Column: Bonds, Clemens deserve to be in Cooperstown

Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens will probably have to wait a little longer to get their plaques in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

But that day is coming.

As it should.

Bonds and Clemens are essentially a package deal – the best hitter and pitcher of their time, both heavily tainted by the Steroids Era even though they never tested positive or admitted wrongdoing.

Some Hall of Famers , led by former Cincinnati Reds great Joe Morgan, have urged media voters (myself included) not to select Bonds, Clemens or anyone else with links to that disgraceful period in the game’s history.

That sentiment is understandable, but the issues are more complex.

Back in November, Morgan sent a letter that laid out three parameters for denying entry into the Hall: those who failed drug tests, acknowledged using steroids, or were identified in the Mitchell Report investigation into baseball’s rampant doping in the 1990s and early 2000s.

We can all agree on those first two roadblocks.

Mark McGwire came clean on using performance-enhancing drugs, so it’s only right he didn’t claim a hallowed spot in Cooperstown despite 583 career homers. Let’s hope the same fate awaits Manny Ramirez, who has Hall of Fame credentials but twice tested positive for banned substances. He’s on the ballot for the second time this year, after coming up far short (23.8 percent) of the necessary 75 percent threshold on his first try.

He will never appear on my ballot.

But Morgan’s third standard – having your name turn up in the Mitchell Report – is more problematic.

”I recognize there are players identified as users on the Mitchell Report who deny they were users,” Morgan wrote. ”That’s why this is a tricky issue. Not everything is black and white – there are shades of gray here.”

He went on to say, ”It still occurs to me that anyone who took body-altering chemicals in a deliberate effort to cheat the game we love, not to mention they cheated current and former players, and fans too, doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame. By cheating, they put up huge numbers, and they made great players who didn’t cheat look smaller by comparison, taking away from their achievements and consideration for the Hall of Fame. That’s not right.”

While I certainly see merit in Morgan’s argument, my views on Bonds and Clemens have softened since I left them off my Hall of Fame ballot when they were first eligible in 2013.

My reasoning is two-fold.

First, both players were worthy of induction before anyone questioned what they might be putting into their bodies.

Bonds was a three-time MVP and clearly the game’s best player in the pre-BALCO era, a slender outfielder who had that rare combination of power and speed. Long before his body grew to cartoonish proportions, culminating with a dubious 73 homers in 2001, he had nine straight seasons with at least 25 homers and 28 stolen bases, becoming one of only four members of the 40-40 club (42 homers, 40 stolen bases) in 1996.

Clemens’ career follows a similar arc. He had an MVP award, three Cy Young awards and four ERA titles before his 30th birthday, certainly enough to push him into the Cooperstown mix even if he didn’t have an eyebrow-raising career revival in his 30s and 40s, when he claimed four more Cy Youngs but emerged as one of the most notorious figures in the Mitchell Report.

Which brings us to the second, more important, point. I have no idea how many players from the Steroids Era were using. No one does. Surely there were other players, some of whom may already be in Cooperstown, who at least dabbled in chemical enhancement. Frankly, they would’ve been foolish not to if they wanted to keep up, given baseball’s decision to largely ignore the problem because it needed freakish power hitters to lure back fans after a devastating labor dispute in 1994.

This isn’t an endorsement of doping.

It’s a recognition of reality.

Certainly, with each passing year, Bonds and Clemens become less polarizing.

In their first year of eligibility, Clemens was named of 37.6 percent of the ballots, while Bonds was picked on 36.2 percent. Their support actually dipped the next year, but it has been rising steadily since then – always in tandem – and appears likely to take another jump when the next group of inductees is revealed Wednesday.

A year ago, Clemens was penciled in 239 ballots (54.1 percent), while Bonds appeared on 238 (53.8 percent). This year, their support from publicly revealed ballots was tracking at an identical 63.6 percent.

Given it’s only their sixth year on the ballot, leaving four more years to get in, it’s clear Bonds and Clemens will be making Cooperstown speeches at some point. Their support will continue to grow as the pool of media voters gets younger and younger, softening memories of the Steroids Era and weeding out older reporters who could never bring themselves to check off someone who might’ve doped.

When that day comes, it will be surely be hotly debated.

Some Hall of Famers will likely boycott the ceremony.

But let’s not forget: Bud Selig, the commissioner who presided over that shameful era with his head largely stuck in the sand, took his place in Cooperstown a year ago.

It’s time for Bonds and Clemens to join him.

Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paul%20newberry

For more AP baseball coverage: Hometeaminsider.com

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