- Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, Balco and the Steroids Scandal That Rocked Professional Sports by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams
Gotham, 332 pp, $26.00, March 2006, ISBN 1 59240 199 6
Inside a shopping mall in Fargo, North Dakota there is a museum dedicated to the memory of Roger Maris, one-time star of the New York Yankees and home run champion of baseball. When I visited in the mid-1990s I thought it was the saddest museum I had ever seen. The reason it lurks in the entrance to a mall – just a few glass-fronted displays of old shirts, balls and assorted memorabilia for people to glance at on their way to spend money on something else – is that Maris made it clear before his death from lymphoma at the age of 51 that he didn’t want anyone to make a fuss. They had made a fuss of him once before, and he hadn’t liked it at all.
In 1961, he was for a few weeks the most celebrated and the most reviled man in America. That year, Maris (who grew up in Fargo as Roger Maras but changed his name in 1955 to make it harder for opposing fans to come up with offensive rhyming chants) broke the most precious record in American sports, Babe Ruth’s mark of 60 home runs in a single season, which had stood for 34 years. When Maris struck number 61 in the final game of the 1961 season, no one seemed especially pleased: not the Yankee fans, who resented his stealing the Babe’s thunder; not the New York press, who had always found Maris unco-operative and irritatingly provincial; not Maris himself, whose hair had started to fall out under the pressure of constant scrutiny as the record approached. The final insult came when a New York journalist started a rumour that Maris’s record would not be allowed to stand, because in 1961 the baseball season had been expanded from 154 to 162 games, meaning Maris had had an extra eight games to get past Ruth. Word got out that Maris’s 61 would be followed in the record books by an asterisk, denoting that this was at best a compromised achievement. The rumour was not true – baseball, for all its pretensions to be a secular religion, does not have a book of books in which the truth can be adjudicated like this – but by then it was too late. Roger Maris became known as the man with an asterisk after his name.
Much of the hostility Maris faced came from the fact that he appeared too ordinary a player for so magical a feat. Babe Ruth was larger than life in every sense – a huge, grinning butterball of a man – but Maris looked the way workaday baseball players are supposed to look: he was strong, muscular but also angular and loose-limbed, with a plain, farmboy’s face that showed little emotion. His physique was nothing special, which made it all the more remarkable that his record should have stood for another 37 years. No one, including Maris himself (whose next best effort was 33 home runs the following season), came close to matching his achievement until 1998, when not one but two players easily surpassed it: Sammy Sosa, of the Chicago Cubs, who hit 66 home runs, and Mark McGwire, of the St Louis Cardinals, who hit 70. Sosa has beaten Maris’s mark twice more since then, hitting 63 home runs in 1999 and 64 in 2001, but he has never held the single-season record. That currently belongs to Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants, who in 2001 hit the ball out of the park an unprecedented 73 times.
McGwire, Sosa and Bonds don’t resemble Roger Maris in physical appearance, but they don’t look much like Babe Ruth either. They are all large, heavy-set men, but no one could call them fat: the extra weight is pure muscle. McGwire in particular appeared almost cartoonishly muscular during his record-breaking season in 1998: red-haired and friendly-faced, his large-enough head often appeared incongruously petite on his massive, pulsing neck, itself sitting on top of an enormous, triangular torso. His biceps strained out of the Cardinals’ short-sleeved uniform and his forearms were, if anything, even more impressive: great slabs of meat that made the bat he held seem as slight as a child’s toy, until he connected with the ball and it arced away vast, improbable distances. McGwire didn’t look like a baseball player; he seemed to belong in American football or body-building. This was no coincidence, because we now know that, like many of the practitioners of those sports, McGwire had achieved his unusual shape by taking steroids.
