- The most controversial figure on the Hall of Fame ballot, the sheer staggering numbers of Barry Bonds's career make him Cooperstown worthy, even if his PED sins significantly complicate his case.
The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2017 Hall of Fame ballot. Originally written for the 2013 election, it has been updated to reflect recent voting results as well as additional research. For a detailed introduction to this year's ballot, please see here. For an introduction to JAWS, see here.
If Roger Clemens has a reasonable claim as the greatest pitcher of all time, then the same goes for Barry Bonds as a position player. Babe Ruth played in a time before integration, and Ted Williams bridged the pre- and post-integration eras, but while both were dominant at the plate, neither was much to write home about on the base paths or in the field. Bonds's godfather, Willie Mays, was a big plus in both of those areas, but he didn't dominate opposing pitchers to the same extent. Bonds used his blend of speed, power and surgical precision with regard to the strike zone to outdo them all. He set the single-season home run record with 73 in 2001 and the all-time home run record with 762, reached base more often than any player this side of Pete Rose and won a record seven MVP awards along the way.
Despite his claim to greatness, Bonds may have inspired more fear and loathing than any ballplayer in modern history. Fear because opposing pitchers and managers simply refused to engage him at his peak, intentionally walking him a record 688 times—once with the bases loaded—and giving him a free pass a total of 2,558 times, also a record. Loathing because even as a young player, he rubbed teammates and media the wrong way and approached the game with a chip on his shoulder because of the way his father, three-time All-Star Bobby Bonds, had been driven from the game due to alcoholism.
As he aged, media and fans turned against Bonds once evidence—most of it illegally leaked to the media by anonymous sources—mounted that he had used performance-enhancing drugs during the latter part of his career. With his name in the headlines more regarding his legal situation than his on-field exploits, his pursuit and eclipse of Hank Aaron's 33-year-old home run record turned into a joyless drag, and he disappeared from the majors soon after breaking the record in 2007 despite ranking among the game's most dangerous hitters even at age 43. Only in 2014 did he even debut as a spring training guest instructor for the Giants. The reversal of his felony obstruction of justice conviction in April 2015 freed him of legal hassles, and he spent the 2016 season as the Marlins’ hitting coach, though he was dismissed at season’s end.
Bonds is hardly alone among Hall of Fame candidates with links to PEDs. As with Clemens, the support he has received during his first four election cycles (36.2% in 2013, with two similar years and then a jump to 44.3% in '16) has been far short of election but significantly stronger than the showings of Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro, either in their ballot debuts or since. The Hall’s unilateral rule change to truncate candidate eligibility from 15 years to 10 years can be seen as an attempt to sweep the debate over such controversial candidates under the rug, but like Clemens, Bonds benefited at least somewhat from the purging of the voter rolls last year.
Bonds also stands to gain even more ground thanks to the cognitive dissonance induced by the recent election of Bud Selig. The former commissioner’s roles in collusion and presiding over the proliferation of PEDs within the game dwarf the impact of individual PED users, and his anointment so calls into question the “character clause” that several prominent voters have declared that they will change their stance with respect to Clemens and Bonds. That won’t get the gruesome twosome to 75% this year, but matching last year’s gains would push both above 50%, suggesting that eventual election is inevitable.
|Avg. HOF LF||65.1||41.5||53.3|
Like his father, Bonds was born in Riverside, Calif., though he grew up further north, in San Carlos. Not surprisingly, he excelled in baseball once he reached high school. The Giants chose him in the second round of the 1982 draft, the same year that his father's professional career ended with a brief stint for the Yankees' Triple A team. The younger Bonds chose not to sign with the Giants and instead headed for Arizona State, where he earned All-America honors. He was drafted again after his junior year, this time by the Pirates as the sixth pick behind B.J. Surhoff (Brewers), Will Clark (Giants), Bobby Witt (Rangers), Barry Larkin (Reds) and Kurt Brown (White Sox).
Bonds tore up the Class A Carolina League that year and then spent two months doing the same in the Triple A Pacific Coast League in 1986 before being called up to make his major league debut on May 30, 1986; he went 0 for 5 with three strikeouts and a walk against the Dodgers. However, in August of that year he appeared in the 17th inning of a suspended game that had begun on April 20, driving in the winning run in what technically stands as his backdated "debut."
