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Book Review: Game of Shadows – How Steroids Ruin Baseball

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In 1998, Mark McGwire was chasing the ghost of Roger Maris and Sammy Sosa was chasing Mark McGwire. The 1998 home run chase made everyone feel better about baseball. Now the truth can be told; the era of feel-good baseball was based on a lie. We now know that Mark McGwire’s strength and endurance down the stretch came, in par,t as a result of steroid use.

Game of Shadows ripped the cover off baseball’s little secret — that the best hitter in baseball had been aided by modern pharmacology and he was not alone. A few years back, Jose Canseco’s own book detailing substantial steroid use was dismissed as an angry ball-player settling scores. No longer in baseball and fuming that he could not have a shot at 500 homers and possible Hall of fame entry, Canseco wrote a scorching book detailing his own steroid use and that of other stars in the fame.

As a sport, baseball has some unofficial standards that in the past ensured Hall of Fame entry. Hit 500 homers in a career and your ticket to the Hall of Fame has been clicked. Garner 3000 hits and you are on your way to Cooperstown, with no questions asked. If you win 300 victories from the pitcher’s mound, you will be in the Hall of Fame.

Canseco was one of the most complete players when he was with the A’s. He could run, hit with power and one year stole 40 bases along with slugging 40 homers. But in the last years of his career, Canseco became the butt of many jokes as the player who allowed a home run bounced off his head. His glory day as an A disappeared from memory.

Originally his book was dismissed as a combination of exaggeration or outright fabrication but Canseco’s words proved to be truth. His book led to Congressional hearings in which Americans saw Rafael Palmeiro wag his finger to deny any steroid use; Mark McGwire essentially admitted his guilt by not answering the question. Palmeiro later tested positive for steroids and the hearings verified much of what Canseco stated was the truth.

Authors Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams detail Barry Bonds’ morph from one of baseball’s all-around players to the most dangerous hitter in history. Since Bonds turned 35, he put up numbers that would be unreal for younger players and definitely surreal for a player his age. If a ball was close to the strike zone, Bonds stroked over into the McCovey Cove.

Both Fainaru-Wada and Williams portray Bonds as a miniature bully, whose character flaws were made worse by steroid use. Never truly loved by baseball in general, the book merely reinforced that image he managed to portray over two decades of professional baseball.

The authors of Game of Shadows claim that Bonds’ jealousy of McGwire led him to begin steroid treatments. Bond told his closest associates, including his white girlfriend, that McGwire got the home run record because the establishment allowed him because of his skin pigmentation. In spite of his occasional use of the race card in private, Bonds had many close white friends, and was openly dating a white woman. Even his first wife was white; but this did not stop the bitterness that he felt toward McGwire. As far as Bonds was concerned, he was a better player than McGwire and far more deserving of the press that McGwire received.

It was 1998 that convinced Bonds that he needed to juice up himself if he was going to be a dominant home run star and overshadow all the others. Fainaru-Wada and Williams show the successful transformation as Bonds turned into the Frankenstein of baseball. No one could get him out and his numbers spoke for themselves. A .290 hitter with one homer for every 16 at bats before 1999, Bonds started to hit homers a twice the clip before he became involved in the performance-enhancing drug.

The drugs used also resulted in personality changes. One of the major points that the authors relay was that baseball suspected or knew what was occurring. The Giants knew that Bonds’ personal trainer was involved in steroid dealing but they did nothing. When the Giants’ own trainers warned the management that Bonds’ personal trainers were possibly involved in illegal steroid dealing and demanded that they be banned from locker room, they were overruled.

Baseball’s present drug policy came about due to the possibility of potential Congressional intervention in the sport. In 2002, Ken Caminiti confessed to Sports Illustrated that his 1996 MVP season was steroid-powered and laid the groundwork for the present situation. And there was more than enough suspicion that something was amiss. Home runs were flying out of the park at record pace and what was considered hallowed ground became the routine. Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire twice bested Roger Maris’ record in individual seasons. And three years after McGwire bested Maris’ record, Bonds obliterated McGwire’s record. For years, bad pitching and smaller stadiums were blamed, but one major reason for the home runs soaring out of the ballparks was that many ball players pumped themselves up through pharmacology.

Which brings us to the question of how to view this era from historical perspective. In the past, baseball had certain standards but now it is hard to view those standards as sacred for many present players. How many of Mark McGwire’s homers came as a result of steroids? Would McGwire have reached 500 homers if not for steroids? We know that Bonds nearly double his homer run output after beginning intensive therapy. Can we assume that Bonds would not have approached 700 homers or even 600 homers without aid of drugs? Unlike McGwire, however, Bonds was on his way to a Hall of Fame career and there is little doubt that he did not need any pharmacological aid to make it to the Hall of Fame.

Baseball Hall of Fame voters can’t be as certain of others. Palmeiro began his career as a solid spray hitter but ended his career as a 500-homers and 3000-hits man. These accomplishments are now suspected, as many voters will have to ask, how much of a role did steroids play in his final numbers? There was no doubt that Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro were excellent ball players, but were they Hall of Fame players? We will never know. Certainly any Hall of Fame voter would have to take that in account.

How do Hall of Fame voters view other players? Sammy Sosa has the right statistics to be voted in but there will be many voters asking themselves, did he use or not? Many of those records set in the ’90s are now suspect. The advantage of steroids and the other performance-enhancing drugs is that you never seem to run out of gas. The dog days of August have ended many records pursuits, but McGwire at his peak or Bonds never seem to slow down during the season. The drugs allowed both hitters to recover quicker from the normal aches and pains of a 162-game season.

The other negative side-effect is that players who came before this present group saw their accomplishment pale by comparisons. Deserving players such as Andre Dawson, Fred McGriff, or Ron Santo statistically pale in comparison to players such as McGwire, Sosa, or even Palmero, but there was no evidence that they participated in steroid use. It could easily be argued that without steroids, McGwire or Palmeiro would not have matched Andre Dawson!

As Bonds gets closer to Babe Ruth’s record, as well as Hank Aaron’s, baseball has a dilemma of its own creation. Other sports have been farther ahead when it came to drug testing but baseball and its players union refuse to add tougher drug testing until forced. And with homers raining in records number and fans filling up stadiums, owners had no reason to look underneath the rug to see the dirt.

In the case of Bonds, there was plenty of evidence to suggest that his weight gain and performance were due to more than just hard work. The Giant management, with a stadium vote in the voter hands and the need to please Bonds, merely closed their eyes to the evidence in front of them.

Now Bud Selig is considering action against Bonds as a result of Game of Shadows. Selig and baseball in general are in a dilemma of their own making. Suspend Bond before he has a shot of Ruth’s record will prompt some to wonder how fair is it to single out Bond when he was merely following what others done before him.

There is no question that Bonds used performance-enhancing drugs. He admitted as much in his grand jury testimony, even though he denied that he was aware of what he was taking. Game of Shadows is a damning book with some solid evidence to suggest the extent of Bonds’ drug usage and the book is more damning of baseball for ignoring the problem until it reached the stage in which one of baseball’s best player is now seeing his quest for immortality being turned upside down. Bonds may have been part of baseball lore, but in not the way he wanted. He will be remembered less for his skills and more on how he maintained those skills later in his career.

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About Tom Donelson