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Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroids Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports
by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams
Gotham Books/Penguin Canada
332 pages, $34.00

Reviewed by Joe Wiebe
Posted April 26, 2006

Every year as baseball players converge in warmer climes for Spring Training, there seems to be a new baseball book published to satiate fans impatient for Opening Day. Two years ago it was Moneyball, Michael Lewis’ case study of the Oakland Athletics’ iconoclastic General Manager, Billy Beane. Last spring it was Jose Canseco’s gossipy autobiography, Juiced, in which the super-sized Latino slugger not only admitted to having used steroids throughout his major league career, but also tattled on some of his contemporaries: Rafael Palmeiro has since been busted for steroid use and shamed into early retirement; Jason Giambi admitted to a Grand Jury that he’d taken steroids and later apologized to the public, although he would not say what he was apologizing for; and fan fave Mark McGwire never hid the fact that he took androstenedione when he broke Roger Maris’ home run record in 1998. Though not a steroid itself, “andro” boosts testosterone levels and has since been banned in baseball.
This spring, the book to read between innings and during pitching changes is Game of Shadows, written by two San Francisco Chronicle reporters who (since 2002) have been investigating the connections between the San Francisco Giants superstar Barry Bonds—arguably baseball’s best ever slugger—and BALCO (the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative), a distributor of nutritional supplements for bodybuilders and athletes, whose owner, Victor Conte, has been convicted of trafficking in illegal steroids and money-laundering.

Game of Shadows denounces Barry Bonds for taking a variety of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs from 1998 on. The journalists build a strong case against Bonds, including direct testimony from Kimberly Bell, Bonds’ former mistress, and statements implicating him made by convicted steroid dealers and users to federal agents. Bonds himself has consistently denied using steroids, claiming his muscular physique is the result of hard work, and arguing that he is the victim of a racist conspiracy.

There was enough evidence against Bonds for a Grand Jury to subpoena him in December 2003. His rambling, dissembling answers to the direct questions posed by the prosecutors seem extremely suspicious, to say the least. While he did not admit to knowingly taking steroids, he did acknowledge using “the Cream” and “the Clear,” two illegal substances distributed by BALCO, which he claimed he thought were arthritis cream and flaxseed oil respectively. In fact, the Cream is a “mixture of synthetic testosterone and epitestosterone” that is used as a masking agent because it makes the athlete appear to have normal levels of testosterone when tested. The Clear is a designer steroid that was undetectable by drug testers until recently.

The main evidence against Bonds is circumstantial, based on the significant changes in his physique and the dramatic increase in his statistical performance at a time in his career when most hitters’ numbers begin falling, not growing. Bonds transformed himself from a lean and speedy, hit-for-average type of ballplayer in the early 1990s to a stocky, muscle-bound, all-or-nothing slugger—he has gained 43 pounds of muscle since 1987—who surpassed McGwire’s 70 home run season record from 1998 with 73 of his own in 2001.
The night before I wrote this, Bonds hit home run number 710 for his career, leaving him only four away from Babe Ruth’s total of 714 and 45 away from Hank Aaron’s record of 755. Sure, the Babe was guilty of substance abuse—alcohol, food, cigars—but if anything those substances probably reduced his effectiveness over the long run. And no one would ever accuse Hammerin’ Hank of being juiced—his 23-year career is a model of consistency in which he never hit more than 47 home runs in a given season and only surpassed 40 six times, yet still managed to set the all-time record.

Game of Shadows feels a bit rushed, and neither Fainaru-Wada nor Williams will win any awards for stylish prose. Most of this book is actually focused on several Olympic athletes who were convicted of steroid use in the BALCO investigation. Some of that side of the story is important because of how it implicates Bonds, but still, the authors should have done a better job of balancing that part of their case with the baseball side.

Nonetheless, Game of Shadows is a must-read for anyone interested in the effects of doping in professional sports, and especially any baseball fan who believes Bonds is the real thing. Based on the case presented here, he ain’t.

Joe Wiebe recently completed his first novel, a literary baseball story called Mudville.

Copyright Joe Wiebe. All rights reserved.

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