Barry Bonds is a free agent. He wants some team to sign him, to play one more season. According to this week's Sports Illustrated, Bonds is willing to play for the MLB minimum, prorated for the rest of the season. That's about $150,000 for the rest of the season. What a bargain. Furthermore, he will not even keep the money. He plans to use it to buy tickets for under privileged kids. Thus, the team will get back the money in ticket sales. You can get Bonds for almost nothing. He is the only free lunch around; and what a lunch.
Bonds is arguably the best hitter in baseball since Babe Ruth. He is not only a fearsome home run hitter, but he scares pitchers so much that he gets more walks than almost anyone else. In his last few seasons he led the major leagues in on base percentage (OPB) with a startling .480 in 2007 and .454 in 2006. From 2001 to 2004 his OBP ranged from .515 to .609 - which meant that he got on base more often than he made an out. In 17 of his 22 seasons he had an OBP over .400. To put this in perspective, Hank Aaron only had an OBP over .400 three times in his career and Willie Mays only did it seven times. Neither ever topped .500 much less .600. The only modern players with a higher lifetime OBP than Bonds are Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, and Lou Gehrig. Not bad company.
Even at age 42 Bonds is likely to get on base in at least one third of his at bats. What manager would not want a batter who is almost guaranteed to get on base that much, and on top of that, hit many home runs?
But of course Barry Bonds has some liabilities. Some are age and condition. Once a speedster with over 500 stolen bases and a master fielder with eight golden glove awards, he can no longer run very fast or very far. Last year he only stole 5 bases which was up from the 3 he sole in 2006. Nor can he chase down fly balls anymore. But, face it, who cares if he can't run very fast when he trots around the bases after a towering home run or casually walks to first base after some pitcher intentionally serves him up four balls. He might not be a great fielder, but he can still stand at first base and catch throws from infielders. In the American league he is the ideal designated hitter. Swatting homers, getting walked, and almost guaranteed to get on base one or two times in every game.
There of course a problem with the "free lunch" -- as Milton Freedman used to remind us at the University of Chicago - "there's no such thing as a free lunch."
Bonds comes with a bit of baggage. First, he is not a nice guy. He is rude to everyone, won't give autographs to fans -- those very people who bought tickets so he could earn as much as $22 million dollars in one season and over $188 million in his career. You would think a man making that kind of money would have been a bit nicer to the customers. But not Barry.
And of course, he is the steroid guy. He will be booed almost everywhere, and taunted by fans. He is the player who grew a full inch taller in mid-career; whose hat size got bigger as he bulked up, presumably with the help of modern chemistry. He is also under indictment for lying to a grand jury about his relations with various purveyors of "performance enhancement drugs."
His adventures with better living through chemistry may land him in jail. They will probably prevent him from landing a plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame. The smart money is that Bonds will not make it to Cooperstown, just as Mark McGuire, Raphael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa, and Roger Clements, will be left at the Albany Airport, unable to make the last part of the trip down the road to baseball immortality. Standing there with them are other wrong doers -- Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose. Perhaps we should have a "counter Hall of Fame" for the Great Ones who were too tainted to get to the real Hall?
But, just because Barry Bonds won't make it to the Hall of Fame, does that mean he should be silently blackballed by every major league team? His records may be tainted, but if he still has the skills to play, the new records won't be. He will be tested regularly -- more than anyone else we presume. He will be under constant scrutiny. He will be clean as they come.
So why not let him play? He has yet to be convicted of anything. Major League Baseball believes he took steroids, but the proof, in court, is not there yet. On the other hand, players who admitted they juiced up -- Jason Giambi and Andy Pettitte come to mind -- are still playing. Between 2005 and 2007 more than 20 players were given temporary suspensions for using steroids, and then allowed to play again. These players all tested positive, were suspended and then could come back. Barry Bonds has never tested positive. He maybe under indictment for lying to a grand jury, but we all know that in this country you are "innocent until proven guilty."
My argument here is not that Bonds did not take steroids. I think he did. Everyone thinks he did. Nor is it an argument that he should be in the Hall of Fame when it all over. That is a different issue. But when we make that argument let's make it clear what we are arguing about. It is not character -- Ty Cobb's racism and nastiness makes Barry Bonds look like a candidate for sainthood on the character and role model scale. Babe Ruth was a drunk. So was Mickey Mantle. If Bonds does not get into the Hall it is not on character, the issue is whether his records are tainted.
But, the tainted records of the last eight years of his career should not affect whether he can play now. Anything he does on the field now will be post-juicing.
The reality is that MLB's owners and managers all knew about juicing. They turned a blind eye to the problem because they only cared about home runs, crowded stadiums, and winning games. So why punish Bonds? If MLB needs to cleanse itself from the era of juicing, then let it get rid of all those managers and owners who looked the other way when the juicing was going on. Fire the team physicians who ignored obvious signs of steroids and human growth hormones. But if we did that, who would be left? Not many owners, and maybe not many managers and coaches? So, if MLB is not going to really clean its house, it should stop using Bonds as a scapegoat. Let him play. He wants to play. Let's see if he still can. It would be great is some team has the guts to sign Bonds this season and let him back on the field. It may be his last season. Next year he might be playing on the Leavenworth team, with prison stripes instead of pinstriped. Or he may walk out of court an innocent man, and play again.
We know that now he is clean and not juicing, so why won't any team sign him? What is MLB afraid of? That he will be booed? Sure he will be. But that is part of the game. Fans in fact will pay just for the opportunity to boo him. MLB can't be afraid he won't succeed. If he is washed up he will be dropped from the roster. More likely the teams don't want him because his presence will remind everyone that while Bonds, McGuire, Clements, and all those other guys juiced, management quietly smiled and watched the ticket sales rise. Bonds remains the worst nightmare of MLB, not because he juiced up, but because when we watch him play we remember, all too well, that the people who run MLB ignored the steroids issue while it was profitable to do so. MLB is a parody on the police chief who was "shocked" to discover gambling in Rick's Café in Casablanca, and took his cut of the winnings.
President William McKinley Distinguished Professor of Law and Public Policy
Albany Law School
(The author, a historian and law professor was an expert witness in Popov v. Hayashi, the lawsuit over the ownership of Barry Bonds' 73rd home run ball.)