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Yes, Barry Bonds does belong in the Hall of Fame: A begrudging case for baseball’s villain

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Barry Bonds addresses the crowd at his number retirement ceremony on August 11, 2018. (Courtesy / San Francisco Giants)

On Tuesday evening, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum announced its newest class of inductees: Unanimously-elected closer Mariano Rivera, designated hitter Edgar Martinez (finally), the late Roy Halladay and former Stanford ace Mike Mussina.

You cannot tell a story of heroes without the villains that define them. That’s why, as we see this year’s newly-named class enshrined, there will be one name conspicuously absent.

Beyond the fact that I’m still miffed that Ken Griffey Jr. wasn’t the first unanimous selection (nothing against the Sandman), the biggest story is that, for the seventh year, Barry Bonds once again failed to garner enough votes for enshrinement.

I grew up a Dodgers fan. There’s no love lost between me and Bonds. He was a Grade-A sonuvabitch filled with pride, hubris and maybe horse tranquilizers. His head was almost as big as his ego. He’d made a mockery of the game. His records should have multiple asterisks. But here’s the thing: You also can’t tell the story of baseball without him. He belongs in the Hall.

Babe Ruth was an alcoholic womanizer. Mickey Mantle was the same. There are racists and bullies and underhanded businessmen who dot the walls of the Hall of Fame. But, the argument goes, Bonds cheated.

He saw the adulation showered on Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa during the 1998 home run chase that helped resurrect baseball and knew — rightly — that he was a better player than either of them, so he made himself into a balloon animal (or a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade float, whichever you prefer). He was the perfect villain: Mean, grouchy, selfish, preening, the pinnacle of prideful excess, what with his two lockers and television and La-z-boy loungers in the locker room.

He defrauded the game and in his grotesquery, felled one of its most cherished records, set by a man who has an award named after him in honor of his courage.

Here’s the thing about Bonds, and his other Steroid Era compatriots: Not all users are created equal. McGwire and Sosa were almost entirely steroid creations. So was Jose Canseco. So were many pitchers who hung on longer than they should have, or made the Major Leagues when they shouldn’t have. Performance-enhancing drugs were less a ticket to stardom for many than a way to make a bigger paycheck, or to make one at all.

Bonds and his partner in ostracism, Roger Clemens, were Hall-worthy before the madness. Add an addendum to the plaque that says his later years were the product of pharmaceutical flimflammery, or put a syringe next to their names. Just put them in.

Clemens, if we limit his career just to what he did in 12 years in Boston, struck out 2,590 men, won 192 games, sported an ERA of 3.06 and had a 3.03 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He was a five-time All-Star and a three-time Cy Young winner. Like Bonds, he was also a Rookie of the Year. His WAR in those 12 years: 81.0. That’s better than Tom Glavine, Johnny Bench, Ozzie Smith, Brooks Robinson, Joe DiMaggio, Robin Yount, Luke Appling, Reggie Jackson, Frank Thomas, Derek Jeter, Johnny Mize and Tony Gwynn. His career ERA would have bested Warren Spahn, Gaylord Perry, Tug McGraw, Greg Maddux, Nolan Ryan, Bob Lemon, Dazzy Vance and Steve Carlton.

From 1986 to 1998, in what we’ll call the clean-Bonds period, Bonds had 411 home runs, stole 445 bases on 575 attempts, hit .290, slugged .556 with an OPS of .966 and an OPS+ of 164, was intentionally walked 289 times, walked 1,357 times and drove in 1,216 runs, piling up 1,917 hits. He earned eight Gold Gloves, three MVPs, seven Silver Sluggers and made eight All-Star teams. He led the league in OBP four times, and three times in slugging. He led the league in intentional walks seven times.

His OPS would have ranked him 11th all-time at that point, behind Frank Thomas, Stan Musial and Joe DiMaggio, but ahead of Mell Ott and Ralph Kiner. Firmly Hall of Fame territory. His walks would have been easily in the top 30 all-time, as would his home runs. His stolen bases, in the top 60. He was the only member of the 400-400 club. Even his godfather Willie Mays was never able to accomplish that feat.

His 99.9 WAR from 1986 to 1998 would have been equal to Warren Spahn, and better than Jimmie Foxx, Eddie Matthews, Cal Ripken Jr., Roberto Clemente, Cap Anson and Al Kaline. It would have bested Griffey, Ryan and Rod Carew.

