The scapegoat

"Game of Shadows" makes a powerful case that Barry Bonds is guilty of steroid use. But baseball is guilty, too -- and so am I.


Joan Walsh
April 4, 2006 2:53PM (UTC)

If I were San Francisco Giants president Peter Magowan, I'd do something a little unorthodox at the team's home opener on Thursday. I'd run a clip of President Clinton talking about baseball's steroid scandal on the screen right before the game. Leave it to Clinton to have perfect pitch when it comes to the moral and human dimensions of the scandal. On CNN's "Larry King Live" Friday night, the former president called Major League Baseball's steroids frenzy "hypocritical." And as he talked, his face darkened with disdain, and you could tell he saw the steroids mess as linked to certain other witch hunts in culture and politics from the not too distant past, and he was disgusted.

Just as Clinton was impeached for lying under oath about his nobody's-business White House affair, so is San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds most likely to get in serious trouble if he, too, lied under oath about abusing steroids and other questionable substances (before they were banned by baseball), when he testified before a federal grand jury investigating the mysterious Bay Area Lab Co-Operative in December 2003. Clinton never mentioned Bonds' name, but he went to bat for the embattled superstar nonetheless. Asked about the scandal, Clinton went into a slow burn:

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"First of all, keep in mind that as I understand it Major League Baseball did not adopt a clear, unequivocal ban on steroid use with consequences, like the Olympics has had for years, until recently ... Well, my experience is in politics and everything else, if you're in a great contest with high stakes, people will do what it takes to win within the framework of the rules ... It's clear now that there is an overwhelming, perhaps unanimous consensus among the owners and the players and the representatives and the media that steroid use is not only bad for the players, it's bad for the game and it's wrong, and it should be banned and there should be consequences for violating the ban ... But I think we have to be careful looking back before that was the rule and even before that was the consensus ... We need to remember that baseball itself was highly ambivalent about doing anything about this, facing the truth and having strict rules for years and years and years. So now we have the rules. Let's go forward and enforce them. But I think ... looking back and looking down on people and trying to claim that, you know, things that happened five, 10 years ago in their careers weren't real because they did this -- I think that's a little hypocritical. Where were we then and why didn't we ban it then if that's the way we feel?"

Remember what it felt like to have a president so lucid? What would it take to have baseball leadership half as smart?

I don't expect to see Clinton on the Giants' Jumbotron Thursday because it would take a kind of courage and character almost nobody seems to have in baseball today. If you're Peter Magowan, you'd have to be ready to stand up and say, "This is wrong, baseball ostracizing a player after nearly a decade of colluding with the chemistry that brought the game back from its knees after the strike!" You'd have to be ready to say, "If Barry's guilty, I'm guilty, and Bud Selig is guilty and...!" Remember that great scene in the movie "In and Out," where to support the banished gay teacher everyone stands up and says, "I'm gay!" Like that. And I don't expect to see it.

It doesn't cost me nearly as much as it would cost Magowan, but I can and I will say: It's wrong for baseball to crack down on Bonds retroactively after nearly a decade of colluding with the chemistry that brought the game back from its knees after the baseball strike. And, oh yeah, if Barry's guilty, Bud Selig is guilty, Peter Magowan is guilty, and, yes, I'm guilty.

My guilt attack is brought on by finally reading "Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO and the Steroids Scandal That Rocked Professional Sports," as the baseball season opened this past weekend. As the book's major scoops have trickled out in the San Francisco Chronicle over the last two years I've criticized the reporting from Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada, whose other work I have admired; I worried that, in this case, they'd merely been spoon-fed damning information about Bonds by his enemies. But I owed it to them to look at all their work.

I owed it to myself as well, because I am one of Barry Bonds' last defenders, outside of his family and people he pays. Like Magowan, I'm guilty of tuning out evidence that Bonds cheated. I've simply defended him, thrilling to the sweetest swing in the game, luxuriating in almost 14 years of San Francisco baseball joy, most of it thanks to Bonds. I rationalize my selective hearing by reminding people I was raised a baby New York Mets fan in the 1960s, when the Yankees won every year and the Mets were a joke. Isn't baseball all about rooting for the unloved, the underdog? I grew up always picking the least well-liked player as my favorite, and since I became a Giants fan, strangely that's often left me the superstar Bonds. Pre-steroid scandal, I was convinced that many of his popularity problems related to his being black. Post-steroid scandal, well, we'll get to that.

