Needing More Juice

The first account of baseball's steroid scandal leaves too many questions unanswered

When BALCO founder Victor Conte and two of his co-defendants pleaded guilty in mid-July to steroid distribution and money laundering charges, it marked an end to the sports world's most far-reaching and iconic drug scandal. It also meant that Barry Bonds, the Giants superstar whose trainer and childhood friend joined Conte in pleading guilty, would not have to take the stand and testify -- in a closely watched, media-saturated trial -- about his alleged drug use, and the impact those drugs might have had on his historic chase for the home-run record. And so the public, which might very well balk at the light sentences handed down (only four months in prison for Conte) after all the Bush administration's tough talk on steroids in sports, will likely be kept in the dark about which players were using what, and whether Major League Baseball and its ever-bumbling commissioner, Bud Selig, could have done more to prevent the problem.

Into that void of still-unanswered questions steps Juicing the Game, billed by its publisher, Viking Press, as the first comprehensive account of baseball's steroid era. Written by Howard Bryant, a Boston Heraldsports columnist and former Oakland A's beat writer for the San Jose Mercury News, the book is an exhaustive (and exhausting) 400-page-plus chronicle of nearly every major event in baseball since the crippling 1994 strike. Make no mistake: Bryant has done his homework, and the book draws on his interviews with such key figures as Selig, former Commissioner Fay Vincent, and player union heads Donald Fehr and Marvin Miller. But for those who have been following the scandal in the sports pages, there's not a lot of new information here -- indeed, the most damning details regarding players' steroid abuse pop up in Bryant's lengthy excerpts of the San Francisco Chronicle stories that originally published leaked testimony from the grand jury proceedings. The fact that the book was released before the BALCO case was settled is telling; this is a "rough draft of history," with the feel of an official account authorized by Major League Baseball. It's an account that will likely be heavily revised and recontextualized over the coming years.

Part of the problem is Bryant's focus -- or lack thereof. While we get plenty of well-written scenes describing baseball's recent momentous moments, many feel forced and superfluous, hardly necessary in a discussion of steroids. Do we really need to be there when Baltimore's brass first begins to dream up plans for Camden Yards, a throwback ballpark that would revolutionize stadium-building? Or when umpires were designing the computerized strike zone known as Questec, which now grades pitch-calling during many Major League games? Bryant's argument is that steroids can only be understood when considering all of the changes that have swept through the national pastime in the last decade, and in fact the past 100 years. But chapter-long debates about the importance of on-base percentage and whether smaller ballparks produce more home runs could be greatly streamlined, and the piled-up anecdotes read like lame stand-ins for the hard information on steroids that Bryant rightly assumes baseball fans desire.

After all, the relative slaps on the wrist that Conte and his associates received seem completely out of line with the central thesis of Bryant's book -- that steroids (and the resulting home-run boom) have shaken the soul of the game. Although Bryant spends a lot of time railing against Selig, previous commissioners, and all the "unanswered questions" on steroids that they have yet to account for, his book doesn't do much to answer those questions, despite (or maybe because of ) its scope and thoroughness.

There's an implication running through Juicing the Game that Major League Baseball did anything and everything to reclaim its lost fans following the '94 strike, and that it certainly encouraged and marketed the single-season home-run-record chase in 1998 between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa as a historic epoch that returned the game to societal prominence. Given that many of these sluggers have since been implicated in Senate and grand jury hearings as steroid users, one wonders: Just what did Selig know, when did he know it, and did he willingly ignore or encourage use of supplements and steroids because of the newfound link between home runs and ticket sales? (We know that many teams, including the A's, provided their players with creatine, a now-banned supplement, as weight-training regimens gained favor in the '90s.)

Bryant talks around these questions, but no amount of Selig-bashing can substitute for a more direct appraisal of why, despite numerous warnings from medical panels and crusading doctors, baseball was so slow to move against steroids. Maybe, just maybe, could it be that baseball didn't want to?

Bryant has been a very visible talking head over the past few weeks, appearing on talk shows to lambaste prosecutors and the federal government for agreeing to such a short sentence for Conte. On TV, Bryant is articulate and forceful, lamenting the fact that Conte's plea deal means America probably won't ever know the full story. One could voice a similar lament about Bryant's book; perhaps if he hadn't been in such a hurry to be the first person to publish on the steroid scandal, we'd know just a bit more of the true saga.

 
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