Wednesday, April 05, 2006

'Game of Shadows' Closes the book on Bonds.


I just finished reading Game of Shadows by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, and I have to say that I am disgusted by the steroid controversy that has seemingly engulfed major professional sports. The new book chronicles the investigation into illegal steroid distribution by Victor Conte, the founder of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-op, (BALCO for short) a front-business which supposedly dealt in 'Supplements' and 'Mineral Deficiency Testing'.

Conte is portrayed as a spotlight-hog with a used-car-salesman style; A twenty-first century snake-oil salesman with a 'Boris Badonov' mustache & a passion for 'creating' elite athletes. At once described as a 'Jock-Sniffer' Conte has a pathological need to cozy up to athletes in the spotlight, and he designs a system of building championship athletes through a carefully constructed regimen of new, undetectable 'designer' performance-enhancing drugs.

Track stars Tim Montgomery and Marion Jones, NFL Linebacker Bill Romanowski, and many others associated with BALCO are exposed as outright frauds caught in a corrupt, world-wide culture of sports doping, and the authors have done their homework. By meticulously re-constructing events through e-mails, wiretap transcripts, interviews and grand jury testimony from IRS agent Jeff Novitzky's sweeping ivestigation into the corrupt inner workings of BALCO, Fainaru-Wada & Williams paint a vivid picture of the dark heart of the high-stakes, big-money world of competetive athletics.

Yet the focal point of the story (And, one could argue-- from a narrative viewpoint-- almost vindictively so) is San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds, who, at the time of this writing stands only a few homers shy of eclipsing Babe Ruth for second place on the all-time MLB home-run list. Bonds is portrayed as a selfish, petulant, arrogant, violently moody superstar whose ire over Mark McGwire's steroid-fueled record-breaking single-season total of 70 homers in 1998 motivates him to cycle onto what he calls 'The Shit.'

Bonds forms a mutually beneficial working relationship with longtime friend and trainer (and small-time steroid dealer) Greg Anderson, whose ties to Conte's BALCO labs give Bonds just the right resources he needs to fuel his pursuit of Big Mac's tainted mark. Bonds agrees to promote Conte's products in return for a regimen of illegal performance-enhancing drugs, which include Winstrol, Epitestosterone Decanoate (The 'Cream'), The undetectable Human Growth Hormone, Norbolethone (The 'Clear'), The Narcolepsy Drug Modafinil, and even Trenbolone, a drug used in beefing-up cattle. Thanks to Conte and Anderson, Bonds gains fifteen pounds of muscle in just under 100 days, and his Giants teamates take to calling him 'The Hulk'.

Bonds then almost doubles his career homerun output past the age of 35-- the five best seasons of his career come after most other ballplayers start breaking down-- (Could one view Roger Clemens' post-'twilight' success in a new way??? hmmm) --and he hits 73 home runs in 2001, shattering McGwire's record with an offesnive explosion that would propel him past some of the greatest names to ever play the game.

Along the way, we are given glimpses into Bonds' inner world, one where he is in complete, obsessive control of the people, places & things in it. Anderson, his trainer; Kimberly Bell, his longtime mistress; even Giants owner Peter Magowan, who defers to Bonds wishes in every way, ostensibly because, as Bonds tell him "Without me, you don't make no money."

Conte puts Bonds through several 'Test Run' drug screenings, in an apparent effort to judge the efficacy of his undetectable 'Clear' designer steroid. Bonds is tested privately on two separate occasions; These test-run screenings would come back to bite Bonds during his grand jury testimony, as he is unable to account for the suspect prescence of 'unusually high testosterone levels' in his body as a result of one private drug test through BALCO (as part of a 'test run')on december 2, 2002.

Eventually, Bonds' ties to Anderson & Conte (and his ever-expanding statistical successes) become tantalizing to other MLB players, such as then-Giants catcher Benito Santiago, and Yankee All-stars Garry Sheffield and Jason Giambi. These MLB stars get involved with BALCO in order to ramp-up their offensive output. Some, like Santiago, just want to hold onto a roster spot; Others, like Giambi and Sheffield cash in on their newfound 'pop' by selling their services to the highest bidder, the New York Yankees, in free agency. As Novitzky's investigation nears it's critical phase we are also given a look at the corporate and political spin machines as they try to minimize the damage done to the sport's perception. The USADA Olympic track doping saga is an incredible tale filled with threats, retribution and intimidation-- it reads like a spy novel.

We are given grand jury statements from Bonds which seem totally inconsistent with his seeming control-freak nature, as he claims to be ignorant of the substances--provided by Anderson--which he 'unknowingly' ingested or applied. He also claims willful ignorance of the Bonds-centered drug calendars seized from his trainer's computer. Bonds nimbly attempts to parry the investigators with more such nonsense, but with so much circumstantial evidence it is difficult to ignore what the 'real deal' points to...