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So I read "Game of Shadows," and it hurt. It's a good book, a very well-told story, about way more than Bonds. It's mostly the tale of BALCO founder Victor Conte, from Tower of Power to prison; with a well-developed subplot about Bonds' "trainer" and likely steroid-purveyor Greg Anderson, from his boyhood with Bonds on the Bay Area Peninsula to Anderson's father's murder, to Anderson's own sad life as a gym rat and sports groupie. There's a fascinating Olympics track and field plot in which we learn about the ambition, tangled love lives and alleged doping histories of Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery, C.J. Hunter, Michelle Collins, Kelli White and others. It's a much better book than I expected, and a better book than I wanted it to be. It comes fairly close to nailing Bonds for steroid use, as data from both Conte's and Anderson's files show dates, times and places Bonds allegedly used various steroids and performance-enhancing drugs.

And yet, with only the Conte and Anderson data, you might be able to convince yourself, as Bonds tried to convince the grand jury, that the superstar really didn't know what he was putting in and on his body. He famously told the jurors that he was using Conte's compounds "the cream" and "the clear" for his arthritis, he didn't know what they contained -- and they didn't even work. Given that Conte and Anderson don't come off as entirely straight-up fellows, there's no real integrity penalty for believing Bonds. What makes suspension of disbelief harder is the testimony of Bonds' supposed girlfriend Kimberly Bell. Williams and Fainaru-Wada didn't have Bell as a source when I wrote about their story on Bonds' leaked grand jury testimony, and said they hadn't landed a knockout punch.

Bell makes Bonds' aging-athlete laments about "pain" driving him to try anything (but he didn't know it was steroids!) much more difficult to believe. It's Bell who ties together the spotty, pseudoscientific note-taking of two shady characters, Conte and Anderson, with other details. It's Bell who insists Bonds told her he was using steroids; and it's Bell who supplies the evidence of steroid abuse that almost no one else can: She says he's got acne on his back, his hair's falling out, his testicles are shrinking and he suffers frequent sexual dysfunction and irrational rage -- all known side effects of juicing. Bell gives the book a ring of truth Conte's crazy braggadocio and Anderson's sad self-promoting stories just can't. While it's true she could be fabricating certain details of the changes to Bonds' body, her account is given credibility because she saved notes from Bonds and his financial managers along with check stubs and, maybe most damaging, plenty of voice-mail tapes.

Still, if Kimberly Bell makes the steroid allegations more credible, she makes the whole narrative -- the whole investigation really -- much more tragic and tawdry. According to Bell, she began dating Bonds while he was still married to his Swedish wife, Sun. They had a great run while he was between wives, but then one day he showed up with one Liz Watson installed at his condo, and soon Barry and Liz were married -- because, Bell tells us, Bonds told her he couldn't marry a white woman again, and Watson was black. Disappointed in Bonds' decision to get married, Bell nonetheless continued their relationship much the way it was. But, she tells the authors, it was never the same. Bonds promised to buy Bell a home in spring-training heaven Scottsdale, Ariz., allegedly with tax-free proceeds from his autographing sessions at card shows and other venues (tax evasion, not steroid use, could ultimately be what brings Bonds down). After a messy unraveling, he backed out of the deal, while leaving apparently incriminating and sometimes threatening voice mails for Bell. She had a strange and useful habit of simply tossing the voice-mail tapes into a drawer, and not erasing them, when they got full. I never did that, back when I had voice mail tapes, but I'm sure other people did.

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If you're a Bonds fan, especially a female Bonds fan, this is some of the toughest reading in "Game of Shadows." He's threatening, abusive, mostly just verbally though at one point Bell says he grabbed her by the neck and scared her. (Apparently he loves asking men and women who don't immediately do what he asks, "Did I fuckin' stutter?") Still, she stayed with him until he dumped her, and she fought back the only way she knew how: She decided to write a book. In early 2005 she enlisted writer Aphrodite Jones and went on Geraldo Rivera's Fox News show to tell her story (no wonder Clinton felt sympathetic). Sometime after that, she hooked up with the authors of "Game of Shadows."

