Over the weekend, I sat down and read Game of Shadows from cover to cover. And, while I have a few problems with the book, I think it’s very interesting and informative about the influence of BALCO. When I first thumbed through it in the book store, I wasn’t impressed. But as a whole the book works, and I’m glad I decided to read it. I will admit that I know nothing about the chemicals discussed and their effects on the body. This stuff could be entirely wrong, but I haven’t seen any scientist dispute this yet.
Fainaru-Wanda and Williams, the SF Chronicle reporters who broke the BALCO story, have put together an easy-to-read narrative of the history of BALCO—with particular emphasis on it’s founder, Victor Conte—based on their own investigative reporting. The authors paint Conte as an intelligent but slimy entrepreneur who set up a side business of helping athletes use performance-enhancing drugs and beat drug tests. The Clear, the Cream, EPO, and HGH were all offered by BALCO with the intent to help athletes break the rules without detection.
The BALCO story has been reported through baseball, but Conte’s impact on track and field was much greater. Contrary to his baseball persona, where he operated largely behind the scenes through Barry Bonds’s trainer, Greg Anderson, Conte was the man with the little black bag on the field at most important track and field competitions. His ties to Tim Montgomery and Marion Jones are direct and much more incriminating than his relationship with Bonds. And it should be no surprise that Conte was ultimately busted by a bitter track coach.
The baseball connection appears to be real. Several sources point to use of BALCO products by a handful of major leaguers, with the biggest names being Bonds, Jason Giambi, and Gary Sheffield. If the grand jury testimony is true, and I don’t think there is reason to believe it isn’t, then BALCO was selling its product to a few baseball players. But here is a big problem. I feel extremely guilty reading a book that uses leaked grand jury testimony. The problem is that these are just accusations, and the accused have no way to respond until this goes to trial.
Another problem I have with the book—although it’s not distracting because I’m used to it—is how casually the authors throw around accusations as facts about athletes not involved in the BALCO scandal. Mark McGwire supposedly achieved his heights because of steroids, which simultaneously caused him to quit. This is just mentioned casually, as if it must be true. There is no evidence of this. The same goes for Sammy Sosa. Maybe Bonds thought they did, and that motivated him to use, but I don’t put much stock in Jose Conseco’s word. And while Maris’s home run record has been broken six times since 1998, this is not proof of anything. And I don’t like the way the old game is painted as innocent, either. Steroids are older than all of the players in the game, including Julio Franco. I don’t know when they entered baseball, and we’ve known for some time amphetamines have been used by players.
Another contribution of the book is that it shows steroids aren’t just some magic bullet. Bonds’s workout regimen is amazing. He works hard, every day. Maybe the drugs help him do so, but it’s not easy. The question is, how much of Bonds’s success is a product of PEDs (assuming he used them) and how much is effort and talent? I don’t know, but try this little thought experiment: Would Maris’s home run record have been broken without the aid of steroids? Without a doubt, my response is YES. And given Bonds home run prowess, he was a likely candidate to break the record, even without help. Players not involved in the steroid speculation have demonstrated the ability to come close. 36 times players have hit 50 or more home runs in a season, 17 occurred before 1990. 18 occurred after the league expanded in 1993, I think it’s very likely to be the main factor. And if you want to blame steroids for these new home run highs, then you’re accusing Brady Anderson, Ken Griffey, Jr., Luis Gonzalez, Jim Thome, and Andruw Jones, too. Some people have, and that’s just wrong. Of course, maybe the juice was enough to put McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds over the edge. I don’t know, but neither does anyone else. For the most part, the media has been very irresponsible about this, and it ought to be more careful in its coverage.
Another interesting thing I noticed is the paltry dollar sums the athletes paid to Conte. If the benefits were so large, why were players paying only a few thousand dollars for them? I guess part of the reason is that he used these athletes to promote his legitimate nutritional supplements. But still, it sounds like the development, distribution, and testing costs are pretty hefty.
Like I said, it’s an interesting read. I look forward to seeing how this plays out in a full trial…if there is one.