As a 21-year-old, Bonds hit just .223/.330/.416 for the Pirates in 1986 and struck out 102 times—the only season he would reach triple digits in that category. Batting leadoff most of the time, he did homer 16 times, steal 36 bases in 43 attempts, walk 65 times in 484 plate appearances and play above-average defense in centerfield en route a respectable 3.5 WAR. Shifting to leftfield to accommodate the arrival of Andy Van Slyke in 1987, Bonds improved to 25 homers, 32 steals, 5.8 WAR and a .261/.329/.492 line. His plate discipline, and the respect accorded him by NL pitchers, advanced significantly over the next two years; he drew 14 intentional walks among his 72 overall in 1988 and 22 out of 93 in '89, though he slumped to 19 homers and a .248 batting average in the latter year.
That winter, the Pirates and Dodgers discussed a trade that would have sent third baseman Jeff Hamilton and reliever John Wetteland to Pittsburgh for Bonds. He stayed in Pittsburgh, however, and broke out in 1990, earning All-Star and Gold Glove honors and hitting .301/.406/.565 with 33 homers (fourth in the league) and 52 steals (third). The 30–30 feat placed him in select company as one of 13 players to reach that dual milestone; his father had done so five times, joining Mays as one of two other players to that point who had done so twice. Bonds's slugging percentage and his 9.7 WAR both led the league—the first of four straight years that he led in the latter category—and he won his first MVP award in a nearly-unanimous vote where one stray first-place ballot went to teammate Bobby Bonilla. The two killer BBs helped the Pirates go 95–67, winning the National League East for the first time since 1979, though they lost a six-game NLCS to the Reds.
Bonds helped Pittsburgh repeat as NL East champions in each of the next two seasons as well, though the team fell to the Braves in a seven-game NLCS both times. He led the NL with a .410 on-base percentage in 1991 and led in both on-base and slugging percentages in '92, hitting .311/.456/.624. For the first time, he also led the league in walks, with 127 (32 intentional). It's tempting to attribute those latter totals to the departure of Bonilla for the Mets via free agency after the 1991 season, but the reality is that manager Jim Leyland batted Bonilla fourth and Bonds fifth (!) for most of the former's final two years in Pittsburgh (Van Slyke hit third). After horrendous performances in his first two NLCS appearances, Bonds hit .261/.433/.435 with a homer and six walks in the 1992 series, but it wasn't enough. He did take home his second NL MVP trophy, avenging his loss to the Braves' Terry Pendleton the year before.
That was the end of Bonds's time in Pittsburgh. Now 28 years old, he signed a six-year, $43.75 million contract with the Giants, setting records for the largest deal ever (surpassing Cal Ripken's $32.5 million) and the highest average annual value (beating Ryne Sandberg's $7.22 million). Mays offered to un-retire No. 24 for him to wear, but Bonds instead opted for the No. 25 that his father wore as a Giant from 1968 through '74. He lived up to his new contract with another MVP-winning season in 1993, hitting .336/.458/.677; he led the league in the latter two categories, as well as homers (46), RBIs (123) and intentional walks (43). San Francisco won 103 games but lost out to the 104-win Braves for the NL West flag thanks to a pair of homers by Dodgers rookie Mike Piazza on the final day of the season.
Helped along by more league-leading walk totals, Bonds posted on-base percentages of .426 or better and slugging percentages of .577 or better in each of the next four years, averaging 38 homers per season in spite of the 1994–95 players' strike; he led the league in WAR in both '95 and '96. Only in 1997—the year second baseman Jeff Kent joined the team—did the Giants reach the playoffs, and they were swept by the Marlins in three games.
Bonds hit a fairly typical .303/.438/.609 with 37 homers, 28 steals and 130 walks in 1998, but his performance was lost amid the McGwire-Sosa home run chase. The story that later emerged from reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams in their book Game of Shadows is that the attention accorded to those two sluggers motivated Bonds to take performance-enhancing drugs to keep up; after that season, he began training with Greg Anderson, a weightlifter and steroid dealer. Amid his intense training regimen, he tore a triceps tendon in his right elbow, costing him seven weeks of the 1999 season, but he still hit 34 homers (three fewer than the year before) in 102 games. He set a career-high with 49 homers in 2000—second in the league, one short of Sosa's total—and hit .306/.440/.688, good for 7.7 WAR (third in the league). Playing their first year in Pac Bell Park, the Giants won the NL West but fell to the Mets in the Division Series. Bonds also lost out on the MVP award to Kent, who hit .334/.424/.596 with 34 homers and 7.2 WAR but drove in 125 runs, 19 more than his teammate.
