David Runciman

  • 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.

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[*] 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).