Barry Bonds and the Hall of Fame

At least judging by all the archived material at ESPN radio for yesterday’s shows, it appears that the overturning of Barry Bonds’ conviction Wednesday received, at best, scant attention. This is, in its own way, very telling, given the endless ink spilled on Bonds’ presumed transgressions over such a long period of time. There was a time when, in the world of sports, Bonds was the very easiest person to take shots at and his felony conviction was the icing on the cake of moral sanctimony on which so much of the sports media gorged itself over the years.

So, ho hum, an 11-judge panel threw out that conviction – in a scathing 10-1 vote.  Deadspin’s Kevin Draper explains what a joke the Bonds prosecution was. (see the bottom of the post for more on this) And Dave Zirin notes the travesty that was the federal government’s having wasted $55 million on what ultimately amounted to a frivolous prosecution.

Both Draper and Zirin conclude that it’s time to put Bonds in the Hall of Fame. But I think Bob Nightengale is right – it’s unlikely to happen.

Nightengale, a long time baseball writer, occupies an interesting place in the history of the sport’s relationship with steroid/PED use. Twenty years ago, baseball was in the midst of an unprecedented offensive explosion. “Chicks” dug the long ball, homeruns were being struck at a record-shattering pace, and the sports media, overwhelmingly, gobbled it up. So much so that when a reporter, Steve Wilstein, noticed a bottle of androstenedione sitting in Mark McGwire’s locker during the historic 1998 home run chase between McGwire and Sammy Sosa, the predominant reaction from other baseball scribes was to attack…the writer for daring to mention it in print. (Andro, as a reminder, was *not,* in 1998, subject to baseball’s anti-doping policy at the time, because it was a legal, over-the-counter drug then).

Nightengale himself was one of the few writers to have written about the possible prevalence of steroid-use during that era, in a 1995 article that was one of the very first serious entries on the subject and which was – par for the course during this era – studiously ignored (and check out the last line of the story – classic).

All of which is to say that, among long-time baseball guys, Nightengale is one of the few with real credibility on this issue.

Here’s part of what he wrote yesterday, in the aftermath of Wednesday’s appellate court ruling, about Bonds and the Hall of Fame:

Bonds has never gotten more than 36.8%, far shy of the 75% needed to walk through baseball’s golden door.

As cruel as it might sound, this changes absolutely nothing.

There are no Hall of Fame voters, at least publicly, who appear to be willing to change anything in light of this news.

They still staunchly think Bonds used steroids. They look at the record-setting 73 home runs in a single season. The size of his muscular body. His head.

The Supreme Court and every court in the land can make every legal ruling they want, but they aren’t going to change the court of public opinion.

Nightengale is himself a Hall of Fame voter. He has included Bonds on his ballot every year that Bonds has been eligible and will continue to:

We’re only fooling ourselves, of course, if we think the Hall of Fame has never inducted a player who has used performance-enhancing drugs.

Now, in nine months, we’ll get to stare again at Bonds’ name on the ballot.

And, again, I’ll check it.

You see, now that Bonds has been cleared by the courts, his level of guilt is no different from anyone else in the Hall of Fame.

He never tested positive. He never admitted to PED use. There’s not a trainer, friend or even a teammate that’s testified that he used steroids.

If you want the cold-hearted truth, Bonds and Clemens are the only two players ever on the Hall of Fame ballot who spent millions of dollars in federal court to prove their innocence.

“I could not be more happy that Barry Bonds finally gets to move on with his life,” BALCO founder Victor Conte said in a statement sent to USA TODAY Sports. “Let’s hope the prosecutors choose not to waste any more resources on what has been nothing more than a frivolous trophy-hunt and a complete waste of taxpayer dollars.”

It’s time to stop making a mockery out of the Hall of Fame ballot by pretending that we really know who was clean and who cheated.

It’s time to simply vote for the greatest players on the ballot, Bonds and Clemens.

Bonds won more MVP awards than anyone else in history. Clemens won more Cy Young awards than any other pitcher in history.

They should have the same rights as every other American in this country.

Innocent until proven guilty.

They have been found innocent by the judicial system.

It’s time we gave them that same justice, too.

I won’t rehash here my own views on the subject of PED use except to say that sports discourse on the matter has been, on the whole, a morass of hypocritical, incoherent sanctimony. (Other than that, though, it’s been great!). But I concur 100% with Nightengale.

Appendix: from 2009, Zirin on the (then-ongoing) investigation:

(IRS agent Jeff) Novitzky was given the green light by President Bush and Ashcroft to go for the jugular. In 2004, accompanied by eleven agents, he marched into Comprehensive Drug Testing, the nation’s largest sports-drug testing company. Armed with a warrant to see the confidential drug tests of ten baseball players, he walked out with 4,000 supposedly sealed medical files, including every baseball player in the major leagues. As Jon Pessah wrote in ESPN magazine, “Three federal judges reviewed the raid. One asked, incredulously, if the Fourth Amendment had been repealed. Another, Susan Illston, who has presided over the BALCO trials, called Novitzky’s actions a ‘callous disregard’ for constitutional rights. All three instructed him to return the records. Instead, Novitzky kept the evidence….”)

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