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The Baseball Hall of Fame character standard

Should it apply?

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San Francisco Giants v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Former commissioner Fay Vincent recently penned a piece for the Wall Street Journal in which he advocated that the Baseball Hall of Fame should remove the character standard for potential enshrinees. He also suggested that the Eras Committees should be disbanded with the vote going entirely back to the writers.

The Hall of Fame’s job is to look backward and honor past performance. Major League Baseball tries to protect the future of the sport by defending its integrity. By trying to inject nobility into its election standards, the Hall of Fame aimed to maintain the old-fashioned view that honors should accrue to the honorable. Messrs. Bonds and Clemens may not have been saints, but they were great players. Pretending anything else matters is hypocrisy.

If you’ve read any of my work recently, you know that I hold Vincent in high esteem, both as a person and a writer. He writes with a wisdom and clarity that is often missing from today’s heated exchanges. Despite my admiration for Vincent, I found myself disagreeing with both suggestions. First, the easy one. Should the Eras Committees be disbanded? No. This year, they brought us Buck O’Neil, Jim Kaat, Tony Oliva, Gil Hodges, Minnie Minoso, and Bud Fowler. O’Neil and Minoso were long overdue for enshrinement, and it was a disgrace that neither man was inducted while alive to enjoy the honor. I watched Kaat and Oliva play and they were both outstanding. I have absolutely no problem with any of that class of inductees.

Now for the real debate, the one that every baseball fan has been discussing for several years. Most of the character standard debate centers around Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and their proven or suspected steroid use, but it also applies to players such as Rafael Palmerio, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa. The guidelines that voters are given are, “players shall be chosen on the basis of playing ability, sportsmanship, character and their contribution to the teams on which they played and to baseball in general.”

Apologists for Bonds and Clemens are quick to point out that a lot of players were using steroids in this era and that some suspected users have already been enshrined. Of that, I have no doubt. But is there more to the story than just steroids? Take Omar Vizquel. He seemed to be trending towards induction until an explosive report was released accusing him of domestic violence. His Hall of Fame support vanished overnight and the only way Vizquel will be going to Cooperstown is as a paying tourist.

Vincent makes his case that many unsavory characters are already in the Hall, such as Cap Anson, who had a reputation as a racist. What of the first commissioner of baseball, Kennesaw Mountain Landis? His efforts to keep baseball lily white stretched the duration of his time as commissioner. It was not until after his death in November of 1944, that club owners finally felt that they could safely sign black ballplayers. Should we apply today’s standard of morality to men of a different era and eject them from the Hall?

Let’s take a deeper dive on Clemens and Bonds. It goes without saying that both players were among the best to ever play at their respective positions. Pre-steroids, they were both locks for the Hall of Fame. Things started going downhill for Bonds when he reportedly became jealous of the attention that Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were receiving during their steroid-fueled home run lovefest in the summer of 1998. Remember, even though steroids were not illegal by Major League Baseball rules of the time, they were illegal to possess in open society without a doctor’s prescription.

Beginning with the 2000 season, in his age 35-season, when most players are already in steep decline, Bonds began a five-year home run tear unlike anything seen before. Or since. From the ages of 35 to 39, Bonds smashed 258 home runs, including a record 73 in 2001. By comparison, Henry Aaron only hit 203 home runs during those age years. Babe Ruth hit 192. Willie Mays? 123. Without steroids, Bonds does not hit 73 in 2001 and does not hit 762 in his career.

Bonds’ use of steroids made a mockery of the game. From 2001 to 2004 pitchers intentionally walked him an astounding 284 times. They knew what was going on. Without the intentional walks, Bonds might have hit 100 home runs in 2001. Would that be enough to convince you? How delusional was Bonds about his newfound source of power? When asked to explain why he was slugging so many home runs, he answered, “Call God. Ask him. It’s like, wow. I can’t understand it either. I try to figure it out and I can’t figure it out.”

Drugs have been around sports for longer than I’ve been alive. There will always be debate about how certain drugs affect performance. When I was a young man, I’m somewhat ashamed to say that I too, dabbled in illicit substances. If you know me today, you might have a hard time believing that, as I’m pretty much a straight arrow boy scout now. But back then? Not so much.

I bring this up because a lot of fans are saying that players in the 1950s and ‘60s took greenies and that those were performance-enhancing. Greenies are speed. I’ve taken speed before, and I can say without a doubt that speed would not help a player hit home runs. In the dog days of August, when you’re playing 25 games in 30 days, and you’re dead tired, greenies would give you enough of a boost to get you on the field, but as far as extra power? No, it’s not there.

