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.