And it is sad. Sad because the entire culture of the big-time athletic sytem seems to be dependent on these drugs which can kill otherwise healthy young men and women in the prime of their lives. All to shave off a second, or add ten feet; Turning a second place finisher into a world-record holder and a warning-track shot into a homerun. What's even sadder is the complicty by both the organizations who profit (Say, for example MLB who gladly couted the attendance figures in the mid-nineties when all of this steroid nonsense was brewing) and the athletes who represent the 'product' (Say, for example, the MLB Players Association, whose members play the 'exploitation' and 'victimization' card even though they have more power to effect internal change than just about any other union in the United States) Their inability to take care of each other and police their sport has resulted in this: Bonds, in his 'joyless pursuit of history,' (as Dan Shaugnessy --in a moment of uncharacteristic eloquence-- put it) accompanied by a cascade of boos.

The book seems to crest with the congressional hearings in 2005 (Which Bonds was not invited to, because he was still a 'person of interest' in the BALCO investigation) in which Oriole First-Baseman (and subsequent drug cheat) Rafael Palmeiro wags his finger in the Face of Virgina Congressman Tom Davis and says "I have never. Ever. Used steroids. Period." (riiiiight.) We also see disgraced slugger Mark McGwire wilt under the glare of the spotlight (No more Hardees ads for him) as Sammy Sosa does his best 'Chico Esquela' impersonation, hiding behind his language & his lawyer in an attempt to evade answering any relevant questions.

The appendix to the book is a fascinating look at the chronology of statements, transcripts & other source material-- Not to mention a look at the statistical side of Bonds' acheivements (Which, I must say, I haven't gotten to yet) It would be a difficult task to credibly refute all of the information contained in this volume (Though Conte has 'Promised' to do just that) and I'm very glad that these two writers spent the time to do the dirty work, the kind of work IRS Chief investigator Novitzky does to begin his BALCO investigation; Namely, digging through the garbage of the past to fnd some semblance of the truth.

I was struck by the words of all-time home run champ Hank Aaron when he is asked about steroids. He says, "Any way you look at it, it's wrong." That's kind of the way I feel as well.

I personally feel that Bonds is not a vicim of 100% bona-fide racial redjudice in this case-- although there is definitely a racial component to a good portion of white america' opposition to him. I personally don't see him as a martyr, misinterpreted genius or african-american activist-- Rather, I think he's an idiot. A greedy idiot. I know I'm a Buddhist, and I should be observing right speech, but Bonds doesn't appear to be the sharpest knife in the drawer. Let me explain.

When McGwire and Sosa both broke Maris' single season homerun mark in 1998, that was enough to raise eybrows. Sure, it was fun to watch, but after the euphoria had faded, many folks said "Hey, wait a minute, this can't be real." The rest of the world started catching up to what many in the sport alread knew-- that baseball was dirty, and these totals were probably the result of inflated numbers due to the use of performance enhancing-drugs. McGwire's 'andro' epsode and Sosa's subsequent corked-bat incident years later affirmed that belief for many folks, and turned the summer of '98 into a long-forgotten saturday morning cartoon, one that on repeat viewing just wasn't as good as it was when you were seven years old.

So what does Bonds do?? Is he satisfied with being widely regarded as the all-around best player in the game, even without the single-season homer mark?? No, instead he goes the 'Icarus' rout and decides to juice up for the first time in his life at age 34... when he has incredible career numbers already-- and before we can recover from '98 a season that saw the scaling of the 'Olympus' of single-season records, some 37 years in the making-- BANG!! Bonds eclipses the McGwire total of 70 with 73 of his own just three years later!! Talk about being un-original, short-sighted, selfish, AND stupid... Suffice to say, the lid is blown off... now people know something fishy is going on, and they want answers from Major League Baseball. Then players like '96 NL MVP Ken Caminiti start dying from steroids... Meanwhile, the government is ratcheting up it's pursuit of drug cheats worldwide.. McGwire ducks quietly out of the game... Canseco writes his tell-all book... The congressional hearings become a fiasco... and Bonds becomes the sole object of scrutiny-- The remaining poster-boy for cheating, the symbolic 'juiced ballplayer'-- sitting within striking distance of the two most beloved homerun legends of the game.

So-- How does Bonds react?? He reacts like a victim.

Well, I say he's an idiot. He should have seen it coming. He flew too close to the sun too fast-- He's like the guy who reaches for a few more stacks of hundreds in a heist, when he already has an armful-- and runs right into the television cameras.

Don't get me wrong; As a lifelong diehard baseball fan, I hope they go after McGwire and Sosa-- as well as Bonds-- and get to the bottom of just what was going on with them-- Not just to punish, because realistcally, how can you punish them without punishing the entire industry-- But to find out the truth. A wise man once said 'the truth will set you free.'

Without the truth, this sad saga can't ever have a hopeful resolution.

The book ends as the 2006 campaign is getting underway-- and here we are, on day three of the 2006 MLB season. Bonds' ESPN reality show premiered last night, on an evening when a cascade of boos (not to mention a syringe thrown by a fan) rained down on perhaps the greatest hitter the sport of baseball --or perhaps Victor Conte-- has ever produced.

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