Imagining a World in Which Barry Bonds Retired Before 1999

For the next five minutes, convince yourself that Barry Bonds retired following the 1998 season. Perhaps he suffered a bad injury in the offseason prior to spring training in 1999. Maybe he got tired of playing baseball and wanted to become a farmer. Make up whatever fantastic story you want to about his life after 1998 — just don’t have it include playing major league baseball.

We’re focusing on 1998, of course, because that’s the final year Bonds was considered “clean” by most sources. For our purposes, I’m not going to try to pinpoint specific months or dates: 1999 was the first season Bonds had Greg Anderson as a full time personal trainer, the man who supposedly introduced him to certain PEDs, and there are books written about this subject that can inform a reader on specific timing far better than I can here. For today, the offseason after the 1998 is the delineating line.

——–

It’s the winter of 1998. K-Ci & JoJo are on the top of the charts with “All My Life.” In theaters, You’ve Got Mail reigns supreme. When the news of Barry Bonds’ retirement breaks, newspaper columns talk about how incredible his 13-year career was — often juxtaposed to the outsized personality he showed in the clubhouses of the Pirates and Giants. SportsCenter is particularly watchable, and Stuart Scott and Rich Eisen reflect on what might have been: about how, if only he were able to play for a few more years, Bonds could have been the first player in baseball history to hit 500 home runs and steal 500 bases. What an honor to have been able to watch this guy play, they say to the camera.

Following the sudden shock of his retirement, writers and analysts turn to another subject: Bonds’ Hall of Fame chances. They tally his counting statistics through the 1998 season and compare them against every player since 1871:

Barry Bonds, 1986-1998, All-Time Ranks
Count All-Time Rank
Home Runs 411 26th
RBI 1216 93rd
Runs 1364 75th
Stolen Bases 445 45th
AVG/OBP .290/.411
Awards 3 MVPs, 8 Gold Gloves
SOURCE: FanGraphs
*Ranks include all player seasons from 1871-1998.

Given the exceptional power and speed numbers, as well as his stellar defense, Bonds has the statistics to get into Cooperstown on one of his first few tries. However, there is one issue that raises a flag for voters: his character. Always making the game about himself, Bonds’ history is littered with showing up coaches, arguing about his contracts, and always needing to to be the center of attention. After a couple years of not getting in, comparisons to Dick Allen’s situation starts to surface, but finally — after Bonds has paid his character penance — he’s voted in. A few years later, analysts run the numbers on the best players in history up to their age-34 season with a new metric, Wins Above Replacement. Bonds is the 12th-best player in baseball history up to 1998 by WAR for players aged 34 and under, and he ends up 19th overall with no age cap.

Even though he retired with seemingly so much left to give on the field (he put up 8.5 WAR in his final season, 1998), Bonds is a clear Hall of Famer.

——–

What a pleasing fairytale this is: Bonds, the wiry wunderkind, one of the best players to ever live despite never playing in a game after he was 35.

This is where everything falls apart and we get hung up, because hey, this isn’t real. Bonds did have a career after 1998, and it was so utterly dominant and record-breaking that he became the face of an entire PED-fueled era of baseball. He was always outspoken and a questionable teammate, and then he “cheated.” To clear one of those Hall of Fame hurdles is hard enough; there is no evidence that anyone has, or will ever, to clear two.

There’s another problem, too: a big chunk of us think the Hall of Fame either is, or should be, all about a player’s performance on the field. Around this time every year, we dig up career stats comparing Hall of Famers with those players who are eligible, trying to draw concrete parallels between them, and we get upset when it doesn’t work out.

That’s because the current process for induction into the Hall of Fame is subjective compared to the way we value and analyze players on a daily, monthly, and yearly basis. It is separated – almost entirely – from what most baseball writers do for their everyday jobs. And the one driving force behind that issue is the “character clause” that has been so famously referenced in recent years.

In theory, including a player’s “character” in their candidacy for the Hall of Fame might make the process more inclusionary — allowing players who, despite possibly sub-par numbers, were extraordinary assets to their team in a way that can’t quite be measured. It’s quite obvious, however, that it has mainly had the opposite effect.

It’s important to know where the character clause finds its origins, and what implications that has on player candidacy. We can see the wording for the clause in some of the first rules for Hall of Fame voting outlined in 1936. This historical excerpt is from a letter written in 2012 by Brad Horn, director of communications for the Hall of Fame:

“In August 1944, a Hall of Fame memo outlined the informal policy that had existed for Hall of Fame voting from its origins in 1936. Paul S. Kerr, then treasurer for the National Baseball Museum and Hall of Fame, stated that Alexander Cleland, instrumental in the voting process since the Hall’s first election in 1936, listed general rules that ‘those worthy of Hall of Fame election should be selected from the ranks for ability, character and their general contribution to baseball in all respects.’”

The last line has been updated in a very small way, now reading:

“Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contribution to the team(s) on which the player played.”

In essence, baseball’s Hall of Fame is still using voting instructions from pre-integration, reserve-clause-era baseball. At best, it’s antiquated; at worst, it’s biased for obvious reasons. The 10-player voting cap on ballots is bad and needs reform, yes, but these voting criteria cut to the core of baseball’s uneasy relationship with those that don’t play the right way, no matter their talent or performance. It is the bat-flip argument played out on a grand, important scale, with countless legacies at stake.

Perhaps this is the number one reason why we need to adjust our expectations for the Hall of Fame, accepting that player performance truly is only a part of the puzzle. We can compare stats all we want, but performance will simply never serve as a trump card for the intangible, malleable constructs of character and integrity. That is, without a doubt, unfair — especially given the cultural biases embedded in American culture and thus the voter base. As fans, we’re stuck in a terrible limbo between wanting respect to be paid to our heroes and annually suffering through a process that is so obviously exclusionary, broken, and filled with an arbitrary sense of moralism.

