Convicted in the Court of Public Opinion

There will be no one inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame this year.  It’s not because there are no baseball players whose accomplishments on the field of dreams aren’t adequate for such recognition.  There most certainly are.  But protesting with their votes, the baseball writers of America have chosen not to vote for these players because they’ve been tainted by steroids.

In the most resounding referendum yet on the legacy of steroids in baseball, voters for the Hall of Fame emphatically rejected the candidacies of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens in balloting results announced on Wednesday.

In their first year on the ballot, Bonds and Clemens, perhaps the most decorated hitter and pitcher in the game’s history, fell far short of receiving the necessary 75 percent of votes from baseball writers. Bonds, the career home runs leader, received only 36.2 percent, while Clemens, who won a record seven Cy Young Awards, did slightly better, with 37.6.

And Sammy Sosa too, who was reported to have failed a drug test in 2003.


For a sport whose links to performance-enhancing drugs have forced it to endure Congressional hearings, public apologies from players, tell-all books and federal trials, Wednesday offered a profound moment. Writers decreed that two of baseball’s greatest players would not be officially recognized with the game’s highest honor, at least for now and perhaps forever.

One can hardly fault the baseball writers for taking the principled stand of choosing not to endorse careers founded upon performance enhancing drugs.  As Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci said, ““My vote is an endorsement of a career, not part of it, and how it was achieved. Voting for a known steroid user is endorsing steroid use.”  Fair enough.

But what makes someone a “known steroid user”?  Did Verducci see Bonds shoot up with his own eyes?  Plenty of people say steroid use was rampant. Individual players deny it.


“To penalize players exonerated in legal proceedings — and others never even implicated — is simply unfair,” said the statement from Michael Weiner, the union’s executive director. “The Hall of Fame is supposed to be for the best players to have ever played the game. Several such players were denied access to the Hall today.”

The problem is that they were convicted in the court of public opinion, from which there is no appeal.  That they were exonerated in legal proceedings doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. That they were convicted in the minds of people who only watched from a distance doesn’t mean it did. 

Granted, this isn’t about whether a person goes to prison, but whether an honor is bestowed upon him. It doesn’t implicate the Constitution, and no one is owed induction into the Hall of Fame. The baseball writers can vote for, or withhold their vote, a player with a good reason or no reason at all. They are allowed to be as arbitrary in voting as they are in their writing. 

The message is about the taint of accusation that can never be cleansed.  Bonds and Clemens are not guilty in the eyes of the law, but they will never be innocent in the eyes of the public.  There will be no DNA exoneration one day, with a parade to celebrate the clearing of their good names. Those who are certain of their use of steroids believe it to be true, much as people believe in a Supreme Being. But they weren’t there. They don’t know. Still, they believe.

Maybe the baseball writers, having made their point by refusing to vote for two players whose accomplishments would otherwise make them a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame, will relent in their condemnation and forgive them their trespasses, real or believed.  Maybe they will decide to be merciful and put an end to their exile from the good graces of the baseball gods.  But even if they do, it will be an act of charity, despite the taint. 

This isn’t to say that legal proceedings should be embraced by the public, and the baseball writers, as the final word on truth.  Legal truth, whether it results in conviction or acquittal, is just as subject to doubt as any other belief.  The law is no more magical in discerning truth than anything else.

However, the fact that an accusation, once made, becomes a part of a person’s reality in the eyes of others, even if it’s never proven, should give us pause.  The world will not come to an end because Bonds and Clemens never get their seat in Cooperstown.  And in the grand scheme of important things, it’s not nearly as consequential as the wrongful execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, though far more people worry about baseball than about killing the innocent.

Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, and even Slammin’ Sammy Sosa, had incredible careers as baseball players and achieved things that make them worthy of the honor of being inducted into the Hall of Fame.  And all three are tainted by allegations of drug use that may keep them from receiving the honor.  No one will ever be certain if this is right or wrong, and there is nothing they can do about it now.  Even though they’ve never been convicted, they are guilty forever because the accusations were made.

So if one is tried in the court of public opinion, what is the burden of proof?  Who distinguishes reliable evidence from hearsay?  And if the conviction is against the weight of the evidence, who reverses?

10 comments on “Convicted in the Court of Public Opinion

  1. Nicholas Weaver

    Remember, Barry Bonds was convicted of obstruction of justice, and his own (leaked) grand jury statements show he was using steroids, and the perjury and obstruction of justice changes were based on things like him insisting that he thought it was flaxseed oil provided by BALCO.

    Just like Armstrong (who effectively pled “No Contest” to the USADA charges), there is no reasonable doubt remaining that Bonds was using performance enhancing substances.

  2. Doug Cornelius

    I believe there will three old-timers inductees for the Hall of Fame, so Cooperstown will not be silent on July 28.

    That was a tough verdict from the jury of 500 or so baseball writers. Even tougher if you think Clemens and Bonds likely had Hall of Fame careers before they were alleged to be involved with steroids.

  3. SHG

    Yes, there will be three old-timers ffom the 30′s, but no one living.

    There is another way to think of this situation. Assuming steroids were in common use, such that many players were using performance enhancing drugs, they were still the stars.

  4. SHG

    That depends on whether one credit’s Greg Anderson’s claim that “the cream” was steroids rather than Bonds’ belief that it was flaxseed.  As for obstruction, that’s what they call testimony that’s inconsistent with the government’s version of the truth.  This isn’t to say that Bonds didn’t lie or use steroids. As for Armstrong, let see what he tells Oprah.

  5. Doug Cornelius

    Then it raises the question of whether they were superstar players or merely superstar dopers. Did that extra edge from steroids turn them from ordinary into superior players? Or did steroids merely extend the careers of superior players?

    Regardless, it looks like they will be sitting at the Pete Rose table waiting for the Hall of Fame to change its mind.

  6. Anonymous

    “There is another way to think of this situation. Assuming steroids were in common use, such that many players were using performance enhancing drugs, they were still the stars.”

    Same argument could be made about lots of people who used coke, mj etc. Clinton, bush, Bronco Bama – to name a few.

  7. Bruce Coulson

    The answer to ‘who reverses?’ is historians. Long after the event, and generally long after all of the parties are safely dead. Which is no comfort to anyone, I’m sure.

  8. SHG

    Historians may assess one’s legacy, but after death, it’s not a reversal. At best, it’s an epitaph.

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