Barry Bonds is the greatest baseball player of all-time. I truly believe that. Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Cy Young and anyone else that played during that era did so against all white people. Could you imagine how much worse most teams in baseball would be if they were made up of strictly white people? So yes, all of their accomplishments are note-worthy and they were great players. But they didn't compete against the best of the best, so it would be wrong to suggest any of them are the greatest players of all-time. For all we know, Ruth might not have even been the greatest hitter of his era, but because Josh Gibson was black and unable to play Major League Baseball, we'll never truly know.
As strongly as I believe Bonds is the greatest player of all-time (and I'll get into why shortly) I'm even more sure that Bonds will not be a first ballot Hall of Famer. Bonds has been linked to steroid use, says he never "knowingly" took them, although nobody believes that. Bonds' career peak is so abnormal everyone loves to point to his career taking off at 36 years old as proof he took steroids. That's a valid point, because Bonds best seasons did occur in his twilight years. But rather than believing that proves Bonds is a cheater, it really just further proves how great Bonds truly was.
We know, unequivocally, that Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro all took steroids. They were all MVP candidates throughout the 90's. The years involved in the "steroid era" aren't perfect, as nobody knows for sure when people started seeing the results of their use, but a general guess would be 1993-2003. Steroids were certainly around long before 1993, but I don't think they were commonly used until the mid 90's.
The way McGwire, Sosa and Palmeiro's careers all ended are in sharp contrast to Bonds' career, at least from a production level. After McGwire hit 70 and 65 home runs in back to back seasons, he fell off considerably. McGwire's final 2 seasons, when he was 36 and 37, he still posted an OPS of .998. However, he missed more than 120 games over those 2 seasons, and he hit just .187 in his final season. Again, he was 36 years old, 2 years removed from breaking the all-time HR record, and he appeared to be done. McGwire retired following his .187 season.
Sosa's final 2 seasons were much like McGwire's. Sosa was 35 and 36 years old in his final two seasons, with his final season being considerably worse than any season prior. Sosa hit .221/.295/.376 for Baltimore in 2005 as a 36-year-old, and he was done.
Rafael Palmeiro, the only player I've mentioned that actually tested positive for steroids, had a more gradual decline than Sosa and McGwire* but he still struggled over his final two seasons. After posting an OPS north of .900 every season but one from 1993 to 2002, Palmeiro failed to reach that bench mark over his final 3 seasons. Palmeiro's final season he was 40 years old, and he hit .266/.339/.447, good for an OPS of .786. That's not bad, but for a DH at that point in his career, it wasn't good.
*Palmeiro was, simply put, a better hitter than Sosa and McGwire, which is why it's not surprising to see his numbers gradually go down while Sosa and McGwire just fell off a cliff. Palmeiro had a better natural swing, so when the extra strength the steroids provided disappeared, he was able to still play at a decent level. Sosa and McGwire were not able to, in my opinion.
Now let's take a look at Mr. Bonds. To me, there's no doubt he took steroids. His body changed a ton from the time he was 25 until he was 40, and not in the same way most people's do. Even more obvious, Bonds today looks a lot more like the 25-year-old kid than the 40-year-old home run king. But almost everyone was taking steroids at this time. The only team that seemed to be in the dark about steroid use was the Twins, or else they were just giving it to the wrong players. The Twins didn't have a single player hit 30 home runs or more during the steroid era. That's shocking. Did the Twins suck so bad because they were one of the few teams not taking steroids in the 90's? I don't know. But it's not as much of a long-shot as people would like you to believe.
While most players have their worst years as their career winds down, Bonds was a notable exception. His two best seasons came when he was 36 and 37 years old, and his four-year stretch from 2001-2004, when he was 36-39 years old, is the greatest 4 year stretch in baseball history.
Over that time frame, Bonds hit .349/.559/.809, 209 home runs, 755 walks and just 239 strikeouts. He was intentionally walked 284 times during that period. He also broke the single-season home run record and posted the highest on base percentage in one season in MLB history. During that four year stretch, Bonds posted 3 of the top 4 OPS' in a single season, and his 4th best season in that stretch is 8th all time.