It is not simply hindsight to say that many people suspected as much at the time. It’s just that not many of them cared. At one point during the 1998 season, a curious reporter spotted evidence of androstenedione (‘Andro’), a legal anabolic supplement (or ‘steroid precursor’), in McGwire’s locker. Sales of Andro soared, while the reporter who broke the story was ostracised by the baseball establishment for casting a shadow on a season that was doing wonders to restore much of the popularity the sport had squandered during a players’ strike in 1994. McGwire agreed to stop using Andro, but denied that he had been taking anything stronger, or anything illegal. Sosa and Bonds, neither of whom had quite achieved McGwire’s Popeye physique but both of whom were about fifty pounds heavier and a great deal more muscular than they had been at the start of their careers, also repeatedly and explicitly denied steroid use. No one wanted to press the issue, not least because the few reporters who did tended to get their heads bitten off for little or no reward. So things might have remained, with routine home-run extravaganzas being interspersed with routine denials that anything was amiss, had it not been for one man. This was Victor Conte, the founder of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (or Balco for short), who masterminded the supply of steroids to some of the top performers in baseball and athletics for over a decade, and whose inability to keep his mouth shut has brought disgrace on them all.
Game of Shadows sets itself up to tell the truth about Barry Bonds and the sullying of baseball, but really it is Conte’s story. Conte has a reputation as some kind of evil genius, probably because of the use of the word ‘laboratory’ in the name of his drug-running operation, but really he was just a chancer, with no medical or scientific training, but a limitless appetite for fame and a serene faith in his own ability to triumph over adversity. He started out as a musician, briefly playing guitar in a 1970s funk outfit called Tower of Power, before trying his hand at the health-store business. He and his wife ran the Holistic Health Centre in a suburb of San Francisco, selling vitamins out of the front of the store, and marijuana out of the back. This worked fine until two armed men burst through the front door demanding $100,000 worth of drugs. Undeterred, Conte decided to stick with the business plan, but to change the type of medication he was providing. He spent his spare time at Stanford University library reading everything he could find on nutritional and biochemical supplements for athletes – paying particular attention to the old East German manuals – before founding Balco, which was essentially just another shop front. This time, in the legitimate part of the business he sold state of the art consultations on an athlete’s nutritional needs (he tested their hair, blood and urine for mineral deficiencies on a machine he called his ‘inductively coupled plasma spectrometer’); round the back, he sold steroids.
He built his business through a mixture of chutzpah, ruthless networking and an eye for the main chance. His early contacts were with body-builders and other assorted gym rats, but he quickly realised he needed some big-name athletes to promote his bogus legal products, such as ZMA (a zinc and magnesium compound), in order to provide a way in to his other services. Conte emerges from this book as an obsessive self-publicist with a limited grip on reality; but it is also clear that this was part of his appeal. His willingness to promote anything, including his own brands of snake oil, was invaluable to his clients, who were later able to claim that they were merely sampling the wonderful range of nutritional services he had to offer; if anything more sinister slipped into the mix, how were they to know? Barry Bonds later admitted before a grand jury that he had ingested a substance supplied to him by Conte by placing a couple of drops under his tongue – the prescribed method for ingesting an undetectable steroid – but only because he was under the impression that it was flaxseed oil. Conte’s other great gift was his ability to treat the various drug-testing regimes that policed professional sports not as barriers to action but as business opportunities. He was happy to supply steroids to track-and-field athletes, who faced one of the most rigorous drug-testing programmes, as well as to baseball and football players, who until recently faced some of the weakest.
Two athletes who made use of his ‘nutritional programme’, Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery, became the number one sprinters in the world. This conspicuous success, as well as his contacts in the gym trade, gave him access to top performers in other sports, including Barry Bonds, who was supplied by Balco through his weight trainer, Greg Anderson. The problem was that it was almost too easy. Conte was unable to resist boasting about his connection to star athletes, and talking up his contribution to their achievements. This began to attract the attention of the narcotics branch of the IRS, and it also started to irritate some of his rivals, including Trevor Graham, Jones and Montgomery’s coach. When Jones and Montgomery fell out with Conte, he began to bad-mouth them and Graham to anyone who would listen. In a monumental act of hubris, Conte even threatened to out Graham as a drugs cheat. Driven to distraction by all this, Graham got his revenge in first, sending a syringe supplied by Balco to the US Anti-Doping Agency. It contained traces of a previously undetectable steroid called THG (tetrahydrogestrione).
