Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were arguably the biggest stars in Major League Baseball in the 1990s. Bonds was the best position player, Clemens the most dominant pitcher. Their careers followed eerily similar paths, culminating today with what I expect will be the failure of both of them to garner enough votes from the Baseball Writers of America to enter the Hall of Fame. A dozen years ago their fate in this regard would have been unthinkable.
In 1985, Clemens debuted as a twenty-two year old pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. The following season, Bonds became the starting center fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He moved to left field in 1987. Clemens established himself as a star during that 1986 season, winning both the Cy Young and Most Valuable Player Awards with historically impressive statistics. He won his second Cy Young Award in 1987, and a third in 1991. Bonds took longer to find himself as a player, winning his first Most Valuable Player Award in 1990, but he won two more in 1992 and 1993, the latter with the San Francisco Giants.
By the late 1990s, both men were considered the best in the business, superstars who were destined for the Hall of Fame. Clemens had added two more Cy Young Awards in 1997 and ‘98 to give him a total of five, more than any pitcher in history. He had his MVP award and was also a seven time All-Star. He was on pace to reach the milestones that defined excellence at his position — three hundred career victories and three thousand strikeouts. Bonds had won his three MVP awards, had been an All-Star eight times, a Gold Glove winner eight times, and Silver Slugger winner seven times. He was on pace to reach five hundred home runs in his career — at that time a near-automatic qualification for the Hall — and was also on pace to wind up among baseball’s all-time leaders in runs scored and walks.
But at that point both men started down the path that would be their undoing. Clemens, then in his late thirties, started to wear down, as aging pitchers do. Bonds was still going strong, but his ego could not take the attention lavished on Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998, during their historic (and, as it turned out, steroid-induced) assault on Roger Maris’s single-season home run record. By most accounts, it seems that both men turned to steroids in order to enhance their performances and prolong their careers. And they did so with spectacular results. Clemens, seeming to defy the passage of the years, won two more Cy Young Awards and finished his career with over 350 wins and over 4,600 strikeouts. His seven Cy Young Awards is still a Major League record.
Bonds’s performance in the early 2000s is even more astonishing. He broke the single-season and career home run records, amassing statistics that exceeded even those of Babe Ruth in his prime. He won the Most Valuable Player Award in 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2004, giving him seven for his career, more than any other player. He finished his career as the Major League leader in home runs and walks, and among the career leaders in runs scored, runs batted in, extra base hits, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage.
And yet, the accomplishments of both men were so tainted by their rumored use of steroids that even these glittering credentials will not get them into the Hall of Fame. Not this year, certainly, and perhaps not ever.
Clemens and Bonds were two sides of the same tarnished coin. One white, the other black; one a pitcher, the other a position player; one (mostly) an American League player, the other solely a National Leaguer — they seemed to have so little in common. But they reached the Major Leagues within a year of each other, and both retired at the end of the 2007 season, Clemens with his seven Cy Youngs, Bonds with his seven MVPs. They were both prickly personalities who were not terribly popular with their teammates or the media. And when baseball’s reputation was damaged by revelations of steroid use, they were the two men at the center of the controversy. Both have been in court in recent years, arguing desperately for their innocence, both seeming to understand that baseball’s greatest honor, election to the Hall of Fame, would be denied to them if they could not clear their names. And both will be disappointed today when the Hall of Fame voting for this year is made public.
At a time when our nation — indeed, our planet — faces issues of near-existential proportion, when people are struggling to feed and clothe their families, when tragedies seem an everyday occurrence, it is hard to muster much sympathy for these men. There are more like them — men who might have thought they would make the Hall, only to discover that in violating the rules and the law in pursuit of gaudy numbers and gaudier contracts they had made themselves anathema to the writers who would decide their fates. Palmeiro, McGwire, Sosa, Sheffield, Ramirez, perhaps Rodriguez in another few years. The names are familiar, the stories now border on cliché. All of them made millions playing a game. As I say, it’s hard to feel sorry for them, or to see their fall into ignominy as any sort of calamity.
Theirs were sins of hubris, of greed, of vanity; the same foibles that have thwarted the ambitions of so many, in countless fields of endeavor, over the course of human history. But what separates Clemens and Bonds from the other baseball players who used performance enhancing drugs — an occurrence so common that the very category of substances now has its own acronym: PEDs — is that they didn’t need to do it. Palmeiro and McGwire and Sosa were good players who made themselves great, hoping to find immortality. But Clemens and Bonds were already great when they started to cheat. They were destined to be in the Hall of Fame. They would have been remembered as truly outstanding players. And that wasn’t enough for them.
Maybe this disgusts you, or angers you, or leaves you shaking your head at their foolishness. It leaves me sad, and nostalgic for the perhaps-imagined simplicity of my youth, when stars like Aaron and Mays, Bench and Morgan, Schmidt and Brett played the game by the rules, with respect for the traditions of which they were part. Maybe that’s naïve. After all, those guys were paid pretty well in their day. But just as Paul Simon once wondered where Joe Dimaggio had gone, I wonder what has happened to the kind of stars I remember from my childhood.