With precise strike zone judgment, a swing that was more compact than ever and the ability to dig in at the plate (enhanced by a bulky elbow guard), Bonds put up video game numbers in 2001: a .328/.515/.863 line with 73 homers and 177 walks, with those last three numbers all setting records. His sixth home run of the year, off the Dodgers' Terry Adams on April 17, made him the 17th player to reach 500 homers, and it came in a flurry of six consecutive games with a home run. Bonds matched that streak in May, this time hitting nine homers over a six-game stretch. At one point, he hit 38 home runs during a 61-game stretch, a 101-homer pace if projected to 162 games. His 71st blast, off the Dodgers' Chan Ho Park on Oct. 5, 2001, broke McGwire's three-year-old record, but it—and his 72nd homer, also off Park—came in the same game in which San Francisco was eliminated from postseason contention. Still, he became the first four-time MVP in baseball history and kicked off another stretch of four straight years in which he led the league in WAR, finishing the season with 11.9.
Bonds never again reached 50 homers in a season, as managers grew increasingly wary of pitching to him. From 2002 to '04, he batted a combined .358/.575/.786, averaging 45 homers and 193 walks per year, 83 of them intentional; in 2004, he drew an astounding 232 walks, 120 of them intentional, en route to a .609 on-base percentage, all records. He took home MVP honors in each of those years, running his total to seven.
On Aug. 9, 2002, Bonds hit his 600th homer off the Pirates' Kip Wells, joining Ruth, Mays and Aaron on that select plateau. He reached the World Series for the first time that year and hit .471/.700/1.294 with four homers and 13 walks in a losing cause against the Angels. He passed Mays with his 661st homer off Milwaukee's Ben Ford on April 13, 2004, and he hit No. 700 off San Diego's Jake Peavy on Sept. 17. Even at 40, it was apparent that Bonds still had enough ability to surpass Aaron's mark of 755 home runs.
By that point, he also had plenty of heat on him. In September 2003, Bonds's name surfaced as one of six major league players and 21 other athletes connected to the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, which was at the center of a doping scandal involving previously undetectable steroids. In December 2003, Bonds testified in front of a grand jury that he had received "the Clear" and "the Cream"—two such steroids—from Anderson during the 2003 season but said that he had been told that they were flaxseed oil and a rubbing balm for arthritis. When confronted with documents—including lab test results, schedules of use and billing information—allegedly detailing his steroid regimen from 2001 through '03, he claimed to have no knowledge that any substance he had ingested was illegal. All of this information was supposed to remain under court seal, but it was leaked to the media illegally.
An entire cottage industry devoted to covering the BALCO scandal sprang up, and the case dragged on for years. Meanwhile, Major League Baseball began cracking down on performance-enhancing drug use by instituting testing and suspensions. Bonds's involvement in BALCO led the House of Representatives' Government Reform Committee to omit him from its list of players and executives they called to testify in March 2005; committee leaders feared his presence would overshadow the proceedings.
Bonds had other problems by then. After undergoing a minor cleanup on his left knee in October 2004, he had surgery on his right knee in January 2005, then suffered new tears in the menisci in that same knee, requiring yet another surgery on March 17, the same day as the hearings. He needed a third surgery in May to clean out an infection and didn't return to the Giants until Sept. 12; he homered five times in 14 games, running his career total to 708. With routine days off incorporated into his schedule, he hit .270/.454/.545 with 26 homers and a league-leading 115 walks in 130 games in 2006. During spring training, a lengthy excerpt from Game of Shadows was published in Sports Illustrated, detailing Bonds's steroid usage and relationship with BALCO and dampening enthusiasm for the barrage of milestones that would follow. In that same issue, SI's Tom Verducci wrote:
Delivered with the blunt force of a sledgehammer, Game of Shadows is to Barry Bonds what the Dowd Report was to Pete Rose in 1989—it destroys the reputation of one of baseball's most accomplished players. Whether Bonds never hits another home run or hits 48 more, which would give him the most of all time, he never can be regarded with honor or full legitimacy. Shadows painstakingly catalogs him as a serial drug cheat, and thus the eye-popping stats that he has accrued stand all too literally as too good to be true.