The IRS and other interested bodies then upped their scrutiny of the Balco operation, searching for more incriminating evidence. They did not have to look far: Conte had incriminated himself almost everywhere he turned, in letters and invoices tossed out in the trash, in diaries and emails (including an endearingly foolish one in which he warned a supplier to stop discussing drugs because their email communication might not be secure). When federal agents raided Balco at the end of 2003, Conte, unable as always to keep anything to himself, confessed to everything (though he later retracted the confession), giving up the names of 15 athletes from track and field, seven from the National Football League and five from major league baseball, including Barry Bonds. The game was up, or so it seemed.
It is not hard to understand the reasoning of the track athletes who went to Conte for help, despite all the risks of associating with such a blabbermouth. They were in it for the money. Sprinting is a discipline in which there are substantial rewards available, but only for the one or two individuals who reach the very top; for the also-rans, there is barely a living to be made. Moreover, the distance between success and failure at the highest level is measured in the tiniest of margins, mere hundredths of a second. Any small advantage can make all the difference. Before he made contact with Balco, Tim Montgomery was a figure on the fringes of American sports: he was the fifth-ranked sprinter in the US, struggling to make the Olympic team. By the time Conte had finished with him, he was the world-record holder at 100m, making him the fastest man in history, and rich, too; in addition, he had become the lover of Conte’s other great success story, Marion Jones, the world’s most glamorous female athlete.
But what was in it for someone like Bonds, who was already one of the best-paid sportsmen in America even before he began taking steroids? The answer, according to Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, is a simple one: respect. Bonds had always felt underappreciated by both baseball fans and his fellow professionals, and much of their indifference to his achievements he put down to racism. This view was reinforced when he saw the adulation being heaped on the whiter than white Mark McGwire in 1998 as he closed in on Roger Maris’s home-run record. But Bonds noticed something else as well: McGwire was only receiving the worshipful attention of a grateful nation because he was taking drugs, since it was the drugs that were driving his performance. Steroids, for Bonds, were evidence not of the duplicity of the players who took them but of the hypocrisy of the baseball establishment that allowed them to get away with it. Bonds didn’t see McGwire’s inflated torso and equally inflated bank balance as a sign that baseball was cheating the public; rather, it was a sign that baseball was cheating Barry Bonds.
This sense of injustice is what enables drug-taking athletes like Bonds to continue to protest their innocence, even when their guilt is laid bare for all to see. The other thing that feeds their self-righteousness is a belief that steroids represent an extension of hard work and natural talent, rather than offering some kind of alternative to them. From the outside, it is all too easy to assume that McGwire and Bonds were able to hit those extra home runs only because steroids gave them the strength to do so. But mere strength is not enough to enable anyone to hit a ball thrown at them at over 90 mph; you have to have the talent as well. Taking steroids doesn’t even guarantee you extra muscles. Steroids offer the ability to make best use of the hard work you are prepared to put in: you can train harder, and for longer, and recover more quickly with the aid of performance-enhancing drugs, so that in a sense it is still the training, and not the drugs, that makes the difference. It is easy for anyone who takes these drugs to jumble up cause and effect. Are the drugs really giving them an unfair advantage over their competitors? Or are the drugs simply emphasising the natural advantages they already enjoy, by allowing them to make full use of their superior resolve?
Cycling is currently undergoing one of its periodic Balco-style doping scandals. One of the reasons it has proved so hard to rid cycling of its drug cheats is that too many of the sport’s top performers clearly don’t see things in such black-and-white terms. They continue to use the blood-doping agent EPO – which is not a steroid but is reported to have steroid-like effects, only better – because they believe it gives them an edge they deserve. Eufemiano Fuentes, the Madrid-based blood doctor who is the Victor Conte of this year’s Tour de France, has claimed that all he is doing is helping his clients perform to their true level in what remains the ultimate endurance-test: not to look after their blood under such circumstances would be irresponsible. Fuentes appears to possess some of Conte’s mixture of bluster and paranoia. He has pointed to his wide range of activities in other sports like tennis and athletics to indicate that anyone with such a full client-list could hardly be the crook he has been made out to be, while hinting that if the authorities press him too hard he will start to name names. But he also shares with Conte an apparently unshakeable sense of righteousness. He seems to feel that the achievements of his clients, resting as they do on the careful nurturing of natural talent and enormous amounts of hard work, should be allowed to speak for themselves.
