Category Archives: barry bonds

Bonds, Clemens, fame and notoriety

This shouldn’t be complicated. According to the dictionary definition of “fame,” neither Barry Bonds nor Roger Clemens requires the blessing of self-important baseball scribes to qualify for inclusion among the sport’s most widely known players.

Still, the annual Hall of Fame voting this week raised the topic again. Should Bonds and Clemens eventually be inducted into Cooperstown? Are they getting closer each year?

Listen: Bonds and Clemens already have their fame. By doing what they did, as arguably their generation’s most dominant hitter and pitcher, they long ago achieved far-reaching acclaim. And they did so, according to overwhelming evidence, powered by banned substances, which only served to raise their public conspicuousness. (“Fame” also can mean recognition of an unfavorable kind; notoriety.)

So, a couple of modest proposals:

1. Take away the St. Peter-at-the-Pearly-Gates function of the Baseball Writers Association of America. The organization was founded in 1908 to improve the writing conditions of baseball reporters. To subsequently empower its members to canonize ballplayers—to make news, rather than reporting it—is a perversion of journalism.

Too much attention is paid to the BBWAA members’ arguments over what weight should be       given to players’ moral behavior, especially since the writers have demonstrated a sliding           scale of acceptance, as indicated by the yearly increase in the number of votes for Bonds and     Clemens. Baseball historian John Thorn has argued that the system “permits sportswriters…to   see themselves as guardians of a sacred portal, the last best hope for truth and justice. And       it’s all hogwash and baloney.”

2. Take away the “sacred portal.” In no way should Bonds or Clemens get a pass for having cheated their way to grand statistical accomplishments. (Just as Major League Baseball should not get off the hook for having turned a blind eye to steroid use for years after other sports organizations tested and penalized juicers.) So, by demystifying Cooperstown—by dispensing with the venerated status for really good athletes by hanging their plaques in a reverential hall, conferring on them the title of Great Men—there would be no need to confuse exceptional baseball skill with a place in Heaven. (Angels—from the Los Angeles team—could still qualify for acknowledgement.)

The museum aspect of Cooperstown’s Hall already is a fabulous depository of baseball history and artifacts, good and bad. Even persona non grata figures Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose have some personal items in the museum, so the records of Bonds and Clemens—the complete records, with statistics alongside reports of their misdeeds—would have their place.

Baseball is unquestionably a significant piece of our culture, something to celebrate. But hero worship is a risky thing, just as consigning reality—good or bad—to the dustbin solves nothing. Better to skip the BBWAA’s editorial judgments and accept that Bonds and Clemens already made their own fame.

Baseball records, discounted

Baseball and steroids isolated over a black background.

First of all, we need to lose the term “steroid era” in baseball. All that label describes is the period of time when the sport’s leadership weaponized the use of performance enhancing drugs by ignoring their long-obvious presence among elite athletes.

Only with the Balco revelations in 2002 and the 2007 Mitchell Report was Major League Baseball at last shamed into doing something about doping. That was four decades after Olympic sports began policing illegal substance abuse. Even then, it took years before baseball’s commitment to testing resembled effective international standards.

Furthermore, we need to be grown-up enough to admit that the improved drug screening and stiffer penalties have not magically eliminated banned substances. Just this year, more than two dozen players in the major and minor leagues have been busted for various steroids, including repeated cases involving Stanozolol, an old, old favorite that got sprint champion Ben Johnson spectacularly stripped of his gold medal at the 1988 Olympics.

With the curtain pulled back on this ongoing nefarious behavior, then, there is the persistent riddle of statistics, and just what effect juicing should have on baseball’s precious records. No other sport is as obsessed with averages, means and medians to theoretically collate career accomplishments of men who played the game in different decades—even different centuries.

Two recent posts on the FiveThirtyEight web site considered this pickle, citing a SurveyMonkey Audience poll asking Americans whether some players’ stats should be subject to a “steroid discount.” (Another dilemma here: Would a discount be applied to players merely accused of doping by credible sources as well as those who have admitted drug use or have failed tests?)

FiveThirtyEight reported that 41 percent of poll respondents believed all records should stand as they are; 23 percent said dopers should have their records wiped out completely; 36 percent suggested some reduction percentage. FiveThirtyEight subsequently settled on three charts, one reflecting actual home run totals, another with home run numbers reduced by 20 percent and another downgrading long-ball stats by 33 percent. (Other batting stats and pitching records were not considered.)

According to those calculations, the notorious Barry Bonds drops from No. 1 in all-time homers (762) to No. 4 (657) via the 20-percent discount and No. 6 (588) with a 33-percent penalty. (Bonds, it should be noted, played the last of his 22 Major Leagues seasons in 2007 and never failed a drug screening, while MLB did not commence “survey” drug testing until 2003, and did not establish even moderate penalties for positive tests until 2004.)


Alex Rodriguez, who likewise never failed steroid screening though he has twice confessed to doping, would have his homer ranking slip from No. 4 (674) to No. 7 (598) and No. 11 (548) in the FiveThirtyEight models.

Here I acknowledge the absolute impossibility to know just who has cheated and who hasn’t, as well as an aversion to canonizing ballplayers based simply on their athletic skills—naturally produced or not. (A modest proposal: Skip Hall of Fame enshrinements and limit a demystified Cooperstown to its fabulous museum aspect, housing a full record of player history that includes any proven moral turpitude. This would minimize the danger of affording venerated status to really good athletes by hanging their plaques in a reverential hall and allowing their grand statistics to confer on them the title of Great Men. And would address the problem of deputizing a group of baseball writers to determine which players are worthy of entering the Hall’s pearly gates.)

I confess, with baseball’s ever-proliferating formulas—WHIP, WAR, VORP and so on—being numbed by numbers. So I give the last words on the subject to my friend Tony Spota, whose elaborate set of impressive quantitative measurements enable him to rank every player in baseball history.

Tony Spota in his statistics lab

Tony Spota in his statistics lab

(Among the Spota equations are Ye=(G/300) + (Ab/1000) and C=[2(W+Sb)-K]/(Ab+W), which conspiracy theorists might mistake for nuclear codes but which are carefully devised and weighted to consider, beyond the usual batting and slugging averages and defensive numbers, what he calls “productivity” and even “cunning.”)

Bottom line: “Records should stand,” Spota has concluded, though his overall evaluation of players does not ignore the doping quandary. For ranking purposes, he applies a 10-percent steroid penalty to what he defines as each player’s “quality” (as opposed to “longevity”). And he places that level of punishment not only on players who have had a positive drug test, but also to those included in the Mitchell Report and those who have admitted doping. Even, he said, “a guy like Ivan Rodriguez who, when asked about using steroids, said, ‘God only knows.’”

Arbitrary? “It’s my formula,” Spota reminded.

Fair enough. In the end, by making his various integers and digits dance, he figured that Barry Bonds’ widely accepted use of steroids—though never legally proven or acknowledged by Bonds—knocks the mighty slugger down from No. 1, all-time, to a less-heroic No. 8. (Still not so bad. Spota’s top six are Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Hank Aaron, Cy Young and Stan Musial.) Likewise, via the Spota rules, Alex Rodriguez falls from 23rd to 52nd, Roger Clemens from 27th to 60th, Rafael Palmeiro from 31st to 66th.

“By the way,” Spota warned. “All of this gets blown away when we start genetic engineering.”

Ah. The “bionic era.”