Update: In a vote Sunday, Barry Bonds once again fell short of the threshold to enter the Hall of Fame.
Yet another vote this weekend will decide whether Barry Bonds finally belongs in baseball’s Hall of Fame.
A decision in the affirmative would be a long-overdue acknowledgement that he is one of the game’s greatest players—if not the greatest—while also confirming one other thing we’ve come to realize.
Drugs, when done right, are hella cool.
Even before he got his hands on BALCO’s designer drugs, Bonds was the game’s only member of the 400/400 club, racking up a ridiculous combo of homers and steals with the Pittsburgh Pirates and the San Francisco Giants. Before he became Major League Baseball’s single season and career home run king, he was a rare five-tool player already bound for greatness: an elite runner, fielder, thrower, hitter for average and hitter for power.
But around 2000, when he started putting drops of the clear under his tongue and having his trainer slather some cream on his body while doing who knows what else, Bonds became a next-level human cheat code.
In total, he made 14 All-Star appearances, won eight Gold Gloves and was named MVP of the National League seven times—four more than any other player in baseball’s history. And he did it all while rocking a dangly gold earring that made George Michael lose faith.
Bonds was that rare athlete who benefited from pedigree and natural talent, exceptional mentors and a lifetime dedicated to the craft—and, only later, a top-shelf cocktail of drugs to get the absolute most out of a human body. He had X-ray vision for the strike zone, and if he deemed a ball hittable, Hulk smashed.
Bonds very clearly didn’t give a damn what anyone thought, including his teammates. He just wanted to dominate. It was cool as hell—and famously pissed off stuffy white male sportswriters who dubbed Bonds rude, aloof and arrogant.
Bonds’ surly reputation among these arbiters of sports—some of whom also vote on Hall of Fame candidates—didn’t help his chances for inclusion in the sport’s most exclusive club. Aside from that, the only reason Bonds isn’t already in the Hall of Fame is the suspicion that he cheated the game—a litmus test Major League Baseball has applied inconsistently.
To be clear, the drugs Bonds took were so ahead-of-the-curve that he never had a confirmed positive test for steroids. In fact, BALCO’s drugs were legal under federal law, which did not recognize the clear as a steroid when Bonds started crushing dingers at a disrespectful pace.
He was found guilty of perjury in connection to the BALCO scandal, but that conviction was later overturned.
And yet, more than 15 years since he took his last swing, Bonds remains blackballed from Cooperstown because of the national pastime’s disingenuous posturing on past stats and purity—even though almost everyone acknowledges that the steroids era saved baseball after the 1994-1995 strike.
One can almost see Kevin Costner seething as he oils his mitt and thinks about playing catch with ghost dad.
And if we want to really talk about cheating, there’s the scandal involving the Houston Astros, who created a tech-savvy system to steal signs on the way to winning the 2017 World Series. There’s no asterisk next to the team’s championship despite multiple season-long suspensions, lost draft picks and millions of dollars in fines.
It takes some serious cognitive dissonance for baseball’s Hall of Fame to say no to Bonds while generally overlooking other transgressions—from celebrating some cheaters who prospered to selective memory around the fact that Black and Brown players were banned for the first half of last century. Many Hall of Fame voters never forgave Bonds for failing to respect the pedestal upon which they sat in the press box and ate free food.
But this weekend, that could change.
Bonds, Roger Clemens and a handful of other steroid-era greats will be up for Hall of Fame consideration on the Contemporary Baseball Era ballot. A 16-person committee made up of all-time great players, baseball execs and a few media folks—including the genuinely awesome Susan Slusser of The Chronicle—will be voting on whether to reconsider players who missed their 10-year window after retiring.
Bonds and the other candidates must receive 75% of the votes, or 12 out of the 16, to join the Hall of Fame. An announcement is reportedly expected Sunday evening. The New York Times doesn’t like Bonds and the others’ odds, but if there is any justice in the sports world—and usually there isn’t!—he should have his ticket to Cooperstown punched by dinnertime.
Since his retirement, Bonds’ image has softened—his head and shoulders also appear to have deflated—and the exhausting last few years of the pandemic and social media have made the aughts feel like much simpler times, 9/11 notwithstanding. The steroids era almost seems quaint compared to the issues of today.
But perhaps the most important argument for Bonds’ induction came from a recent HBO documentary on another Giants legend, his godfather Willie Mays.
The first three-quarters of “Say Hey, Willie Mays!” is intent on telling the story of the ballplayer’s life and career, basically introducing younger generations to the center fielder’s unparalleled greatness. But the last quarter of the project feels like a stump speech for Bonds’ bid for the Hall, tying together the legacies of the two greatest ballplayers in San Francisco history.
It’s a surprising documentary, not only because it shows the complexity of Mays’ character and the quiet dignity in which he advanced the cause of civil rights in his own way, but also because it offers a rare moment of vulnerability on Bonds’ part. The interviews certainly could have been performative, but Bonds cried as he talked about what gave him joy as a child, the roots of his stubbornness, how he only listened to his dad Bobby and his godfather Willie—and how he only had one person left to make proud after his dad’s death.
Bonds’ inclusion into the Hall of Fame won’t change most of our lives. It won’t even last that long in the news cycle. But it will give us a moment to remember what it was like to see an athlete at the peak of his powers, biohacking his way to dominate a sport in a way that is unlikely to be repeated.
Josh Koehn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org