Baseball is an excellent case study of the hows and whys of steroid abuse because it produces a barrage of statistical indicators for all aspects of an individual’s performance, and now has a testing regime that allows comparisons to be drawn between the players who are juiced and the ones who are not. In a fascinating recent essay called ‘What do statistics tell us about steroids?’ the baseball analyst Nate Silver has pointed out that the majority of players who have been caught by professional baseball’s recently introduced steroid-testing programme have not been sluggers – the heavily muscled home-run specialists – but pitchers, who need flexibility more than they need raw strength.[*] What pitchers need above all is stamina, and steroids make it possible for a pitcher to recover much faster than usual from the intense exertion required to keep repeating the same throwing motion (traditionally, starting pitchers need at least three days off between games).
In this sense, Bonds’s bulging biceps, which seem to exemplify the allure of the steroid needle for baseball players, are not typical. Much more characteristic of steroid use is the extraordinary amount of work he put in to building up those muscles. When Bonds started taking the drugs he also started working much harder on his fitness, so he was able to say with some conviction to team-mates startled by his weight gain during the winter of 1998-99 that it was merely the result of all the extra hours he had been putting in down the gym. Bonds was almost puritanical about the work ethic implied by a steroid regime: when he put his friend Gary Sheffield of the Atlanta Braves onto the Balco programme, he expected him to respect the nature of the commitment involved; when Sheffield started missing Bonds’s 6 a.m. wake-up calls and avoiding trips to the gym in order to spend more time with his wife, Bonds dropped him like a stone.
Silver’s statistical analysis of drug use in baseball identifies a number of other features of steroid abuse that don’t fit the popular image of the way it skews sporting achievement. Bonds did not necessarily need to take drugs in order to break the home-run record. The fact that Bonds, Sosa and McGwire were each in their thirties before they started breaking records is all the evidence that many people need to demonstrate that steroids must be fuelling the recent explosion of home-run hitting. But Silver shows that there have always been players who have achieved a step-change in their hitting ability late in their careers, a phenomenon that dates well back into the pre-steroid era. Sometimes it just happens, through luck, or hard work, or a combination of the two, as it happened for one miraculous season to Roger Maris. Steroids weren’t the only way that McGwire and Bonds could have achieved what they achieved, just as steroids weren’t the only way that Linford Christie could suddenly have transformed himself in his mid-thirties from an also-ran into the fastest sprinter in the world. But steroids are the only way for an athlete to ensure that of all the performers who might experience what Silver calls a ‘power surge’, it would be him.
The evidence of the 76 players who tested positive for steroids during the 2005 baseball season suggests that power surges are not, anyway, the real business of steroid abusers. None of those caught in 2005 was a record-breaker: most of them were journeymen pros, trying to eke out any tiny advantage they could to boost their value to their team. This is hardly surprising, since those who get caught are by definition not at the elite end of the drug-abusers’ scale, having failed to get access to the most sophisticated masking agents. But what is striking is that steroids seem to have greatest appeal to players who are on the margins of outright failure. Most of those who were caught came from baseball’s minor leagues, and were struggling to make the transition to the majors, which is where all the money is. The minimum annual salary for a minor league player is $12,900; in the major leagues it is $317,000, and the average income is well into seven figures. For these players, steroids offered the chance to make the sort of step up in their performance that would be almost invisible to the outside world, but in the intensely competitive environment of professional baseball could make the difference between becoming rich and staying poor.
Silver has analysed the performance of all those who tested positive but were retained by their teams and allowed to resume playing after a brief suspension (although baseball now has a strict testing regime, it doesn’t have the toughest penalties: players are suspended for 50 games for a first offence, which puts them out of the sport for about two months). He found that players’ performances after they return drugs-free are not so different from what they managed before. Some players actually get better when they stop taking the drugs; most get worse, but in the majority of cases not by much, and only erratically. There is no evidence that steroid abuse can transform a player’s performance. But there is considerable evidence that for most players it can make a small difference, and at the margins of professional sport a small difference can be all the difference in the world.
