Book Review: “Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroids Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports”

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Two weeks ago, Major League Baseball reached a landmark in their fight against performance enhancing drugs. For the first time, 13 players were suspended for PED use without a single positive test.

Read that again — 13 players were suspended without a single positive test.

“Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroids Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports”, by San Francisco Chronicle investigative journalists Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada, was released just prior to the 2006 baseball season. Barry Bonds hadn’t yet passed Hank Aaron in the all-time home run total. The following known PED users hadn’t been outed: Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, David Ortiz. George Michell’s famous report was still a year and a half away from publication. In 2006, the “Steroid Era” was still very much in its infancy.

But “Game of Shadows” couldn’t be more relevant today.

In many ways, Barry Bonds is the star of “Game of Shadows”. But the real star is Victor Conte, the founder of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO).

Conte was a flamboyant failed musician who somehow stumbled into the world of nutritional supplements and eventually illegal steroids. Conte’s slick salesmanship helped him construct a mini-empire in Northern California, where he supplied athletes a variety of outlawed performance enhancing drugs. Conte was eager to experiment with new drugs, and he eventually started distributing undetectable compounds like “the Clear”. The Clear was a popular steroid nicknamed as such because it was invisible to the Olympics allegedly rigid drug testing procedures. The athletes called it a “magic potion”. Through “the Clear” and other drugs, Conte wanted to build the “perfect” athlete and shatter records. Most importantly to the arc of this story, he wanted the credit.

Which is what led him to Barry Bonds.

Conte started outfitting Bonds with PEDs in 2000, two years after Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa broke baseball’s single season home run record. While an American public wildly cheered them to 70 and 66 home runs respectively, Bonds seethed. He knew they were juicing. If McGwire and Sosainferior hitters in Bonds’s eyes–could do that, what could he do? Once Bonds found Conte and his new trainer Greg Anderson, baseball would soon have it’s answer.

There are two ways to view Bonds:

1. A stain on baseball. A cheater.

2. The greatest hitter that ever lived.

It’s possible to view him both ways. From 2000-2004, Barry Bonds did things on a baseball field no one will ever do again. En route to 4 consecutive MVP awards (he was likely robbed of a 5th in 2000, losing to his teammate and rival, Jeff Kent), Bonds hit 73 home runs in 2002. His walk totals from 2001-2004 were 177, 198, 148, and 232. During that span, he had the 3 highest OPSs in baseball history. His on base percentage was .609 in 2004. Seriously, take a minute and go to his Baseball Reference page and look the numbers. Bonds’s dominance can’t be understated.

Eventually, it came to an end. “Game of Shadows” is not only about the rise of Conte and BALCO, it’s also about the fall. In the end, it was Conte’s narcissism that brought him down. It wasn’t enough for Conte to build the athletes, he needed the credit. It wasn’t hard for the federal government to connect Conte to Bonds; Conte bragged about it all over the internet. He paraded his star athletes and Olympians all over the media. When the government finally raided BALCO in 2003, the agents had barely walked in the door before Conte told them everything they wanted to know. I guess to Conte, it didn’t matter they were federal agents. Confessing is a great way to get attention.

For a sports fan who values and aspires to watch a clean game, Bonds isn’t the villain. Conte is. Athletes will always look for an edge. It shouldn’t surprise us players like Bonds turn to drugs to increase their performance.

Nor should it surprise us men are willing to provide them the drugs. It’s not alarming Conte gave Barry Bonds steroids and HGH, it’s alarming he was so stupid about it. Conte was begging to be caught. Do you know how the federal government acquired most of their documentary evidence about BALCO prior to the raid? They took it out of the dumpster in the BALCO parking lot. Do you know how the US Anti-doping Agency eventually developed a test for Conte’s signature drug, “the Clear”? An angry rival and former colleague sent them a sample through the mail. Major League Baseball shouldn’t fear more Contes, they should pray for them. It’s a safe assumption the modern-day Victor Contes don’t possess the same hubris and arrogance that brought down BALCO so quickly.

Which leads us back to the 13 players suspended this month. BALCO was so successful because they were ahead of the testers. “The Clear” couldn’t be seen in a test until the USADA caught a huge break. That was 10 years ago. It’s a very safe assumption today’s PED suppliers have become more effective and more secretive. Many will never be caught. Those 13 suspended players are probably the tip of the iceberg.

Game of Shadows indeed.

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