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MLB

To Hell With It All

TARRYTOWN, NEW YORK - JUNE 13: Barry Bonds attends the 145th Annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show on June 13, 2021 in Tarrytown, New York. Spectators are not allowed to attend this year, apart from dog owners and handlers, because of safety protocols due to Covid-19. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens as talk-show meat have finally hit their expiration date, and our palates are the better for it. Their Hall of Fame chases died 10 percent or so short of improbable fruition, and everyone on all sides seems pretty well talked out, and thank goodness for that. The last vestige of disputation came with the election of David Ortiz, who undermined all the “but they cheated” arguments by actually getting caught, but one suspects the Hall and Major League Baseball are more pleased by the outcome than not because next year, neither Bonds nor Clemens will be around for kicking purposes, and the voting and induction ceremonies will be more peaceful, less contentious, and maybe even steroid-free.

That last one seems absurd because of Alex Rodriguez, but let’s be honest: Nobody is going to get nearly as worked up about Rodriguez being excluded because of the asterisk of his own admissions and because of the more arbitrary notion that he generates little passion other than, “Why is he on my television again?” His low vote totals create less outrage than do Bonds’s and Clemens’s, but much more meh-rage. The argument that the steroid era will all be sorted by younger, less judgey, and more math-driven voters is still decades from being proven either way, and most of us will be long and safely dead by then, so at least there’s that level of hope.

That the Bonds/Clemens saga is also a travesty will trouble nobody in a position of power. People yelling at you is, after all, a small price to play to get the result you want. Eventually, they’ll all shut up and you can go about your day secure in the knowledge that you won, and all it cost was the Hall’s legitimacy as a place to learn about the true history of baseball. Indeed, someone surely has worked out the cost-benefit analyses of letting them in as opposed to keeping them out, and nothing has convinced them that enough money will be lost by their exclusion to make their inclusion the more defensible choice. After all, steroids were about money, too, as all the millions refunded to fans for paying to watch allegedly tainted games will demonstrate. In fact, let’s look at the big board to see how those refunds are charting … zero … yep, still zero … no change from zero … oh, wait, here’s an update … it’s now nil.

Therein lies the real truth of all the sports halls of fame: They aren’t museums at all, but most have the good sense not to pretend that they want to be. Mostly they’re just buildings with admissions charges, gift shops, and some flannel and equipment tat dressed up behind glass cases. They’re advertising agencies thinly disguised as department stores showing stuff you can’t buy. If you want the history of the game, there’s the internet, with all the deliberate inaccuracies and night terrors that implies. The Baseball Hall of Fame purports instead to be a celebration of the game, and apparently not enough people want to celebrate Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens. Hey, it’s a choice.

In the end, of course, nobody gets to be a hero here, and that might be the one righteous development of the whole tired story. Everyone sucks, and yes, that includes Bonds and Clemens.

The Hall is to blame for lowering the eligibility window from 15 to 10 years, almost solely as a response to the potential horrors of five more years of voting rancor. Why it cared so much is anyone’s guess, since its working staff could have sat above the fray and pointed complainants to the closest voter and said, “Take it up with that son of a bitch over there. I’m just trying to sell mugs shaped like bat barrels and Strat-O-Matic dice games here.”

MLB is to blame for contriving ways to besmirch players who helped them sell tickets for nearly two decades. Bud Selig’s shameless stumping for Henry Aaron during the home run chase, even though Aaron himself seemed not to have any issues with Bonds, was beneath what little dignity the office of commissioner actually has, and the late Joe Morgan’s letter urging voters to reject Bonds and Clemens so that the Veterans Committee could reject them later was well beneath his own. MLB should have said simply, “We advise you that the ballot is the Hall’s business, not ours. Now get back to your laptops and buy more Brooklyn Dodgers caps so you can pretend you saw Jackie Robinson, please.”

The BBWAA is to blame for holding fast to a character clause it could never define or defend because its members are neither chemists equipped to understand what steroids do and don’t do, nor lawyers who know what is and isn’t legal, nor seers of the human soul. The Pro Football Hall of Fame had this problem in 1999 when its own character clause was raised by a committee member as a reason for keeping Lawrence Taylor out, and that debate lasted maybe a half an hour before the clause was out and Taylor was in. Football writers, who have their own gifts of insufferability, decided to admit that they know damned little about the characters of relative strangers and care even less. They watch men ram their heads repeatedly into the heads of others at high rates of speed, and character ain’t got nothin’ to do with that.

And Bonds and Clemens are to blame for forgetting that an industry that can install a color line and then take credit for eliminating it is addicted to, and accustomed to, having it both ways. They both got paid and got paid back, and they thought that as invulnerable beings who could throw and hit baseballs that systemic rudeness to everyone not specifically themselves was one of the really cool perks of the job, when all it was was energy-sapping petulance that people saved for the moment when they could get a tiny bit of revenge. Yes, Bonds and Clemens should have been voted in nine years ago by acclamation, but they are also responsible for the joy they sucked out of the experience that eventually became the true raison d’etre for their exclusion. They underestimated the power of pettiness while exhibiting it often themselves. It shouldn’t have come to that, but in the end, to quote a literary genius and exemplar to all mankind, hey, it’s a choice.

If truth be told, the real results of this annoying decade will show that, like most other human decisions, everyone involved has lost more than they gained.

But the hell with it. Bonds’s and Clemens’s Baseball Reference pages don’t change at all, and the lack of a plus mark next to their names indicating Hall of Fame membership is just a half-assed asterisk too ashamed to muster up a third line. They didn’t get a day in upstate New York and a hideous blazer, but they’ll be talked about more than those who did, if that’s your idea of a good time. Now that the Hall is known more than ever as a place to reward one’s friends and punish one’s enemies, their presence or absence in it matters just that much less.