Before Jim Leyland joined the Detroit Tigers for eight years at the end of his managerial career, he managed 11 seasons for the Pittsburgh Pirates, two for the Florida Marlins and one for the Colorado Rockies.
In Pittsburgh, Leyland met Barry Bonds, who rose to stardom with the Pirates over his first seven seasons (1986-92).
“You can make a case that he’s the best player to ever play,” Leyland told the Free Press on Wednesday afternoon. “Barry is a very close friend of mine and always will be. My heart aches for him.”
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Leyland said he was “a little surprised” and “very disappointed” Tuesday night when he viewed the Baseball Hall of Fame voting results, based on 394 ballots from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.
Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz, named on 77.9% of ballots, was the lone candidate elected. He will be inducted in July in Cooperstown, New York.
Bonds, in his 10th and final year on the BBWAA ballot, received 66.0% of the vote. The seven-time MVP missed the 75% threshold needed, as did Roger Clemens (65.2%), Curt Schilling (58.6%) and Sammy Sosa (18.5%) in their final years of eligibility.
Bonds, Clemens and Sosa have been cast as the biggest offenders during baseball’s performance-enhancing drug era, though all three have denied their involvement with banned substances. Mark McGwire, who admitted to taking androstenedione, a steroid, received 12.3% of the votes in 2016, his final year on the ballot.
“I have no idea of anyone that did it, because I would never have any proof for that,” Leyland said. “If guys were doing something, which in a lot of cases there are indications some people were, but I don’t know who they were for sure. … It’s a real touchy situation.
“The thing that really bothers me the most is, even go back to Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire (in 1998), and how much enjoyment they gave baseball fans. People were excited. They were all fired up. What Barry Bonds was doing, they couldn’t wait to get to the ballpark to see Barry Bonds play and see if he was going to hit one or not.
“So, yes, in some ways, maybe that stuff was bad for the game, if it did happen, but in a lot of ways, it really made a lot of people go to the ballpark happy and go home happy.”
In addition to his seven National League MVP awards, Bonds was a 14-time All-Star, 12-time Silver Slugger, eight-time Gold Glove winner and two-time batting champion during his 22-year career with the Pirates and San Francisco Giants (1993-07).
Bonds holds MLB career records for home runs (762) and walks (2,558). He crushed 73 homers, the most in a single season, in 2001.
“I don’t know if Barry Bonds is a better hitter than Ted Williams or not,” Leyland said. “Most people say Ted Williams is the best hitter to ever play. Was he? I don’t really know. As a total player, I think you can make an argument. Barry Bonds was the best left field I ever saw, so that’s defense. He could run the bases. He walked more than Babe Ruth. He hit more home runs than anybody.
“You can make a case that Barry Bonds had the greatest performance of all time, as far as the numbers and everything. That’s in the book, whether you want to believe it, whether you like it or whatever you want to think.”
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Ortiz reportedly tested positive in 2003 during a confidential survey that was later leaked, but he reached the Hall of Fame in his first year on the ballot. The three-time World Series champion hit 541 homers in his career. He, too, has denied using PEDs.
“Big Papi was a force, a big-time player in big-time situations on the biggest stage,” Leyland said. “I don’t think there’s any question he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer.”
In his first year on the ballot, Alex Rodriguez received 34.3% of the vote. The three-time American League MVP was suspended for 162 games — the entirety of the 2014 season — after failing a PED test. He retired in the middle of 2016 with 696 career homers.
Bonds and Clemens were never suspended for PEDs. MLB began testing and doling out penalties in 2004.
“You probably have to look at that one a little bit different,” Leyland said. “Some things happened after all the rules were in place, so it makes it different. At the end of the day, Alex Rodriguez was a Hall of Famer. You might have to look at that one a little bit different and think about it a little bit longer, but at the same time, he was definitely on his way to the Hall of Fame.”
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Leyland considers Clemens “one of the elite” in baseball history and described the seven-time Cy Young winner and two-time World Series champion as “one of the top 10 pitchers in baseball, for sure, and possibly one of the top five.”
Clemens, the 1986 AL MVP, recorded 354 wins, a 3.12 ERA and 4,672 strikeouts in his 24-year career.
“It’s just a shame that one of the greatest pitchers (Clemens) and arguably the greatest player to ever play (Bonds) are not in the Hall of Fame,” Leyland said. “There’s supposedly, and I stress supposedly, some baggage that maybe turned the writers off, but it’s sad.”
Schilling reached 71.1% last year, just 16 votes from induction, but asked the Hall of Fame to remove his name from this year’s ballot. He was included, though, and finished at 58.6%.
“Curt probably made a mistake when he told the writers not to vote for him,” Leyland said. “I don’t think that was the smartest thing to do. He’s definitely a Hall of Famer. I don’t really care what his political views are. That’s his business. I don’t think that should have anything to do with getting in the Hall of Fame or not.
“You got to be careful that this thing is not going to turn into a popularity contest. I think that’s dangerous. I’m not saying it is, but I think that’s dangerous. For instance, I don’t understand why Gary Sheffield (40.6% on his eighth ballot) and Jeff Kent (32.7% on his ninth ballot) aren’t in the Hall of Fame. They don’t get much love at all.”
Although Bonds and Clemens won’t enter the Hall of Fame through the BBWAA ballot, they could be considered in December by the Today’s Game era committee, a 16-person group of Hall members, executives and veteran media members tasked with looking at those who played from 1988 on.
And Leyland wants Bonds to finally get the call.
“I hope that happens,” Leyland said. “Will it happen? I don’t have any idea. But I certainly hope for his sake that it does because I’m one that believes he’s a Hall of Famer and belongs in Cooperstown.”
Contact Evan Petzold at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.