Spilled Juice

04.10.2006 | BOOKS

I keep everything. So every year, when spring training approaches, I dig through piles of accumulated baseball effluvia. Cards. Old programs. Ancient yearbooks. It helps to get me psyched up for the upcoming season, while reminding me that the dreams of March and April can die quickly.

This year, I rediscovered some VHS tapes with baseball season previews and summaries from 1988. Previews are always quaint -- I already know what happened, so the high hopes of the Blue Jays and the Phillies are good for some cheap laughs.

The previews also offer a glimpse of The Steroid Era's infancy. The slugging A's are touted as the team to beat in either league, led by young mashers Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco. McGwire looks like the corn-fed aw-shucks-er I thought I remembered from his once coveted rookie card. Canseco looks like, well, Canseco -- a dark vision of what the Oakland clubhouse would later do to his colleague at first base. I swear that Canseco is sizing McGwire up in every shot, wondering when best to hand over the goods and mutter first one's free, kid.

One of my tapes has a recap of the Mets' 1988 season just prior to the start of the playoffs. Their second division title in three years looked like the foundation of a dynasty at the time. Little did anyone know it was the beginning of the end. The heavily favored Amazins lost in seven games to the Dodgers, thus permitting Kirk Gibson's hobbled heroics, and they wouldn't make the postseason for another 11 years. No 'roids in the Mets' clubhouse -- their drug problems were more recreational than occupational.

At the end of the special, a roundtable of New York sportswriters -- seated on comically high chairs atop the Shea Stadium infield -- give their picks for the upcoming playoffs. Each one of them believes the Mets will win and face Oakland in the World Series. In a moment that should amuse and chill the modern viewer, Bob Klapisch (still writing for the Bergen Record) says he can't wait for the inevitable match-up against the A's. "I'm anxious to see this Canseco kid," he says, "because I'm convinced he's on steroids."

The sportswriters laugh. The special concludes.

After watching this and reading Game of Shadows, better known as "that Barry Bonds book" or "Bud Selig's perpetual headache," I realized something shocking. Between Klapisch's off-the-cuff ha-ha and the publication of The Barry Book, no sportswriter went on the record with such an accusation. Though it was whispered, hinted at, and sometimes even implied obliquely, no one dared taint The Great American Game by implying that all those home runs were coming from the end of a needle. No one made any serious investigative attempt to find the truth. Maybe it was so obvious, no one thought it needed exposing.

The only person who came even close, as recounted in Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams's tome, was Steve Wilstein. While covering the Great Home Run Derby of 1998, the AP reporter spotted something called androstenedione in Mark McGwire's locker. This substance was once used to great effect by East Germany's science-project Olympians, but was not yet a household name in America. Wilstein mentioned it in his piece, believing andro to be some supplement unknown to him.

For his trouble, Wilstein incurred the wrath of Cardinals manager (and erstwhile A's skipper) Tony LaRussa -- not to mention the denunciations of dutiful beat reporters across the nation. Bud Selig promised an investigation (sound familiar?). The story faded; McGwire hit 70 home runs; and the world was safe for four-baggers once again. Consciously or not, McGwire himself alluded to it via a guest appearance on The Simpsons years later: "Do you really wanna know the horrible truth about Major League Baseball, or do you want to see me hit a few dingers?"

Most of the biggest revelations in Game of Shadows were leaked well in advance of the book's publication. You've no doubt already heard of Barry Bonds' accelerated juicing regimen, his threatening stalker behavior with multiple mistresses, his wild mood swings. It would be impossible for anyone, sports fan or not, to be shocked by evidence that Bonds is a terrible human being.

Despite what Barry or his apologists may have you believe, the authors are not "out to get him." Their writing is dispassionate, their recounting of his sins done in the clinical tone of a police report. What little vitriol they display is saved for Victor Conte (BALCO mastermind as well as ex-member of Tower of Power) and members of the track and field community accused of doping. "Sprinters on Steroids" is a less sexy story than home run hitters, but let's face it: almost anyone with the right substance and a personal trainer can run fast. Not everyone can recognize the difference between a fastball and a changeup in 0.4 seconds.

