Will Bonds end up in Cooperstown?

All things considered, the last five years have been kind to Barry Bonds.

Most obviously, Bonds has not — and will not — serve time in prison for answers he gave the BALCO grand jury in 2003 about performance-enhancing drugs. He has one felony conviction for obstruction of justice, but that is under appeal. Bonds, 48, remains popular in his hometown of San Francisco, where he received a warm reception from Giants fans earlier this year during a celebration for the 2002 National League champions.

It’s been nearly five years since Bonds’ last at-bat in the majors — a fly out to center against Jake Peavy — but the Home Run King* is learning to play a different kind of game.

There is a credible case for his election to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and the longtime media recluse is making it. In an interview with Barry Bloom of MLB.com before the fifth anniversary of his record-setting 756th home run Tuesday, Bonds said he “without a doubt” belongs in the Hall.

I’m not sure if I would go that far. But Bonds nonetheless crafted a reasonable argument for himself and others who played in the Steroid Era.

“You have to vote on baseball the way baseball needs to be voted on,” Bonds told Bloom. “If you vote on your assumptions or what you believe or what you think might have been going on there, that’s your problem. You’re at fault. It has nothing to do with what your opinion is. Period.

“If that’s the case, you better go way, way back and start thinking about your opinions. If that’s how you feel life should be run, I would say then you run your Hall of Fame the way you want to run your Hall of Fame.”

There’s plenty of hard-boiled media enmity in those words. Bonds never has been, and never will be, a personal favorite of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. That’s not the issue here. The debate on whether he used PEDs is similarly closed. Bonds didn’t claim in the Bloom interview that he never used steroids, perhaps because few people would have believed.

This isn’t about guilt or innocence anymore. Now and for the foreseeable future, Cooperstown is the question.

Bonds’ name will be on the BBWAA ballot for the first time this fall. He almost certainly isn’t going to be elected right away. But he should get enough support to remain under consideration for years to come, as writers grapple with how to handle Bonds and his slugging/juicing brethren.

The BBWAA has been known to deliberate on the career of a single player — see Rice, Jim — for the maximum 15 years of his eligibility. That’s 60 times longer than the three months it took the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of healthcare reform. Bonds must be aware that we sportswriters can be a ponderous lot. So, there is pppllleeennntttyyy of time to convince the undecided voters. And he has a better chance than you may think.

For years, we’ve debated what could or should happen once the biggest names of the Steroid Era come up for election. Well, that is no longer a theoretical discussion: Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa are about to debut. I am a BBWAA member, but I don’t have the seniority to vote for the Hall of Fame yet. In general, though, I agree with something Bonds said: You run your Hall of Fame the way you want to run your Hall of Fame. 

Whether due to savvy public relations coaching or fruitful reflection, Bonds has (correctly) concluded that the BBWAA faces an ethical dilemma. The BBWAA is comprised of reporters, who, by definition, pride themselves on gathering relevant information for the purpose of producing comprehensive, fully accurate accounts. And that’s where the ideal breaks down: We are never going to have a comprehensive, fully accurate account of the Steroid Era.

The BBWAA doesn’t run the Hall of Fame, so to speak. But the Hall’s Board of Directors has given the organization the privilege to vote on candidates every year. It’s a unique responsibility, one my colleagues treat with the respect it deserves.

So, the next-best option is to tell the story of that generation’s stars as completely as we can. Lest we forget, the full title of the building is the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. It would be rather totalitarian of us to wipe away more than a decade of the game’s history because we don’t like — or don’t know — many of the things that happened.

Bonds was one of the greatest players in the history of the sport. He is not on baseball’s ineligible list. (Pete Rose is.) In the interest of voting on facts and not assumptions, as Bonds urged, perhaps we should vote Bonds in — and then ask the Hall to make mention of the felony conviction on his plaque. After all, it is as much a part of Bonds’ story as the 1,996 RBI, 2,558 walks and 1.051 OPS.

Bonds might be OK with that, too. As he told Bloom, “I got a conviction for obstruction of justice. What that means, I don’t understand it. But it is what it is. I accept it. And that’s the end of it.”

The Hall of Fame asks voters to consider integrity, sportsmanship and character in addition to a player’s on-field record. Did Bonds show integrity, sportsmanship and character by what many of us believe was PED use? No. But neither did many other players of that era. Some of them used steroids. Some of them didn’t. Most of them abetted the infiltration of steroids into baseball by swallowing the whistles they could have blown. They were members of a players’ union that had the power to enact testing. And they didn’t do it soon enough.

The Steroid Era makes all of us uncomfortable, but the BBWAA vote needs to be more than a means of retroactive justice. We should moralize less about the misdeeds of others — actual or assumed — and focus on recognizing the game’s greatest players, warts and all. Barry Bonds has a place in Cooperstown, because he’s an essential part of the story and one of the best hitters to walk the earth. He’s not perfect, but neither is the process. And he’s all too eager to point that out.