- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 15, 2005

JUICING THE GAME: DRUGS, POWER, AND THE FIGHT FOR THE SOUL OF MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL

By Howard Bryant

Viking, $24.95, 439 pages

REVIEWED BY LARRY THORNBERRY

Veteran baseball writer Howard Bryant’s “Juicing the Game” demonstrates once again that the great American game and multi-billion-dollar business that is baseball survives in spite of its leadership, not because of it.

Baseball is hardly in a parlous state. Attendance is higher than ever. Teams are making money. The game has produced exciting playoffs and World Series in recent years, including last year’s finish that lead to the Boston Red Sox’s first world championship since before the team unloaded the Babe. But Mr. Bryant has taken baseball’s moral temperature in “Juicing,” and the patient is far from well.

Mr. Bryant’s book isn’t just about steroid use in baseball — though that’s the heart of it. “Juiced” is a well-researched, thorough, and balanced look at all forms of power in baseball — the kind exhibited by players on the field and the continuous and contentious power struggles between the players, represented by a pit bull union, and ownership. He gives readers a good look at the power struggles between owners, particularly between owners of small and large market teams. He shows the sometimes-prickly and conflicted relationships between baseball reporters ? part of the game’s establishment ? and the players and teams they cover.

Mr. Bryant doesn’t play favorites, and none of the above comes out looking very good. Even cynical, post-everything fans who cheer players who put up pharmaceutically-enhanced numbers look pretty shabby.

Mr. Bryant presents the period of the late 1990s into the new century, when baseballs were being hit out of major league ball-yards at unprecedented rates ? downright unbelievable rates to anyone who understands the game ? as one long sin of omission on the part of everyone responsible for the direction and integrity of the game. Baseball is a very statistic-intensive game. But it doesn’t keep stats on dereliction of duty. Perhaps it should.

Mr. Bryant builds the case that everyone from the bat boys to the commissioner of baseball knew that many of the record-breaking homerun performances werebeing achieved with the help ofanabolic steroids. (And a few pitchers with mediocre careers who started throwing real gas all of a sudden could stand a look as well.) The evil juice makes strong, quick players stronger and quicker, and makes a mockery of baseball’s records. It damages the health of players who use it and threatens the careers of players who don’t use it but must compete against those who do.

Steroid use in baseball has been an open secret at least since the 1990s while almost everyone who could or should have done something about it looked the other way. They looked the other way because they thought it was in their interest to do so. Why rock the boat when baseball was more popular than it had ever been? Record numbers of fans flocked to ball parks across the land and cheered wildly as weight-room geeks wearing baseball uniforms but looking like refugees from the NFLpounded homerun after homerun deep into gentle summer nights.

Everyone was having a great time ? except baseball purists who wondered what happened to the neglected, non-power aspects of the game that are also fun to watch. And perhaps parents of players worried about what their sons might do to get to and stay in The Show.

Baseball’s popularity took a major league hit in 1994 with a players’ strike that produced the unthinkable ? a cancelled World Series. Joe and Jill Fan didn’t like anyone in this strike, which they saw as the millionaire players vs. the billionaire owners. By this time baseball people knew about steroids, but they had bigger worries. Chief among them being how to get disaffected fans back into the ball parks when play resumed, back into caring about the grand old game.

One thing that helped fans get over their mad with baseball was Cal Ripkin Jr.’s consecutive game record that he set in September of 1995. What’s not to like about Mr. Ripkin’s skill, dedication, work habits, and toughness? It’s easy to look at Cal Ripkin Jr. and see a piece of America at its best, and fans were moved.

But the main thing that caught baseball fans’ attention ? and even that of people who hadn’t been particularly interested in the game ? was the 1998 homerun derby between Mark McGuire of the St. Louis Cardinals and Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs. These two powerfully-built, NFL-sized players didn’t just break Roger Maris’ single-season homerun record of 61, they shattered it. By season’s end Mr. Sosa had hit 66 dingers, Mr. McGuire an incredible 70. The fans loved it and flocked to the ballparks to cheer.

But it wasn’t long before the cheering took on a muted tone. Perhaps the most incredible thing about Mr. McGuire’s new and seemingly unassailable homerun record was that it only stood for three years before Barry Bonds of the San Francisco giants topped it with a mind-boggling 73. During this time baseballs were flying out of major league ball parks at such a rate that fans watching from outfield bleachers were best advised to wear hard hats and Kevlar jackets. Something was wrong, and everyone knew what it was.

The big guys hitting the homers denied their new physiques and new stats had to do with anything beyond more time in the weight room. The denials became harder to take seriously after the BALCO bust. The raid by federal agents on the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative in a San Francisco suburb in September of 2003 led ultimately to dots being connected between illegal substances and some pretty big sports names, including baseball players. In February of 2004 several BALCO officials, including Barry Bonds’ personal trainer, were indicted, though Bonds, a much bigger and more muscular guy at 39 than he was at 34, continues to insist he’s not taken steroids.

The BALCO indictments and an explosive tell-all book by slugger Jose Canseco detailing his own steroid use and pointing fingers at other players finally took its toll. The low point for baseball was a series of congressional hearings after the end of the 2004 season when former hero Mark McGuire insisted, repeatedly and lamely, to congressional questioners that, “I’m not here to talk about the past.” Who could blame him for not wanting to?

The steroid issue remains unresolved in baseball. The game finally has a policy that’s led to suspensions for steroid use, but most agree it needs to be tougher if the game’s intentions are honorable. While Major League Baseball is finally pushing for a tougher policy, the players’ union, predictably, is digging in its heels. No way to know how this issue will be resolved. But Howard Bryant’s “Juicing” gives anyone who loves baseball chapter and verse on how the game got to its current state.

The behavior of top people in baseball may not be that different from top people in other industries when large amounts of money and conflicting interests are involved. Mr. Bryant’s readers have a right to ask themselves the question asked by so many during corporate America’s recent exercises in creative accounting, to wit: “Gee, couldn’t anybody just do the right thing?”

Larry Thornberry is a writer living in Tampa.

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