You might be surprised -- but probably not -- by the Biblical genealogy of baseball's 'roids family tree: Jose Canseco begat Mark McGwire, who begat Jason Giambi, who begat Barry Bonds, who begat Garry Sheffield... The allegations that Bonds started using steroids due to McGwire are interesting, even if apocryphal. If true, it's sad that a classic five-tool player like Bonds gave up four of those skills to increase the one.

The prose will not bowl you over. But books like these are rarely read for their literary merits. Few note -- or care -- about the writing in All the President's Men or The Jungle. And the writers do get a tad self-congratulatory at times. They don't mention themselves by name, but constant references to "the Chronicle's scoop" or "the Chronicle's reporting" are transparent pats on the back.

But can you blame them? Because in that 18-year gap between Bob Klapisch's off-the-cuff remark and Game of Shadows, there was not one serious journalistic investigation of steroids. It took attention-whore Jose Canseco and his "I'm sorry but I'm not sorry" autobiography to wake the game and its fans from their pleasant slumber.

The expanding arms of McGwire. Ken Caminiti's inexplicable MVP award, subsequent confession and death. Giambi's rise and fall and rise again. Sheffield's bogus excuses. And of course, Barry Bonds' enlarged skull plates.

Whispers aplenty, but not one story until Fainaru-Wada and Williams got their hands on secret grand jury testimony. How did that happen?

Consider the current state of Washington press corps. They need access to the White House. That access is tightly controlled by an administration that doesn't like to hear bad things about itself. So the networks play softball with Bush and co. and are rewarded with the chance to ask pre-approved questions at infrequent press conferences. Result: don't expect a true accounting of the years 2001-2009 for another 20 years. If ever.

The sportswriter is in a similar situation, with some psychological baggage added on. Many kids grow up wanting to be pro athletes -- I imagine that in the sportswriter population, that percentage is rather large. They not only want access to the Big Stars -- they crave it. Why would they have gotten into the biz in the first place if they couldn't rub elbows with Derek Jeter and Tiger Woods?

So they refrain from unpleasant questions. Keep their suspicions to themselves. And above all, lambaste those few writers like Wilstein who, unknowingly or not, pull the curtain back on the Wizard. In return, they get to quote Actual Athletes saying the exact same things over and over again. I think if the team stays healthy, we've got a good shot this year...

The investigation necessitated by Game of Shadows will reveal nothing. Major League Baseball cannot prevail against the nation's richest and most powerful union (MLBPA), the entity that fought against steroid testing tooth and nail until it became obvious that fans would no longer stomach such a stance. And the probe will be suspect as long as it's headed by George Mitchell, who not only has a stake in the Boston Red Sox, but who also works as the head of Disney, parent company of ESPN, currently airing a reality show about Guess Who. It's never the lie, it's cover up, as they say, and this investigation has the foul stench of cover-up all over it.

Baseball has made a full accounting of its racist past, in part because it was ahead of the curve when Jackie Robinson debuted in 1947. They would be wise to make similar move regarding steroids, especially since they are so far behind other sports in terms of testing and punishment. The league should eschew an investigation altogether. Simply tar the years 1988-2005 as The Steroid Era, as much as they have labeled the pre-Ruth years The Dead Ball Era. Speak of it candidly; admit they turned a blind eye in the name of making the game interesting. Make steroids the albatross around baseball's neck, have it serve as a cautionary tale for future commissioners. And let the inevitable string of former stars who drop dead at the age of 45 from liver failure serve as a warning to future athletes. That would be much more honest and just than conducting a bogus probe at the prompting of a book that should have been published eight years ago.

Though Game of Shadow concentrates on Bonds for narrative (and marketing) reasons, it presents him as merely one of many, the product of a sport that took a moral vacation, a large example of wrongdoing but not the only one -- and maybe not even the worst offender. And it makes clear that, had MLB gotten its act together years ago, this wouldn't have happened in the first place. Barry Bonds presented as bit player in a much larger drama -- perhaps that perspective is justice enough.

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