Of course, anyone can break down a career into a great 4 year stretch. Four great seasons don't automatically qualify you for the Hall of Fame, although I would argue having four seasons as great as Bonds' would be enough to get you into the Hall of Fame. But what truly separates Bonds from almost every other star of this era is that he was a Hall of Famer even before he went on a historical late-career terror.
Every account of Bonds' steroid use says he started taking it following the 1998 season, because he was annoyed by all the attention Sosa and McGwire were getting. Bonds knew he was leaps and bounds more talented than both players, and once he got the same advantages they had, he showed just how much better. That 4 year stretch moved Bonds from one of the all-time greats into the greatest player of all-time.
From 1986-1998, Bonds averaged a .290/.411/.556 line, averaged 32 home runs, stole 34 bases a season, and he walked 300 more times than he struck out. And while steroid Barry was a liability defensively, pre-steroid Bonds was a gold glove caliber defender, winning 8 gold gloves over those 13 seasons. There is no doubt in my mind that Barry Bonds would have been a first ballot Hall of Famer had he never taken steroids.
Now, to keep Bonds out of the Hall of Fame, even if it's just not as a first ballot Hall of Famer, is just wrong. These aging, out of touch baseball writers' have decided not to vote for steroid users. Mark McGwire hasn't been close to getting in, despite being arguably the most famous baseball player ever in the 1990's. It's a shame.
Every single era over the history of baseball has major issues. As mentioned above, it was an all-white league for basically half of the 20th century, and even once Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, it was still mostly white players because several scouts and league executives at that time were still racist assholes. It took decades to immerse major league baseball with not only black players but Latin Americans as well, which means up until about 1960 it's safe to say most Major League Baseball players didn't play against the best talent possible. I don't think anyone would say that about the 1990's.
And from 1960 or so until 1977, while the best players were getting to play in the league regardless of color, there was no free agency. So, again, it's not even a stretch to suggest the best players weren't all playing major league baseball. Teams like the Yankees undoubtedly had better players in the minor leagues than some major league teams were using on a daily basis. The farm system wasn't all that similar to how it is today, but teams were still able to control players as long as they wanted. Without the ability to change teams, players were at the mercy of their GM. If he was unable to acquire talented players, you were going to play for a bad team for your whole career.
Once free agency began, teams improved, but again, things don't get better over night. Players were given the ability to play for teams that fit them better, after accruing enough service time with their first team. So it still took a few years for the best young players to test free agency. Most of the older players weren't as good as they used to be, so the immediate effect free agency had on the game was minimal.
The worst thing that happened between about 1984 and 1993 was that Pete Rose bet on baseball. That had no effect on the players, but it was related to the Hall of Fame because Rose was banned from baseball. The all-time hits leader wasn't going to ever be in the Hall of Fame. Rose's Hall credentials are bloated and overrated anyways because he played for so many years. Anyways, the biggest thing in the 80's that was effecting player performance were Methamphetamines, but those had been around since at least the late 60's and possibly before. However, the inventions of bullpens around that time gave Methamphetamines a whole new purpose. While every day players undoubtedly got some kind of benefit from using them, the buzz it would give you would not last a full game. It would help the players get into the game when they were exhausted after playing a day game after a night game. But for a reliever who's only going to pitch one inning and doesn't need to get ready until about the 5th inning at the earliest, getting a short, quick boost from a Methamphetamine has more benefit for a reliever than anyone else.
And, as mentioned above, from 1993-2003 or so was the steroid era. Literally from the time this game was started, there's been a considerable issue with every era. However, out of touch and aging sports writers have decided that taking steroids taints the game in a way that NOT ALLOWING COLORED PEOPLE to play somehow didn't. If we are going to say as a culture we don't want to put any possible steroid users into the Hall because it's a bad time in baseball history, then why the Hell is anyone before 1947 in the Hall of Fame? Isn't not allowing people to do something because of the color of their skin a million times worse than rubbing cream on your body and taking pills, and then working out twice a day? I would say yes, and I think everyone would agree.
So as long as Babe Ruth, Cy Young, Ty Cobb and company are allowed to be in the Hall of Fame, it's simply ridiculous to suggest that Barry Bonds is not a first ballot Hall of Famer. He's the greatest player of all-time, and as McGwire and Sosa proved, taking steroids doesn't guarantee a long, dominating career into your 40's.