Bonds soldiered on nonetheless. His May 28 homer off Colorado's Byung-hyun Kim, the 715th of his career, pushed him past Ruth, and he finished the year with 734 homers, setting him up for his final push toward Aaron's total the following year. No. 755 came against the Padres' Clay Hensley in San Diego on Aug. 4, 2007, snapping a six-game homerless drought full of live TV cut-ins to virtually every one of his plate appearances and landing him on the cover of SI. No. 756 finally came in San Francisco against Washington's Mike Bacsik on Aug. 7.
Bonds's 28 homers brought his career total to 762, and while he had hit .276/.480/.565 (leading the league again in on-base percentage), the Giants decided that the 43-year-old free agent was too expensive and too much trouble to keep. Despite his desire to continue playing, the rest of the industry shunned him—perhaps colluding to do so, though in 2015 Bonds finally lost a suit against MLB that alleged that—at least in part because a federal grand jury indictment on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice in November 2007; Bonds pleaded not guilty in December. Flaws in the drafting of the indictment led to three more rounds of indictments and not-guilty pleas, the last of them in March 2011. His trial began on March 21 of that year, and he was found guilty on one count of obstruction of justice for giving an evasive answer when asked if Anderson had given him anything that required him to inject himself. The judge declared a mistrial on three remaining counts of making false statements to the grand jury.
The legal mess lingered. Bonds's conviction was upheld by a federal appeals court in September 2013; he began serving his 30 days of house arrest and two years of probation even while continuing to appeal. In September 2014, an 11-judge panel of the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals expressed skepticism regarding the prosecution’s case. “I don't see how there's sufficient evidence (of obstruction) when the same question was re-asked immediately and answered repeatedly," said Judge Susan Graber, who was on the panel.
The 9th Circuit finally overturned the conviction in April 2015 via a 10–1 vote. It's estimated that the government spent at least $50 million of taxpayer money to investigate BALCO via a prosecution whose misconduct with regard to due process and the right to privacy was far more odious than any of Bonds's sins.
That morass aside, Bonds's numbers make a case for him as the greatest position player of all time. He holds the records for homers and walks and ranks second in times on base (5,599) and extra-base hits (1,440), third in runs scored (2,227), fourth in RBIs (1,996) and total bases (5,976) and a still-impressive 33rd in steals (514). In addition to his seven MVP awards, he made 14 All-Star teams. Among batters with at least 7,000 plate appearances, his .444 on-base percentage ranks fifth all-time behind Williams, Ruth and Lou Gehrig, and his .607 slugging percentage fifth behind Ruth, Williams, Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx. His 182 OPS+ ranks third behind Ruth (206) and Williams (190).
Thanks to his abilities on the base paths and in the field, Bonds's 162.4 WAR is not only tops among leftfielders but also higher than any player besides Ruth (163.0 as a hitter and another 20.6 as a pitcher), Cy Young (168.4) and Walter Johnson (165.6). Bonds's career WAR outdistances that of Williams, the second-ranked leftfielder, by a whopping 39.3 wins, and his 72.7 peak WAR outdoes the Splendid Splinter by 3.5 wins.
The extent to which Bonds's numbers owe something to PED use is unknowable, but whether he'll get into the Hall of Fame has more to do with how the voters view his relationship to the drugs. In the eyes of many voters, Bonds and every other PED user is a cheater, beyond redemption in the context of recognizing the game's greats. As I outlined when I undertook this series in 2012 and at greater length in the book Extra Innings, I disagree with that mindset. Instead, I believe that voters should distinguish between PED use that came during baseball's "Wild West" era—when it took a complete institutional failure on the part of the players' union, team owners, the commissioner, the media and fans to prevent a coherent drug policy from being implemented—and use that came after testing began and penalties were imposed. From what we know, Bonds's usage occurred in the context of many other dopers—pitchers as well as hitters. He is a none-too-flattering reflection of the era in which he played. Even so, he's no Lance Armstrong or Ryan Braun, men who intimidated or smeared those who gave evidence against them.