Small differences can also make big differences at the pinnacle. After his record-breaking season in 2001, Barry Bonds re-signed for the San Francisco Giants for a salary of $90 million, spread over five years, more than double what he had been paid under his previous contract. In 2005, when he was injured for much of the time, Bonds earned more than $22 million. Yet one of the many incredible things to emerge from Game of Shadows is that despite these mind-boggling sums, Bonds often found himself short of cash. His personal life was a mess following an ugly divorce, and most of his wealth was managed by lawyers and accountants with strict instructions to make sure he didn’t conceal any income from his ex-wife. When he needed petty cash to treat his girlfriends, Bonds relied on his income from sales of signed baseballs and other memorabilia; this market is highly sensitive to performance, and when he broke Maris’s record the value of his signature rocketed. This was good news for Bonds, but less good news for some of his girlfriends, since even when he had the money he turned out to be horribly mean.
One of his regular companions was a woman called Kimberly Bell, to whom he would give occasional gifts of $5000 or $10,000 in an envelope. When things got serious, Bonds encouraged her to move to Scottsdale, Arizona and gave her $80,000 for a down payment on a house. But when he began to tire of her, he also tired of helping her keep up with the mortgage payments, and she got deeper and deeper into debt. Eventually, confronted with the damage Bell could do to him if she went public with their relationship, Bonds offered her a final sum of $20,000 to leave him alone, barely enough to cover her legal bills. This was a big mistake. Bell went to the authorities with everything she knew, which turned out to be a lot. At the grand jury convened to hear evidence against Victor Conte and Balco, she testified to what she had seen and heard during the course of their relationship: Bonds’s secretive behaviour with a special ‘man-bag’ of medication he carried around with him, his half-hearted attempts to buy her silence, his violent and controlling behaviour. She also described the physical changes she had noticed over the years of his drug-taking: he had developed acne across his back, his libido had fallen away and his testicles had shrunk. Asked, also, whether his skull had grown and become distorted during the time she had known him, Bell replied that she thought it had, but couldn’t be sure.
Among the evidence Bell gave to the authorities was a series of voicemail recordings that Bonds left for her when he couldn’t find her at her new home. These seem to confirm that steroid abuse is not good for an individual’s mental equilibrium. One runs as follows: ‘Hey girl, what’s up? Kim, hey – who is trying to get in on my shit? No niggah’s trying to get in on my shit. Don’t have me kill a niggah. Ha, ha, ha, ha – later girl. I’m on my way to San Diego, but I’m still getting the pussy, ha, ha! Welcome to the penthouse!’ Others were more succinct: ‘If I don’t know where you are, then a niggah’s going to kill somebody, goodbye.’ Unfortunately, Bonds is not the best test case for the debilitating effects of performance-enhancing drugs on a person’s character. All the evidence suggests that even before he started taking steroids, he was deeply unpleasant: petulant, narcissistic, foul-mouthed, paranoid, capricious, wilfully cruel and wholly selfish. Wherever he went, he was loathed by his team-mates (apart from the one or two he was able to buy or terrify into slavish obeisance) and horribly indulged by his managers.
Yet despite this record of monstrous behaviour, some of Bonds’s grievances against the world are well-founded. He is almost certainly right that the colour of his skin has prevented his getting the accolades he deserves. Ask any baseball fan or professional who was the greatest player in the history of the game, and they will say Babe Ruth. However, careful analysis of Bonds’s career statistics, taking account of the fact that baseball is a tougher sport now than it was in the 1920s, suggests that Bonds may be performing at a higher level in the context of his generation than Ruth did in his. One of the advantages Ruth had was that he played at a time when baseball was a whites-only sport, and so never had to face any of the superb pitchers forced to ply their trade in the Negro Leagues. Bonds has to face pitchers, and compete with other batters, drawn from a far bigger pool of talent, including not only non-white Americans but players from Central America, Cuba (when they can get away), Japan and Korea, all battling for the fabulous rewards on offer in the American major leagues; and he has outshone them all. Pound-for-pound, if that’s the right phrase, Barry Bonds may just be the greatest baseball player of all time. But he rarely gets treated as such, because people don’t like him. He is not alone in thinking this is somewhat unfair, and that the drugs issue is a smokescreen.
