Book review: The Mess at BALCO
Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams' book, "Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO and the Steroids Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports," paints a seamy picture of the sports world. Based on their reporting and research of BALCO, the Bay Area company that dealt in the steroid business, Game of Shadows tells of the mixture of a businessman hell-bent on making money and athletes equally intent on success in their sports.
The authors introduce Victor Conte, the founder of BALCO, and tell how he evolved the business from one that dealt in nutritional supplements and pioneered study in determining athletes' mineral deficiencies into a drug racket. They also weave into the story the athletes and the co-conspirators who helped bring Conte his famous clients. Chief among these, obviously, is Barry Bonds and his trainer, Greg Anderson.
The story is engrossing, as the authors present their evidence toward those who have already confessed or failed drug tests (such as Jason Giambi and Tim Montgomery) and those for whom the evidence is purely based on the investigation's findings or on Conte's own admissions (Bonds, Marion Jones).
And the story is much more about the demons within us than about our better angels. Consider all of these entities and their likely legacies as they relate to the BALCO case:
- Conte -- Not only is the BALCO founder portrayed as a huckster and a hanger-on, he flaunts much of his malfeasance, including a self-serving interview with 20/20 that led his own attorney to resign because Conte was determined to tell the world his story.
- Bonds -- Portrayed as exceptionally vain, motivated by his own insecurity and need for attention. Bonds seemed to play his best, the authors argued, when he felt as if the whole world was against him. Being accused of juicing is probably the best thing that happened to his baseball career, next to the actual juicing, of course.
- Sports -- Most, particularly baseball, turned a blind eye to much of the drug abuse, because it would have robbed them of stars and storylines. Bud Selig and Giants owner Peter Magowan come across as particularly spineless. You can count the U.S. Olympic Committee among the guilty, as they railed over the years about doping by athletes from East Germany and Russia while ignoring many of the situations involving their own athletes.
- The Government -- Yes, they took the lead on bringing the BALCO case to light, led by agent Jim Novitzky, who personally visited BALCO's offices late at night and picked through their trash looking for evidence. But a cynic can look at the case's ascendance to the Justice Department as one in which a group of baseball fans, including Attorney General John Ashcroft, tried to preserve the sport's sacred records. And when the government had a chance to force the case, by identifying the accused -- putting real names and faces behind the misbehavior and elevating the crisis in sports -- they backed off and worked a plea-bargain deal. As nefarious as Bonds and Conte come across, the person I am most disappointed with in reading the book is Kevin Ryan, the San Francisco-based U.S. Attorney who initiated the plea bargain, likely to help bolster the case for his own ascendance to the federal bench.
- The Media -- A classic group of followers. When Mark McGwire was caught with Androstenedione during his record-breaking 70-homer season of 1998, AP reporter Steve Wilstein became a virtual pariah. But aside from the authors, SI's Tom Verducci, and the Boston Herald's Howard Bryant, most reporters were way behind the steroids in baseball story, either out of laziness, ignorance, or misguided sanctity toward the sport. Let's put it this way: Had the likes of Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco not come clean and defined the widespread drug problems in baseball, we might never have seen Selig take action against steroid and amphetamine abuse.
- Fans -- Yep, that's right. We're partly to blame. What do we want from sports? Entertainment and success. We want to enjoy the games, and we want our teams to win. How do they achieve that? Well, we're not quite as demanding about those methods. Fans all over the country loved the McGwire-Sosa duel. Now we're shocked (SHOCKED!) that they might have used steroids to produce it. And we feel -- pardon the pun -- cheated.
Game of Shadows is meaty, concise, compelling and readable. It's not exceptionally written: the reporters write for newspapers and have a bit of trouble with book-length format. Every chapter ends with some sort of a teaser sentence, as if they're begging you to read on, when the material and narrative flow should take care of that. And despite the title and the cover photo, this is not a Bonds book. His motives are addressed, but not detailed, and there's only cursory biographical information. I suppose I should read Jeff Pearlman's new biography of Bonds for more of that, and I will.
But first, I need to take a shower and cleanse myself of the material in Game of Shadows, and maybe first read Clemente, David Maraniss' new biography of a much more admirable sports star.