If you want to play the "He was a Hall of Famer before he touched the stuff" game as I did with Clemens, considering only what Bonds did through 1998: His 411 homers, 1,917 hits, 445 steals and .290/.411/.556 line were good for 99.6 career WAR (which would rank third among leftfielders), 62.4 peak WAR (second) and 81.0 JAWS (third behind Williams and Rickey Henderson). Bottom line: Warts and all, he gets the nod here.
Bonds didn't come close to election on his first ballot in 2013, as eight other candidates—including first-timers Clemens, Piazza, Craig Biggio and Curt Schilling—received a higher share of the vote than his 36.2%. Nine candidates topped both his 34.2% in 2014 and his 36.8% in '15. Like Clemens, he jumped in 2016, coming in at 44.3% (for some reason, he got four fewer votes than the Rocket thanks a few expert hair-splitters). As with Clemens, that gain appears to owe to two factors: a softening of attitudes from among returning voters, and the Hall’s decision to take away the vote from writers more than 10 years removed from covering baseball.
Via the great Ryan Thibodaux's Hall of Fame ballot tracker, we can illustrate these trends. While Bonds’s vote total dropped by seven relative to 2015, the number of voters dropped by 109 (from 549 to 440); according to BBWAA secretary/treasurer Jack O’Connell, the number of voters purged by the rule change was 90, so the rest of the attrition owed to other reasons (at least five 2015 voters passed away, for example). The net loss of 102 “no” votes is huge, because each of those requires three “yes” votes to offset to reach 75%. From among those who published their ballots either before or after the election (a share of the electorate that increased from 60.3% to 70.5%), Bonds picked up a net of 11 votes, and the actual number of published ballots decreased by 21 (from 331 to 310). From among those who did not publish their ballots (a proxy for older, inactive voters, who may not be as on board with transparency or have outlets to publish anymore), Bonds’s vote total fell by 18, but the number of unpublished ballots fell by 88 (from 218 to 130). Effectively, what amounts to a block of 88 voters that gave him 20.5% support came off the rolls.
Presumably, a much smaller number of 2016 voters will reach 10 years of inactivity on this ballot and produce gains at a similar clip, but there’s also a new force at work. As pointed out earlier, the election of Selig has already triggered some reconsideration from high-profile voters who see the anointment of the commissioner who oversaw the proliferation of PEDs while those who used are on the outside as a double standard. By their reasoning, if the black marks against the former commissioner (collusion and turning a blind eye to the drug problem) weren’t enough for the Today’s Game voters to withhold their votes while citing the “character, integrity, sportsmanship” requirements, then the same should be true for the BBWAA voters. Said past BBWAA president Susan Slusser via Twitter, “Senseless to keep steroid guys out when the enablers are in Hall of Fame. I now will hold my nose and vote for players I believe cheated.” Wrote NY Sports Today’s Wallace Matthews, “If Bud Selig’s in the Hall of Fame, anything goes. Open the doors and let ’em in.” More statements like that will likely follow as voters grapple with the question and reveal their ballots over the next few weeks.
All of which is to say that even with only five more years of eligibility after this year—five years that will see the electorate continue to evolve, as the first wave of internet-based writers gets the vote (this scribe included, for 2021) and the ranks of those who covered the careers of Bonds and Clemens and feel personally misled by them continue to dwindle—the elections of Bonds and Clemens are probably inevitable. That’s not to say that they’re imminent, but voting history strongly suggests that anyone who reaches 50% (a possibility for the pair either this year or next) will eventually be elected either by the writers or a small committee, with Gil Hodges, Jack Morris and current candidates Jeff Bagwell, Schilling and Lee Smith as the exceptions. From among those, only Hodges has even been on a Veterans or Era Committee ballot, so time is on the side of the rest.
That won’t please everybody when it comes to the polarizing pair, but the Hall of Fame has never been a church. If it can with stand Selig, if it can withstand the segregationists and other miscreants, it can withstand the entry of Barry Lamar Bonds, all-time home run leader.