Yet before one starts to feel too sorry for him, it is worth remembering a few other facts about Bonds’s track record. First, he has almost never managed to carry over his regular season form into post-season (the knockout competition that culminates in the World Series), where he often performs lamentably, and where his arrogance and petulance are usually on conspicuous display. Bonds has never won a World Series, unlike Ruth, who won seven, including three as a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. In other words, when the pressure is really on, Bonds is a choker, and they don’t make drugs for that (not yet, anyway). Second, although Bonds is by all accounts an odious person, it is also true that some of it is an act, put on in order to feed his sense of injustice, which he has discovered benefits his game. On the few occasions when Bonds has tried to put his best face forward for the media, and started to gain some half-decent press, his batting has tended to suffer. He needs the world to hate him to perform at his best, and so he does his best to ensure the world hates him, going out of his way, for example, to moan to the newspapers about his father’s tendency to lounge about on the sofa expecting his family to look after him, when his father was dying of cancer. If the steroids fuelled Bonds’s rage, that was cheating too. Third, it doesn’t matter that Bonds was an exceptional player, perhaps already Ruth’s equal, before he began taking the drugs; it doesn’t even matter that the drugs may not have made all that much difference to his overall record. His claim to greatness still depends on what he has achieved over the last five years, the best five years of his career – the steroid years. As with any successful drugs cheat, if he didn’t believe he could do it unaided, why should we?
Finally, Bonds’s claims to having been treated unfairly throughout his life run up against the unarguable fact that since he was exposed as a client of Victor Conte, he has been treated exceptionally leniently. If the world was out to get him, how do you explain its apparent reluctance to seize this golden opportunity to destroy him once and for all? When the Balco scandal first broke, it looked for a while as though the consequences for everyone involved would be severe. The track athletes named by Conte were all horribly tainted by their association with Balco, and the careers of some were effectively ended by it. Meanwhile, George W. Bush’s first-term attorney general, the sanctimonious John Ashcroft, saw the whole affair as an opportunity to get professional sport in the United States to confront the moral turpitude at its heart. He even persuaded Bush to include a few lines about drugs in sport in his 2004 State of the Union address, in which he demanded that those responsible for professional sport should ‘take the lead, send the right signal, get tough, and get rid of steroids now.’ But before long it was Bush who got rid of Ashcroft, and although, or perhaps even because, Bush had been a baseball mogul in a previous life (from 1989-98 he was one of the owners of the Texas Rangers franchise), he quickly lost interest in the whole business. Meanwhile, current baseball owners, alarmed by the damage a full-blown scandal could do to the sport, did their best to ignore it. Bonds has been allowed to carry on playing, and despite all the evidence linking him to Conte and steroid use, he has not been fined or even reprimanded for his involvement.
The one player so far to have really suffered is Mark McGwire, who was called to testify before a congressional committee in spring 2005, after he had been named by another player, Jose Canseco, in a tell-all autobiography (this described, among other things, witnessing McGwire and a second Balco customer, Jason Giambi, injecting each other with steroids before an exhibition game in Japan). McGwire took the stand after listening to the testimony of Denise and Ray Garibaldi, whose son Rob took steroids in order to boost his high-school baseball career, and who became progressively depressed, violent and delusional before shooting himself in the head at the age of 24. A shaken and apparently contrite McGwire responded with a touching tribute to the suffering of the Garibaldis, and expressed his determination to spare other parents from going through the same ordeal. But then, on the advice of his lawyers, he replied to all subsequent questions about his own steroid use by saying: ‘I’m not here to talk about the past.’ By the end of the hearing, his audience were so tired of this refrain that they laughed derisively every time he uttered it. McGwire, who had retired in 2001, was thoroughly humiliated by the whole experience. Nevertheless, all the other players who were caught up in the scandal, and who have yet to retire, have been allowed to continue their playing careers regardless.
The publication of Game of Shadows may just have changed that. Fainaru-Wada and Williams are the San Francisco Chronicle reporters to whom much of the secret grand jury testimony about Conte, Balco and Barry Bonds was leaked. The bringing together of this overwhelming body of evidence between hard covers finally persuaded the baseball commissioner, Bud Selig, to authorise an investigation into the level of steroid abuse in the sport, which is headed by the former senator George Mitchell (who also happens to be a director of the Boston Red Sox). Still, Fainaru-Wada and Williams want to know why the baseball authorities have reacted so slowly and so apparently half-heartedly, when the evidence has been available for some time (a good deal of it was published in the Chronicle in 2004). They contrast Selig’s attitude to that of Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the commissioner who dealt with the other great scandal to hit the sport: the Black Sox disaster of 1919, when it emerged that the Chicago White Sox had been paid by a gambling syndicate to throw that year’s World Series.
