|Bonds' play in his last three seasons as a Pirate, 1990-92, earned him two of his seven MVPs. (Getty Images)|
Barry Bonds is a Hall of Famer -- first ballot, and it shouldn't be close -- and you don't have to like the guy to feel that way. Not that anyone actually likes Barry Bonds. He has taken being unlikeable to previously unseen heights, soaring past Steve Carlton and Albert Belle like Icarus, flying on wings of sulfur or something similarly icky.
Doesn't matter. Nor should it matter if voters believe Bonds took steroids. This isn't an innocent-until-proven-guilty plea, because I don't believe Bonds is innocent. I don't care what the government was or wasn't able to prove, the eyeballs don't lie. Neither do the biceps, the chest, the back or the bulging statistics on the flip side of Barry Bonds' baseball card.
He played in the Steroid Era, and he played demonstrably better than anyone. His power numbers almost doubled -- literally, he homered every 15.7 at-bats from 1986-99, then every 8.2 at-bats from 2000-04 -- during an era when scores of players were experimenting with performance-enhancement drugs. Barry Bonds didn't experiment? There might be a person out there who believes that, but that person isn't me.
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Doesn't matter. Not to me. Because he was a Hall of Famer without the steroids.
From 1986-99, before his production reached previously unseen levels, he had more than 400 home runs and 400 stolen bases -- the only player in MLB history to do that -- and he won three MVP trophies, eight Golden Gloves and seven Silver Sluggers. He was one of the greatest two-way players in baseball history, and that was before his numbers got juicy.
In 2000, Bonds hit 49 home runs at age 36. I'm skeptical but willing to consider he did it cleanly, because it was just three homers more than his previous career high of 46, and because nothing else he did that season was beyond possibility. His slugging was a career-best, but just barely, while his batting average and OPS were both below his career highs. Great season, but plausibly clean for a guy as good as Barry Bonds.
In 2001? Impossible. Bonds hit 73 home runs in just 476 at-bats, slugged .863, had an OPS of 1.379. That was the second-best OPS in history, and Bonds did it at age 37. And then he topped it age 38, made a run at it at 39, and topped it again at 40 -- an impossible 1.422 when he homered 45 times in a measly 373 at-bats, thanks to 232 walks. The last man to hold the walks record, Ruth, topped out at 170.
Babe Ruth did it when he was 28.
Barry Bonds was 40.
Bonds wasn't just guilty -- he was transparent. The government tried to take him down for lying about steroid use and settled for a felony conviction of obstruction of justice. But you know all this.
All that's left for Bonds, the final foreseeable chapter in his baseball story, is the Hall of Fame. He becomes eligible this fall, which is why -- transparent as ever -- Bonds gave a friendly interview last week with MLB.com.
Asked if he belongs in the Hall of Fame, Bonds said yes -- because "assumptions" shouldn't keep him out.
Right answer, but wrong reason. Bonds is a Hall of Famer, but not because we can't prove he cheated later in his career. He's a Hall of Famer because of what he did earlier.
This isn't Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa, very good players who put up immortal numbers during the Steroid Era. Nor is this Pete Rose or Joe Jackson, Hall-worthy players who aren't eligible for Cooperstown because of gambling.
Bonds cheated, but he didn't cheat the same way. That may sound like semantics to some, but it's the rules. Cheat the way Rose and Jackson cheated, and you're ineligible for the Hall. Cheat the way Bonds cheated, and you're eligible -- but at the mercy of voters.
How will they go? On a tiny scale, it looks close. CBSSports.com has seven baseball writers -- three with actual HOF votes -- and five of the seven said they would vote for Bonds. That's 71.4 percent in favor of induction, with 75 percent required for admittance.
Again, that's a small sample size -- and here comes an even smaller (but more telling) sample size:
Of our three Hall voters at CBSSports.com -- longtime baseball writers Scott Miller, Danny Knobler and Jon Heyman -- just one said he'd vote for Bonds. Which one? That's for him to say, if he chooses. Point being, Bonds' candidacy is supported primarily by the newer-media bloggers at CBSSports.com, an ominous trend given that most Hall voters are longtime writers from the Miller, Knobler and Heyman mold.
Me, I'm neither a longtime baseball writer nor a newer-media type. I'm just a guy who knows what I saw from Barry Bonds from 1986-99, when he was a first-ballot Hall of Famer. I don't like what he did after that, and I don't like who he has ever been as a person, but this ain't a popularity contest or a morality play.
Bonds didn't need to cheat to get into the Hall of Fame. The fact that he cheated anyway? It shows the man he is.
But it doesn't change the player he was -- and he was a Hall of Famer.