When I was in my 30s to late 40s, I would lift weights 3-4 times a week, every week. Over the course of ten years, I put on about 20 pounds of muscle. When I heard Barry Bonds put on 25 pounds of muscle in ONE off-season, I was skeptical. One year I decided to ramp up my workouts by taking creatine, which is a natural supplement, but not nearly as powerful as steroids. I was amazed at the results. Not only did I add muscle quicker, I could tell that my fast-twitch muscle also made a significant jump. When we started playing softball that summer, balls I hit that normally would have died in the outfield were now flying out of the park. They weren’t just flying out; they were flying out like they had a rocket strapped to their ass. I was amazed. My teammates were amazed. The reality was, it wasn’t me, it was the creatine. I eventually stopped taking it, and when I did, my softball life went back to normal, and those balls once again started dying in the outfield. And there’s the rub. In his prime, Bonds was a solid 35-45 home runs per year guy. You could take that to the bank. Once he ramped up with steroids, those 30-35 balls that would have died on the warning track every summer were now flying out of the park. Voila! 73 home runs!

But the Bonds story isn’t just about steroids. During his playing days, he was well known as one of the most standoffish and churlish players in the locker room, both to teammates and to the press. And there’s more. A December 1995 story by Ken Hoover that ran in San Francisco Gate, recounts Barry’s ex-wife Sue testifying how she was brutally beaten by Bonds during their six-year marriage.

One of Bonds’ former mistresses said that Barry told her, “I’ll tear out your breast implants because I paid for them.” She also said that Bonds had threatened to kill her. Heavy stuff. An April 2011 article by Howard Breuer of People, told the story of how Bonds was convicted of obstruction of justice for lying to a grand jury about using steroids and human growth hormone. His personal trainer, Greg Anderson, had been recorded as saying he injected Bonds with steroids.

The Clemens story takes a similar arc. Between 1986 and 1992, Clemens had been arguably the best pitcher in the American League, and maybe the best in baseball, going 136-63 with a 2.66 ERA while winning three Cy Young Awards and one MVP award. Then like most players, father time started to take a toll. From 1993 to 1996, in his age 30-to-33 seasons, right when most mortals start to decline, the Rocket did as well. During those years he posted a 40-39 record with a 3.77 ERA. The Red Sox thought he was washed up. For all intents and purposes, he appeared to be. They let him walk in free agency and he signed with Toronto for the 1997 season.

At the age of 34, something magical happened. From 1997 to 2005, during his age 34 to 42 seasons, the Rocket found the fountain of youth and posted a record of 149-61 with a 3.22 ERA. He also won four more Cy Young Awards in that span. But like Bonds, there is more to the story.

A December 2020 story by Luke Norris that ran in Sportscasting, detailed Clemens’s “relationship” with country singer Mindy McCready. The New York Daily News reported that the duo had a ten-year relationship that began when McCready was just 15 and Clemens was 28, a married father of two. Both parties were insistent that the relationship didn’t turn physical until McCready turned 18. You can make your own judgments on that. Of the relationship, McCready said, “We never had a meeting in secret. We went on vacations together. We went to Palm Springs. We went to Vegas and New York City. I wanted him to do right by me and when he wouldn’t, I broke it off.”

McCready was a talented but troubled soul who later committed suicide in 2013. Upon learning of her death, Clemens said, “Yes, that is sad news. I had heard over time that she was trying to get peace and direction in her life. The few times that I had met her and her management/agent, they were extremely nice.” The few times? Come on, Rocket.

I believe the closest comp in sports for Bonds and Clemens would be that of Lance Armstrong. Everyone knows Armstrong’s story. The triumph over cancer. The Livestrong Foundation. And yes, the seven Tour de France wins, which on the surface made Armstrong look like the greatest cyclist of all time. But he wasn’t. It was the steroids. Once the cheating was discovered, and understand at that time, most cyclists were probably doping, he was rightfully stripped of the titles.

So, should the Hall of Fame get rid of the character clause? For me, that’s a hard no. Both players, and many others, not only cheated, but they were also bad people. Their cheating allowed them to inflate their production numbers. Right or wrong, I’ll continue to recognize Henry Aaron as the all-time home run leader. Bonds gets a big asterisk in my book. Maybe someday the steroid cheats will get voted in by their peers. If that happens, so be it. How will the Hall handle the players from the 2017 Houston Astros? That will be an interesting litmus test.

The character clause serves an important purpose for the Hall. Being elected to the Hall of Fame is the pinnacle of major league baseball. Baseball people take their Hall of Fame quite seriously, maybe too much. But that’s okay. I’ve been to the Pro Football Hall of Fame (on induction weekend no less) and found it to be rather boring, to be honest. Yes, there were some worthwhile exhibits, but nothing that made me think that I have to make a return visit someday. The Baseball Hall of Fame is different, and it should be kept that way. There’s nothing wrong with having a high standard.