Bonds and Jeter: 2021’s Clash of the Titans at Cooperstown – Romantic About Baseball
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Bonds and Jeter: 2021’s Clash of the Titans at Cooperstown

It seemed like such a convenient setup. During the fourth weekend of July 2020, the small, upstate New York town of Cooperstown would belong to Derek Jeter. Larry Walker, one of the most underrated players of his time, would also be honored (and deservedly so), as would catcher and labor leader Marvin Miller, and Ted Simmons, after his voting-in via the veterans committee. But the Kid from Kalamazoo was the clear headliner here. It was to be a celebration for all types of baseball fans. The modern analytics crowd would have Walker—a five tool contributor and owner of three batting titles, an MVP award, seven Gold Glove awards, and an impressive 72.7 career bWAR. The old-school fans got Ted Simmons—a tough catcher who took the crouch for nearly 1,800 games in his career, compiling a solid offensive resume for his position.

Jeter, though, is for everyone. His case for Cooperstown exists in both the tangible and the intangible. The former is easy to define. His 3,465 hits alone (good for sixth all time, sandwiching him between Tris Speaker and Cap Anson) are good enough for induction, as with any player who manages to pass that mythical 3,000 hit mark. His 71.3 career WAR, individual awards (Rookie of the Year, 14 All-Star games, five Gold Gloves and two Postseason MVPs), and five World Series rings just make it easier. The latter might be the most compelling facet of his case, and why he cruised to a nearly unanimous induction. Jeter jumped off the page and into American culture. It’s often been said that Cal Ripken Jr. brought baseball back after the strike, but he was also near the end of his career then, having given everything to the game along the way. If Cal brought the game back, Jeter took over and ran with it. He was stoic and professional, yet seemed to remember he played a game for a living—like when serious actors momentarily break character to laugh at the realization of how fortunate they are. It didn’t happen all the time, but it happened often enough that you waited for it and then beamed along with him. He both transcended the game and provided it with the cultural icon it needed as baseball roared back in the late 90s, and later grappled with its place in the country after 9/11. For so many, he was all that was right with the game.

photo from NJ.com

Finding a foil isn’t that hard. For all of Jeter’s seemingly undisputed likability and poise, the San Francisco Giants had an outfielder who seemed to embody the polar opposite traits. Bonds had a tendency to be surly and standoffish, and he seemed to resent peers who got more attention for reasons he felt were less compelling than his all-around accomplishments on the field. But Bonds’s statistical accomplishments are eye popping and undeniably historic. He accumulated seven MVP awards, eight Gold Gloves, and two batting titles, and made fourteen All-Star teams. His 762 Home Runs are the most of anyone in baseball history, he’s the all-time leader in walks (both intentional and not), and his absolutely absurd 162.8 career WAR is third only to Babe Ruth and Walter Johnson. If the Hall of Fame were based solely on the objectivity of statistical accomplishments, Barry Bonds would have his own wing in Cooperstown. Yet while Jeter cruised in on his first ballot, grabbing all but one vote to go to the Hall, Bonds has had to climb and crawl his way up the voting ballot to reach the necessary 75% for induction.

Photo from BarryBonds.com

This is typically the part of the article where I ask “so what gives?” or something snarky like that. Let’s be honest, though: while Jeter transcended the game with his leadership, composure, and ability to ignite fan excitement, Bonds did the opposite. When Bonds rose to such stratospheric accomplishments, they were accompanied by accusations of steroid use in the name of blasting baseballs out of stadiums at a historic pace. His abrasive attitude toward the fans, his teammates, and especially the press only exacerbated how Bonds and his accomplishments were viewed. Writers he had wronged painted him as a rage-driven, arrogant, jealous ballplayer who turned to drugs to better an already epic career. To their credit, they were mostly right.

But in the years since Bonds’s career, appreciation for his accomplishments and Hall of Fame worthiness has increased incrementally; as he continues to inch toward the 75% threshold, his induction changes from a question of if to a question of when.

With the 2021 ballot void of any obvious options beyond Bonds and his miserable counterpart Roger Clemens, 2021 seemed a likely time for the most controversial induction in recent memory. And, of course, he would’ve had it all to himself, since baseball’s golden boy was to be inducted the year before (2020). It would have been a nice, easy way for baseball to do the inevitable, by inducting Bonds when no other player would have to share his stage and have their own precious moment swept under the tide of Bonds.

It was such a convenient set up. Until it wasn’t.

Now Coronavirus has delayed the induction of Jeter, Walker, and Simmons until 2021, when MLB will hold a joint ceremony for both them and whomever is elected from the 2021 ballot. This ultimately means that the pieces could be in place for a simultaneous Bonds and Jeter Hall of Fame induction.

Bonds has softened since his playing days, becoming a little more candid and personable during interviews—even likable at times—though he can’t completely repress the gruffness of his natural personality. On the other hand, Jeter’s once unimpeachable reputation has taken a few dings since his purchase of the Miami Marlins in 2017. The incidents including the curious firings of Andre Dawson and Tony Perez, and his mysterious absence at his first Winter Meetings to instead attend a Monday Night Football game (look, he’s the owner; he can do what he wants. But the optics weren’t great). This may soften the landing a bit in terms of the “good vs. evil” narrative emerging from this, but still doesn’t prevent it from easily becoming the most conflicting induction in the history of the game—should the BBWAA decide to pair these two together to share their ultimate moment with their polar opposite.

I think it should happen. It’s perfect, in its way. To put both Jeter and Bonds next to each other would be the ultimate acknowledgment of how complicated the game’s history really is. To see that sort of juxtaposition will force writers, fans, and players alike to examine the game’s history and unpack what it really means, rather than our current tactic of burying our heads in the sand. If we want to be truly honest about the last 30 years of this game, simply brushing past or writing off Barry Bonds is not only irresponsible—it’s dangerous. To simply put him on his own stage and let him have the day would make it too easy for people to overlook their attendance or acknowledgment of Bond’s history-defying statistics. Put him on stage with Derek Jeter, a player so perfectly emblematic of everything Bonds isn’t, and now people have to stop and think. Now we have to reckon with the truth about the recent history of this game we all claim to love so much.

Plus, let’s be honest: it’d be great to watch.

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