Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Barry Bonds

Claim to fame: 762 home runs, seven MVP awards, and a recent steroid-related felony conviction.

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Having last played in 2007, Bonds will first appear on the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot for Cooperstown in about a year and a half, with his first opportunity for induction in the summer of 2013. Right now, that seems a long way off.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? I was tempted to file a one-line column reading, “Yes, of course” and then move on to other things. With Bonds’ conviction on obstruction of justice charges a week old, the debate on his Cooperstown worthiness already seems repetitive and tiresome. I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like as his first appearance on the Hall of Fame ballot draws nearer.

It’s not to say this isn’t a worthwhile debate for people to be having. At some point, the first acknowledged or strongly-rumored steroid user will be enshrined, whether it’s Bonds, Roger Clemens, or Alex Rodriguez, and I think it’s good for writers, fans, and other baseball folk to be sorting out now how this is going to work. After all, Cooperstown’s never faced this issue before, and this isn’t the players’ game any more than it’s for the writers or fans or whoever. In my view, baseball belongs to everyone who loves it and makes it something more than a bunch of men playing alone somewhere. We all deserve a say in what goes on.

So does Barry belong in Cooperstown? I say yes. I’ll repeat an argument I’ve heard voters may employ: Bonds was a great player before he touched steroids. He was certainly my favorite for many years when I was a San Francisco Giants fan growing up in Sacramento. The Bonds of early years hit for average and power, stole bases by the dozen, and locked down left field. Interestingly, he averaged about the same WAR his first 13 seasons as he did after he may have started using steroids in 1999, posting 103.4 of his 171.8 WAR from 1986 to 1998. That’s more WAR than many Hall of Famers did their entire careers.

I admit that in his final seasons, Bonds was as dominant a player as I’ve ever seen. I went to a Giants game in 2003 or ’04 that went into extra innings, and when Bonds came up in the twelfth, I knew that if the bottom of the barrel reliever on the mound pitched to him, he’d hit a game-winning home run. He did. Bonds’ seemingly weightless shot that he jacked to the corner of left center was something to watch, and my dad and I exchanged high fives. Still, something about that all seems artificial and not worth lionizing, even if it was awe-inspiring at the time and even if those final years saw Bonds set the single season and career marks for home runs.

For the record, Bonds never failed a test for steroids after baseball banned their use, and he wouldn’t be the first player in Cooperstown with a criminal conviction, as Duke Snider and Willie McCovey each plead guilty to tax evasion in the mid-1990s and Orlando Cepeda went to prison on drug charges in the 1970s. But I don’t think Bonds’ enshrinement need be about amnesty. I like the Bonds of early years, and if I were to enshrine any version of him, that’s the one I’ll choose to remember. Is there anything wrong with that?

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here.

Others in this series: Adrian Beltre, Al Oliver, Alan Trammell, Albert Belle, Allie Reynolds, Barry Larkin, Bert Blyleven, Billy Martin, Cecil Travis, Chipper Jones, Closers, Dan Quisenberry, Darrell Evans, Dave Parker, Dick Allen, Don Mattingly, Don Newcombe, George Steinbrenner, George Van Haltren, Harold Baines, Jack Morris, Jim Edmonds, Joe Carter, Joe Posnanski, John Smoltz, Juan Gonzalez, Keith Hernandez, Ken Caminiti, Larry Walker, Manny Ramirez, Maury Wills, Mel Harder, Moises Alou, Pete Browning, Phil Cavarretta, Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar, Rocky Colavito, Ron Guidry, Ron Santo, Smoky Joe Wood, Steve Garvey, Ted Simmons, Thurman Munson, Tim Raines, Will Clark