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Dennis Marek: Is there a time to forgive an athlete?

September 9, 2018

I was shopping at the Jewel grocery, getting some sweet corn for my visiting sister. As I walked down one of the aisles, I was stopped by a man who inquired if I remembered him.

As soon as his name came out, Jack Taube, I recalled his father had been a member of my law firm 40 years ago. Bill Taube had been the city attorney for many years under Mayor Tom Ryan.

As we chatted, he asked about my son, Jamie, and I told him where he now lived and a bit about his family and career.

“Do you remember going to the Cubs game with him and my dad and me?” he asked.

I responded I did. I told him of an observation I had made for my son that day.

Bill, Mayor Tom Ryan and a couple of other businessmen shared season tickets to the Cubs games. The seats were third row just inside the end of the visitor’s dugout. As I sat there, I told my son to look at the three men standing at the end of the dugout talking amongst themselves.

“See those three men, Jamie? They will all be in the Baseball Hall of Fame someday.” Well, now 39 years later, I was so wrong. The three were Tom Seaver, Johnny Bench, and, yes, Pete Rose. I felt my predictions were a lock. Three greater men never played together for the Cincinnati Reds before or since. So, where did I go wrong?

As many know, Pete Rose was accused of betting on Major League Baseball games while an active player. This is forbidden by Major League rules, and Rose was in direct violation of them. He was chastised and shunned almost immediately. As I have heard much later, Rose wasn’t throwing games to win or cheating in the games. He actually was betting the Reds would win and probably played even harder to secure such a win.

While Seaver and Bench both made the Hall of Fame on their first couple of ballots, Rose was denied entry; his battle with the baseball writers who conduct the vote lived on. He never was elected.

More recently, a similar voting denial has occurred. That is the case of Barry Bonds. The San Francisco Giants retired Bonds’ jersey this month in spite of the fact he has not been elected to the Hall.

Bonds has an unusual baseball background. His godfather is Willie Mays, and his father, an MLB great himself, is Bobby Bonds. Barry started with the Pittsburgh Pirates and played with them for six years before being traded to the Giants, where he played for 14 years.

His list of accomplishments are unmatched in the history of baseball. He broke the original home run record of Babe Ruth and later that of Mark McGuire for a season with 73 round-trippers. He then concluded his career by breaking not only the lifetime record for home runs of Ruth, but the all-time record of Hank Aaron at 762.

Bonds had eight golden glove awards for defense, led the league in batting percentages twice, had seven MVP awards for the National League and was the oldest player to win the batting-average title ever.

But his glory was to dim. In what became known as the Balco scandal, Bonds’ trainer was indicted for distributing a steroid known as “the clear,” one that was not detected by standard drug testing. Bonds’ name came under suspicion in part because of this relationship and to his increase in body mass. Bonds attributed the increase to a strict diet, massive workouts and supplements. In 2003, he was required to appear before a grand jury investigating the scandal.

As a result of that testimony, Bonds later was indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice by the Federal Court. During his trial in 2007, a typo in the prosecution’s allegations alleged he was using this drug the year he set the home-run record for a single season. That was wrong, as the reference was to a period several years before when he had stated he used a substance not knowing it might contain steroids. The Giants had had enough and refused to renew Bonds’ contract for that season.

Bonds was tried and convicted of “obstructing justice for giving evasive answers” to the grand jury. He was not sentenced to any incarceration, and later, the Federal Appellate Court reversed that conviction. But the stigma was firmly in place. He was a supposed cheater who broke the records of heroes such as Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron.

Bonds never once tested positive for drug use in any screening. He always has proclaimed he never used any substance he believed violated the MLB drug policy. But the use of steroids was a national concern and these innuendos would remain as an albatross around Bonds’ neck.

Several players have admitted they used prohibited drugs and are in the Hall of Fame, but not Bonds. Six times he was voted on with votes ranging from 34.7 percent to 56.4 percent, far short of the 75 percent needed to get in the Hall.

So, here are two highly talented all-stars who brought life to baseball. Both have tainted personal lives that crossed into their professional careers. Both deserve, by ability, to be in the Hall but morally are found unfit. It is sad in some ways, but rules are rules; both might have violated them, and both are paying the penalty.

In Bonds’ case there is a ray of hope. On Aug. 11, his Giants jersey was retired to the overwhelming approval of the Giants fans. Time will tell if the rules soften and either Bonds or Rose gain admittance to the Hall. Otherwise, I was wrong back in 1979, Jamie; only two made it. Then again, I still have a bet Tiger will win another major before he retires.

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