Bonds did not invent steroids. He did not usher in the Steroid Era. He was a hulking, obscene product of it, to be sure, but human growth hormone does not sharpen one’s eyesight, nor can it discern between a fastball and a slider, a ball in the strike zone or out of it.

Barry Lamar Bonds was one of the most dominant players of his era, even before the Cream and the Clear. He all but saved baseball in San Francisco, something owner Peter Magowan readily acknowledged in a dugout chat this past season on the occasion of Bonds’ number retirement.

That same day, Mays stepped to the microphone and pleaded for a statue of Bonds, and his enshrinement.

“Give somebody the honor that deserves to be in the Hall of Fame,” Mays said. “The Hall of Fame is a privilege, when you get there, you say, ‘How do I get here?’ I want him to have that honor. On behalf of all the people of San Francisco and all over the country, vote this guy in.”

Judging by how Mays looked at this month’s Oracle Park name unveiling, we may be running out of time before he gets to see Bonds enshrined, and if I’m being honest, Mays would be one of the redeeming factors in that particular induction ceremony.

In seven years on the ballot, Bonds has inched up from 36.2 percent of the vote (with 75 needed for enshrinement) to 34.7, 36.8, 44.3, 53.8, 56.4 and, this year, 59.1 percent. Clemens has likewise made the climb, going from 37.6 to 35.4, 37.5, 45.2, 54.1, 57.3 and finally 59.5 this year. Clemens was arguably more prideful than Bonds, especially as he fought desperately against perjury charges, going all-in against accusations by former trainer Brian McNamee.

Bonds, who, unlike Clemens, faded away after his final season in 2007, only resurfacing occasionally. He was surly, abusive to reporters and staff, self-absorbed and obsessive during his playing days. That said, the greatest of the great are, generally, fairly maladjusted people. They’re perfectionists to the point of obsessiveness. They have to be at the very least a bit narcissistic. Of course, you have the Steph Curry’s and the Klay Thompson’s of the world as counterarguments, but for the most part, the absolute best of the best — no matter which sport — have sociopathic tendencies. They use people, they abuse people and they abandon all social niceties if that means one more win, and especially if it means getting over on one’s rival.

In short, they’re usually award-winning bastards of the highest order. You know what else they also usually are? Hall of Famers.

When Bonds had his number retired, Jim Leyland shared a story that perfectly encapsulated Bonds: In 1987, when a reporter asked Bonds if he was intimidated by the prospect of facing Doc Gooden at the height of his powers, Bonds said, “He should be afraid of me.”

With a 3-0 count in the top of the second and a man on first, Bonds hit his 40th career home run.

I’ve already discussed, in this space, how as much of a villain as Bonds has been for much of the baseball world, he was a product of his upbringing. In the end, he’s a son who never felt his father’s love, who never understood why his father was so hard on him. He was angry and frustrated, and those two feelings didn’t leave him as he matured into a man. One could argue they still haven’t.

Does that excuse his behavior over the past 30 years? Absolutely not. Many men have gone through worse circumstances than being raised in the Bay Area, and growing up in big league clubhouses, and still come out as better, more likable (and functional) human beings, with their own emotions and everything, even — gasp — a sense of fair play.

But here’s the thing: It’s not the Hall of Nice Guys. It’s not even the Hall of Guys Who Followed the “Rules” (Gaylord Perry’s spitball was legal throughout the majority of his career). As much as teenaged me would hate adult me for saying it: Performance-enhancing drugs were legal when Bonds used them. They lifted McGwire and Sosa to Olympian heights. They saved baseball, and owners laughed their way to the bank before banning them, outright.

Bonds has three years left before he heads into one of the Hall’s committees, where anything can happen. His vote totals aren’t quite tracking upwards at the rate needed to be enshrined. Maybe there’s a final-year push for him, but most likely, given his history of jousting with those who would vote for him, that’s not going to happen.

The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. There’s a reason I used its full name. The Hall is, at its heart, a museum of the game of baseball. Like the newsmen who elect its members, it should be, first and foremost, a dispassionate, objective chronicle of the game of baseball.

Shoeless Joe needs to be in. Pete Rose needs to be in. So does Bonds. They are a part of the game, ugly or not. We need to give the Devil his due, and you can’t tell a story about heroes without the villains.

Ryan Gorcey is the sports editor of the San Francisco Examiner. He grew up a Dodger fan and graduated from Cal, so he’s used to crushing disappointment, yet is oddly optimistic. Or just plain odd. Follow him on Twitter at @RyanGorcey or email him at rgorcey@sfexaminer.com

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