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BASEBALL BY THE BOOKS

Liars, Cheaters, and Long Home Runs
Book Review by Daniel Gabriel

Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams. Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroids Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports. New York: Gotham Books, 2006, 332 pp., $26.00, cloth.

 

Game of Shadows is not a book that I ever wanted to read. I thought I'd already learned as much about baseball's steroids scandal as I cared to from the excerpts I'd read online and in magazines. Why wallow in the muck any longer than necessary?

But San Francisco Chronicle reporters Williams and Fainaru-Wada do such a fine job in presenting the extensive back story of the scandal that I would not hesitate to recommend this book to prospective readers. Using a clean, detailed journalistic style, the duo manages to weave together the complicated lives of a rogue chemist seeking to reverse-engineer a forty-year-old steroid that had never reached the market; a man with a moustache and a little black bag who stood in the athletes' enclosures at international track meets; the most decorated female athlete in recent Olympic history; a dogged IRS agent who sifted garbage by night; and the fastest man in the world.

And we haven't even mentioned baseball.

In some ways, the national pastime is merely a sidelight to the longer, larger scandal of doping in international sport. Bulgarian weightlifters, Chinese swimmers, East Germans of every ilk. The authors dip briefly into this realm—and not so briefly into the tattered careers of U.S. athletes like Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery, and other lesser lights. It's necessary in order to follow the trail that eventually leads to the San Francisco Peninsula and the strip mall storefront that housed the notorious BALCO.

In the unprepossessing guise of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, Victor Conte and BALCO provided a steady stream of illegal drugs to renowned athletes in many sports. What made Conte's work so cutting-edge was that rather than the athlete having to guess dosages and optimal combinations, Conte provided a comprehensive training plan complete with designer drugs unknown to outside sources and a pre-testing program to make sure the athletes could pass any drug test.

Quite a cozy arrangement, particularly since one of his main couriers, Greg Anderson, was conveniently placed to serve baseball players—he was Barry Bonds' personal trainer. Anderson convinced Bonds that, like wildman NFL linebacker Bill Romanowski, "the sooner his body could bounce back from the stress of an intense workout or a particularly painful game, the sooner he could return to the weight room or the practice field. This was also the greatest but least-known value of using steroids." (Remember when we didn't know that? How recently were we still hearing fellow ballplayers saying of Bonds, "Steroids can't make you hit the ball"?)

Naturally, there was a downside to all those squirts and injections. Nothing too serious: "Aside from such side effects as acne, baldness, shrinking of the testes, mood swings, surges of anger, reduction of libido, and the risk of liver damage and prostate cancer. . . ." But it was only people like doctors and medical researchers who warned of those sorts of things. What did they know?

Still, even non-experts like Bonds' girlfriend, Kimberly Bell (more on her later) noticed odd changes: "His hair fell out. . . . Perhaps it was her imagination, but the head itself seemed to be getting larger, and the plates of his skull bones stood out in bold relief."

Make no mistake. When you finish this book there will be no doubt in your mind that Barry Bonds has been utilizing an array of illegal substances since the end of the 1998 season. Aside from gleaning the fine details of his drugging cycles, what is intriguing about this book is both the analysis of why he did it and how many different ways he has continued to lie about his situation. Just work your way through the extensive source notes at the end of the book and marvel at the audacity of the man.

But then, that's not anything new for Bonds. He has seemingly never felt constrained by the social rules that bind lesser mortals. In his youth baseball days his coaches "cut him slack and listened to backtalk they wouldn't have tolerated from anyone else. However much he resented his father [the late, great outfielder Bobby Bonds], Bonds took advantage of the special status he derived from him." Things didn't change at Arizona State. As Bonds' college coach says, "I never saw a teammate care about him. . . . Part of that would be his being rude, inconsiderate, and self-centered."

Even Bonds's current enablers face ritual humiliation: "Anyone who worked for Bonds had to take a great deal of abuse. . . . Bonds would get right up in your face, snarling, calling you a Žpunk bitch' . . . and saying, ŽDid I fucking stutter?'"

One of the great frustrations experienced by the authors is that many of these figures (particularly the baseball names) have admitted their guilt in closed grand jury hearings, yet persist in lying about it and denying their complicity in their public statements. In the case of Bonds alone, "proof of Bonds's [sic] drug use exists, most of it in the possession of federal agents, much of it in the public domain. The evidence includes the statements of confessed steroids dealers, the account of a Bonds confidante, and considerable documentary and circumstantial evidence as well."