Landis was brutal with the perpetrators, banning them all for life with no opportunity to appeal, and baseball has been ferocious ever since at any hint of misconduct involving gambling: if any of the players currently under suspicion of taking drugs were also believed to have wagered on matches, they would not be allowed to set foot inside a baseball stadium again. But Fainaru-Wada and Williams are being naive if they really can’t tell the difference between these two scandals. When the Black Sox scam was exposed, the entire baseball public, to a man, woman and child, was outraged. This time round, some are outraged and some are not. Most people are mildly disturbed by what they have learned. But many, to be honest, don’t particularly care.
One possible reason is that people can distinguish between being treated like fools and being treated as though they were mere innocents; and while it is possible to forgive those who regard you as an innocent, no one can forgive being used like a fool. Players who cheat by fixing matches have stopped trying, while players who cheat with performance-enhancing drugs are trying harder than ever. On a scale of dishonesty in sport correlated according to what it does to the will to win, throwing matches would be at one end; diving, the current scourge of Premiership football, would be somewhere in the middle (some players who dive are simply giving up but others are doing everything they can to gain an advantage for their team); and steroid abuse would be at the other end of the scale, because anyone who is willing to risk acne, impotence and mental disintegration to improve their performance must be really up for it. Fans respect that sort of desire. When the stories about Bonds and steroids started to emerge, many Giants fans were distressed, and Bonds was even booed at some home matches. But when he carried on belting the ball out of the park, they started to cheer, and many are cheering still. The hard truth is that people can afford to be sanctimonious about steroid abuse in athletics because it is not a team sport; there is the appearance of something selfish about it. But although he is an Olympic-standard egomaniac, Bonds is not simply benefiting himself. He is paid more than $20 million a season because of his value to his team.
If Bonds manages to stay fit and continues hitting the ball at his usual rate, then at some point he is going to break baseball’s other most precious record, Hank Aaron’s career total of 755 home runs. Bonds will then become the first player since Babe Ruth to hold the single-season and career home-run records simultaneously. For now, he is struggling to get there, and the scandal may just catch up with him before he does. A second grand jury has been convened to investigate whether Bonds perjured himself before the Balco grand jury: he could still, conceivably, wind up in jail, if someone were determined enough to put him there. But if Bonds does manage to overhaul Aaron, then those whose business it is to promote baseball – the TV networks, the newspapers, the advertisers, the clubs themselves – still seem ready to treat the arrival of this event with the reverence worthy of a minor religious spectacle, regardless of all the dark clouds that will hang over it. Meanwhile, amid all the hoopla surrounding Bonds, Conte managed to cut a deal with the prosecuting authorities, which resulted in the dropping of 40 of the 42 charges against him. For the two felonies to which he pleaded guilty, Conte was sentenced to four months in jail followed by four months of house arrest. Greg Anderson, Bonds’s trainer and direct supplier, got three and three. Both are now out of prison.
Back in Fargo, the Roger Maris museum was given a revamp in 2003, and although it is still in the mall it has been expanded to include a movie theatre with original Yankee Stadium seats on which visitors can watch film clips of Maris’s magical season. In 2005, the North Dakota senate voted unanimously not to recognise the single-season home-run records of Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire, and to restore the title to Roger Maris, who did it without any help from anyone. Some are even demanding that the entire steroid era – the decade from 1994-2004 – be reclassified the ‘asterisk years’, and all the achievements associated with it suitably amended in the record books. But the world doesn’t work like that. In San Francisco, they are continuing with their plans for Barry Bonds Day, to celebrate the moment he hits number 756.
[*] The essay appears in Baseball between the Numbers: Why Everything You Know about the Game is Wrong, edited by Jonah Keri (Basic, 400 pp., £14.99, August, 0 465 00596 9).