Why I disagree with Jim Leyland about Barry Bonds and the Baseball Hall of Fame

Detroit Free Press

One of the favorite memories of my career is of Jim Leyland, when he was the Detroit Tigers’ manager, conducting a morning interview in his office while lying on his couch, wearing a bathrobe and smoking a cigarette.

The only way to provide you with anything close to an accurate visual image of Leyland’s pose is to compare it to that time Kate asked Leo to draw her like one of his French girls in “Titanic.”

Leyland, 77, who hasn’t managed the Tigers in  nine years, remains one of my favorite sports personalities. The pregame meeting in the baseball manager’s office remains the most unique dynamic in all of American sports and Leyland was a masterful conductor — some might say manipulator — within that space. He could be hilarious, petulant, generous and combative. Above all else, he was always engaging and insightful.

That’s why I was disheartened when Leyland went on a public crusade earlier this week to defend Barry Bonds, the slugger he managed for his first seven major league seasons after he was denied induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in his 10th and final year on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot.

“You can make a case that he’s the best player to ever play,” Leyland told the Free Press on Wednesday, one day after the seven-time MVP received 66% of the vote and missed the 75% threshold. “Barry is a very close friend of mine and always will be. My heart aches for him.”

Leyland spoke nothing but truth in that statement. I grew up in Los Angeles as a Dodgers fan, which means two things: I’m one of 4 million Angelenos who claim they were at Dodger Stadium when Kirk Gibson hit his World Series homer, and I hated Bonds for tormenting my team over 15 seasons with the San Francisco Giants. I grudgingly believe Bonds truly was one of the best players ever to play. But Leyland also unveiled his own skewed bias toward his “close friend.”

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I can’t fault Leyland for wanting to support his friend. But that’s why he doesn’t have a vote, nor do a lot of smart people in baseball. There are too many personal allegiances that factor into their decisions. The best defense Leyland could muster against the widespread allegations of steroid use that kept Bonds, Rogers Clemens, Sammy Sosa out of the Hall this year, and Mark McGwire earlier, was lack of proof.

“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.”

Yes, it is. But it’s also a clear situation for anyone who could see the drastic physical transformations of the players. Or anyone who saw the dramatic leaps in power numbers and overall performance.

These were all great players who, based on the early trajectory of their careers when they still looked like normal humans instead of the Michelin Man, probably would have made it to Cooperstown.

That’s the great shame in all of this. These players probably didn’t need performance enhancing drugs to be great. More likely it was  to stroke their egos and add a turbo boost to their pursuit of being the greatest — all while cashing in on huge contracts and endorsements.

[ How Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens can still make it into the Baseball Hall of Fame ]

But you never know what motivates a player. Sometimes it’s money, sometimes it’s prestige and fame, sometimes it’s jealousy. Bonds seemingly cared little for what others thought, other than to make sure they thought he was the best. I can’t imagine how much it must have bothered him in 1998 when he became the first player in history to hit 400 homers and steal 400 bases in a career — and was entirely ignored because the country was in a frenzy watching McGwire and Sosa battle for the single-season homer record.

Leyland offered a strange excuse for the allegations against all these players, essentially excusing any possible wrongdoing because, well, fans were enjoying themselves while being blissfully ignorant.

“So, yes,” Leyland said, “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.”

It did. I was one of those people who went to the park to see these players. I bought in to the excitement — and I’ve felt like a fool ever since. I went to college with Dan Naulty and rooted hard for him in the majors — until he admitted to using human-growth hormone in the 2007 Mitchell Report. I don’t know who could have lived through that time and not felt swindled and lied to.

This is why I applaud the BBWAA voters who made the hard decision to keep these players out of the Hall and away from immortality. Do I believe that, even without steroids, Bonds wasn’t more deserving than Andre Dawson? Or that Clemens wasn’t a better pitcher and more deserving than Don Sutton?

Of course not. But the very cloak of ambiguity these players used to protect their likely misdeeds has now worked against them because we don’t know exactly when their performances were enhanced. And beside any of that, the BBWAA vote acts as a strong repudiation of people who likely cheated, and perhaps as a deterrent against future cheaters.

We will likely never know the full truth about the steroid era nor even about specific players accused of cheating. But some of us, at least, know how to use our common sense and our sense of fairness to push back against cheating, even if it’s an unpopular choice that punishes some of our most popular athletes.

Contact Carlos Monarrez at cmonarrez@freepress.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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