Bonds' "main" girlfriend, the afore-mentioned Kim Bell, plays a pivotal role in the story. In fact, if Bonds does prison time, which is not out of the question, it may well be for IRS infractions relating to unreported income from selling autographs and other memorabilia. Bell alleges, among other things, that Bonds gave her $80,000 in cash from such activity towards down payment on a house. The public may never have known of this illicit income stream if Bell hadn't sought to hold Bonds to his word that he would complete paying for the house. "To people who knew Bonds, the episode with Bell showed him at his most arrogant and reckless. Bell wanted $100,000, a pittance for a player who earned $17 million per year. . . . Instead of paying Bell and parting as friends, Bonds tried to humiliate her. Bonds hadn't considered what might occur if Bell refused to be intimidated."

Mind you, there's plenty of peripheral guilt to go around. Why didn't the media pursue the story harder? Say the authors: "If they succeeded in getting the scoop, they would likely be subjected to intense criticism from the most powerful people in the game."

How about Giants management? "By pursuing the issue, the Giants ran the risk of poisoning their relationship with their touchy superstar—or worse, of precipitating a drug scandal the year before the opening of the new ballpark."

My own favorite villain: the Major League Baseball Players Association. Of anybody, these guys had both the clout and the credibility to rein in their errant peers. Not to mention that every drug cheat in the game was taking a job away from those who played by the book. There's a particularly fatuous quote here from Gene Orza, chief legal counsel for the union, where he says, in response to a question about whether the almost-nonexistent MLB policy of the time was too weak: "Only if you take a dictatorial stance, an anti-American stance." Like they say, patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels.

For those who simply don't care how professional records are achieved, I offer you then-Senate Commerce chairman, John McCain: "I don't care about Mr. Bonds or Mr. Sheffield or anybody else. . . . What I care about are high school athletes who are tempted to use steroids because they think that's the only way they can make it in the major leagues." (Check out the tragic story of Rob Garibaldi in Shadows' final section.)

A couple of years ago, my family was walking around a small city in Paraguay when we passed a sporting goods store. My older son, who's worked at such a store for years, wanted to pop in and see what his counterparts in South America had to offer. There was the expected assortment of tennis shoes and soccer gear, the odd volleyball and basketball, nothing too elaborate. Then in the corner of a back window we spied a baseball with somebody's picture on it. A baseball!

When we picked it up, we saw that the picture was of Ken Caminiti. My word, I thought, his MVP memorabilia made it all the way down here. Then we turned the ball over and read this stat line: .286 BA, 13 HR, 56 RBI, 78 Hits. Those weren't his MVP numbers. Not even close.

"You'd be embarrassed to even have those written down," said my son. "Must be what his totals would have been if he hadn't been on the juice."

Indeed. One great year—his 1996 MVP season—and a steroid-gorged Caminiti parlayed it into almost $20 million worth of contracts. A month after our Paraguayan encounter he was dead from substance abuse, so the hammer of fate seems to have meted out justice fairly swiftly in his particular case. But surely this is the prototype of how most elite athletes have viewed the risks of taking performance-enhancing drugs: Grab the big bucks, the international fame, the chance to break some records, and devil take the hindmost.

But I shouldn't be calling them elite athletes. I should just follow the lead of the authors of Game of Shadows: these are "drug cheats." Sounds simple, but the effect builds. Reading "the drug cheat Marion Jones" or "the drug cheat Jason Giambi" over and over seems to shift the debate—it is fellow athletes, the youth of today, and sports fans everywhere who are the ones being cheated.

I'm fed up with the overlay of corruption being laid across the landscape of the greatest game in the world. I can only imagine the long-term effect on the next generation of baseball fans, the ones who came of age thrilling to the exploits of drug cheats like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmiero, Jose Canseco and many, many more. There's no way to sugarcoat it. All records achieved in the past ten to fifteen years are suspect. Dozens of great players (okay, probably not Greg Maddux) will have their accomplishments held in abeyance by a skeptical public. More people will die from overdoses or badly administered regimens of "undetectable" drugs.

Yet, even with the book's stunning allegations, Bonds is still on the field, having worked his way past Ruth and now on to the final hurdle: Hank Aaron and the all-time home run record.

Major League Baseball should be ashamed.

—EFQ

DANIEL GABRIEL's stories and articles have appeared widely in eight countries. He is Director of Arts Education Programs for COMPAS, an arts organization in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

© 2006 Daniel Gabriel

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