Two days ago, Dave Cameron wrote about Ken Griffey Jr. and his greatness. This particular point resonated:

“Griffey is perhaps the primary example for why peak performance should matter more than longevity when discussing the best players in the game’s storied history.”

It’s an important argument in favor of Griffey as an obvious Hall of Famer, and it’s doubly important for Bonds. It shouldn’t matter what he did after 1998: take away the steroids and the 70-plus home run season, and you’re still left with one of the best baseball players who ever lived. That seems like it should be the trump card. That should be his ticket to a plaque.

Yet here we are, waiting for a systemic change that might never come, hoping our favorite scraps cast off the ballot will be one day picked up an adjunct committee. That’s a problem. The bigger problem for baseball and Hall of Fame voters is that bat flips aren’t going to stop, and moral relativism is alive and well in Cooperstown, and no one has ever been truly clean — not even a make-believe Barry Bonds who retired in 1998.





Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.

89 Comments
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Bubbamember
6 years ago

A HOF without Bonds (and Clemens and ARod) won’t be that relavent. Might as well change it to “The Hall Of Some Of The Best Players Of All Time, Who We Though Were Nice At The Time, Sorry About Kirby Puckett.”

NatsFan73
6 years ago
Reply to  Bubba

To be fair, a HOF with those guys is not exactly super relevant either.

Sean C
6 years ago
Reply to  NatsFan73

So none of this matters, and we should just close the whole thing up and call it quits because you can never make everyone happy?

rounders
6 years ago
Reply to  Bubba

Somebody explain to me how journalist, especially baseball writers, can vote on character and integrity.

francis_soyer
6 years ago
Reply to  rounders

It’s called “let’s add in some subjective BS so we can get a little more re2pect (sic) and make ourselves more relevant than we really are”

MikeI
6 years ago
Reply to  rounders

It was clearly a different era, when there was still an attempt at character and integrity. If we can’t reach it than why try right? I’m sure we’re all offended by that comment.

AaronC
6 years ago
Reply to  Bubba

As opposed to what, ‘The Hall of Numbers, where everybody is inducted via spreadsheet?’ What a fun and exciting place!

It should be the Hall of Heroes. The Hall of Players who Elevated the Game Itself.

With Clemens, and especially Bonds, their story absolutely includes being good at baseball, but it also absolutely includes being an embarrassment to baseball. Same for Rose and A-Rod. Their accomplishments can be noted, and even celebrated; that’s what the record books do.

But the PLAYERS themselves cheated, lied, and perhaps most damningly, did so in public via lawsuits, congressional testimony, and taking their bullshit straight to the people who just want to see them play baseball. That’s what separates these guys from the Piazzas and the Bagwells who get suspected, but never once took the narrative away from what happened between the lines.

Maybe Mickey Mantle was a drunk, and every player for a whole generation was on amphetamines. But what happens largely behind closed doors is far different that if one of those guys had come out and flipped the script into dragging everything out into the open and putting the institution of baseball on the defensive.

Maybe I’m being an old codger about this, and in reality, I’m mostly ambivalent about Bonds and Clemens. But I really do have a hard time with the suggestion that they are such obvious HoF PEOPLE that all debate should be shut down. Numbers are numbers, players are players, and I don’t think it’s unfathomable to make that distinction.

NBarnes
6 years ago
Reply to  AaronC

So, you’re a charter member of the Kick Ty Cobb Out Of The Hall Of Fame Committee, then?

Ebenezermember
6 years ago
Reply to  NBarnes

And in favor of kicking out Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who prevented blacks from playing in MLB while he was commissioner.

AngelsLakersFan
6 years ago
Reply to  AaronC

“It’s only cheating if you get caught”

Sabometrics
6 years ago
Reply to  AaronC

Mantle was, definitely, a drunk.

devo1d
6 years ago
Reply to  AaronC

Bonds and Clemens dragged everything out in the open? Or things were illegally leaked by the federal government? That’s a bold strategy, Cotton. Not one I would advise, but let’s see how it plays out for them.

MikeI
6 years ago
Reply to  Bubba

Why is there no respect for league rules, not to mention the law. Is there no repercussion for cheating? The guys rich because he cheated, should he be in the Hall to? I’m sure the Hall is irrelevant, which is why guys are crying at the induction ceremony. Why do we as fans and media think we know so much about something we’ve never been that successful at?

Hurtlocker
6 years ago
Reply to  Bubba

The saddest part of this whole PED saga was how really fantastic Bonds and Clemens were without PED’s. Makes you wonder why an athlete with so much talent would think they need an additional edge?

david k
6 years ago
Reply to  Hurtlocker

Well, you saw the numbers Bonds put up before and after PEDs, it went from Great to Amazing. Who doesn’t look for ways to improve? Isn’t that the American way? Do you say Warren Buffet should be satisfied with the billions he already has and shouldn’t try to invest and make even more money?

As for Clemens, I think his numbers were slipping around this time and he just wanted to continue to compete at a high level, so his situation was slightly different from Bonds’.

I find myself on the fence regarding the HOF and PED users. I understand the “moral character” part of the criteria, but clearly we have precedent of that being brushed aside before. This is a Hall of FAME, and these guys were about as FAMOUS as they come. Should they let them in and then give them a big asterisk at their plaque site? If so, who gets the asterisk and who doesn’t, since many weren’t proven for sure to be users? If I have to lean one way, I say let them all in, but I don’t really have a strong argument for it, just my opinion.