re debating the fairness of it all, consider that the most prolific hitter in the history of the game, Pete Rose, wasn’t even allowed on the Hall of Fame ballot because he bet on baseball. Yet McGwire has been on it even though he was an admitted steroid user, and Bonds remains the sport’s all-time home run king as well as a nominee this year.
My guess is Bonds and Clemens will one day be in the Hall of Fame. Years will pass and their numbers will become more acceptable as the steroid era recedes into the background. Let’s hope that day doesn’t come anytime soon.