Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Baseball Hall of Fame's Quiet War Against Barry Bonds

While the NFL was commanding the majority of controversial headlines with the Ray Rice suspension story, and while we baseball fans were all celebrating the greatness of several worthwhile inductees into the Hall of Fame, the Baseball Hall of Fame quietly released news that will have a thunderous impact on the future of the Hall.

Recently eligible and future players will now have 10 years of eligibility on the ballot, instead of the previous 15 years.

In a vacuum, I would support this change. ESPN posted a list of players elected in their 11th through 15th years of eligibility, and while they're all fine players, none is a guy who the Hall can't do without: Ralph Kiner, Bob Lemon, Duke Snider, Bruce Sutter, Jim Rice, and Bert Blyleven. In general, I would expect a true Hall of Fame player to be elected in their first couple of years of eligiblity.

So what's the problem? Well, true Hall of Fame players aren't being elected in their first couple of years of eligibility. Barry Bonds is literally the best player ever; alright, maybe not, but the list of guys who were better than him is shorter than ten. And he's unarguably one of the great players of his generation. Those guys get in.

But he's not the only one. Roger Clemens's career and season-by-season numbers are insane. He ranks third all time in strikeouts, ninth all time in wins, and first all time in career Cy Young awards (he won it seven different times). His all-time Wins Above Replacement is 140.3, good enough for eighth in the history of baseball. The number of pitchers he's behind is exactly two: Walter Johnson, and the guy whose award he kept winning, Cy Young.

I think personally that Mark McGwire belongs in the Hall of Fame too, but I'm not going to be able to explain why in a blurb here. Maybe that'll be an article down the line.

In 2014, Clemens and Bonds respectively received 35.4% and 34.7% of the vote, both small declines from the previous year.

The important point here is that these are legends of the game that now have five fewer years to have their infractions forgotten, their opponents' stances softened. Neither player was ever suspended for PEDs during their playing careers, most of which spanned the period during which baseball couldn't give a flying f- whether or not its players were juicing. But in the court of public opinion, they're currently serving a sentence of as-yet-undetermined length. Those five additional years would extend the window of time during which players like Bonds and Clemens could engage fans, speak with the media, and redevelop (or in Bonds' case develop for the first time) goodwill with the public at large. On a shortened timeline, it's unclear whether they'll get that chance.

Of course, when specifically asked, the Hall of Fame said that PEDs had no impact on the decision to shorten the gap. Their timing is conspicuous in its proximity to the beginning of "steroid era" players becoming eligible. But even if the decision isn't related, its impact is profound. I was always of a mind that, eventually, baseball writers would get over their faux outrage and acknowledge the greatness that we saw. But pride is a real thing, and that process takes time.

For Bonds and Clemens, the clock is ticking.

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