But Kimberly Bell isn't the star of "Game of Shadows." In many ways that role goes to IRS criminal investigator Jeff Novitzky. We meet Novitzky going through the garbage outside Conte's BALCO; he began in the fall of 2002, as the Giants were gearing up for the World Series. Novitzky's got a major league hard-on for Bonds. He just knows Bonds is cheating. Plus, "He's such an asshole to the press," he tells another IRS agent. Novitzky joins Bonds' gym, watches him and Anderson. He finds some incriminating notes about Bonds' supposed juicing schedule in the garbage.

But Novitzky doesn't really get lucky until he finds Bell. After Bell's story went on Fox, she got a call from Novitzky, and the rest is, well, "Game of Shadows." Without Bell's insistence that Bonds told her he was using steroids to compete with "the great white hope" Mark McGwire after the St. Louis Cardinals' star's record-breaking 1998 season -- there might well be no book.

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Of course the feminist in me is repelled by the Bonds-Bell story, if it turns out to be true. If indeed he threatened her that way, he needs punishment, and she needs help. If he lied and cheated her out of money, she needs lawyers (and she has them). If she's extorting him, as a feminist I also find that sickening. But there are plenty of womanizing assholes in baseball; plenty of cheaters, plenty of dopers. Let's face it, Bonds is not being pilloried for treating women badly. What made Barry Bonds special?

And that's where we pick up Bill Clinton again, who knows a lot about unfairness. Bonds' extraordinary talent drew attention and resentment, to be sure, but he has other issues. A lot of people just don't like him, and the book does a decent but not stunning job of explaining why. The authors link Bonds' troublesome personality to his fairly unhappy childhood as the son of Bobby Bonds, the Giants outfielder who was supposed to be the new Willie Mays but who crouched into alcohol and anger when he predictably couldn't live up to the job. The senior Bonds could be a jerk, abusing both his sons and his wife. The book does well on that part of the story -- and then expresses surprise, and some disdain, when Bonds criticizes his father, sick with cancer, for neglecting his mother. That's only one of many examples of how Williams and Fainaru-Wada fail to draw the conclusions of the excellent reporting they've done. They depict the contradictions of Bonds' life wealthy, talented, sort of fatherless lonely kid -- but can't reconcile them.

Likewise, and much more damaging to what is otherwise a nuanced, sophisticated book, they can't get a bead on what it means that Bonds is black. Williams and Fainaru-Wada frequently and dutifully quote Bonds talking about how his relative unpopularity ties to his being African American, and more relevant, an African-American superstar, but often they try to debunk that analysis. There's a telling section in the prologue about how Bonds was "channeling" racial attitudes from his father and godfather Willie Mays, who played baseball in the Jim Crow-era South. "Bonds himself had never seen anything remotely like that: He had grown up in an affluent white suburb on the San Francisco Peninsula, and his best boyhood friend, his first wife and present girlfriend all were white." They seem amazingly ignorant, for Bay Area residents, about how a black youth might feel racism as the lone black kid in a wealthy white suburb, even in the late '70s. They clearly don't get the possibility that Bonds could have been a privileged, talented son of a superstar and still have been treated badly, at times, because he's black, even through today.

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The authors have a tin ear about race in other ways. They dismiss Bonds' irritation at the Cardinal star's being embraced as baseball's golden boy (and not crucified for his androstenedione transgressions) at least partly because he was white. According to Bell, he used to say, "They're just letting [McGwire break Maris' record] because he's white." The authors pause to mock Bonds -- "he didn't articulate who 'they' were" -- without even considering whether race played a role in McGwire's national hero status, or in Bonds' unpopularity. Williams and Fainaru-Wada also make the former Giant Jeff Kent a hero for standing up to Bonds, but as I wrote in 2001 ("If Jeff Kent Were Black"), Kent was the perfect negative of Bonds -- a white, talented, arrogant hothead who was all about himself, but who had the occasional capacity (which Bonds didn't share) to suck up to reporters. Kent-love only made -- and makes -- the Bonds-hate feel more racial.

Finally, it has to be acknowledged that agent Novitzky targeted Bonds not because he was the biggest or the most egregious baseball cheat or the most violent, vilest gym rat; it was really because Novitzky just had a bad feeling about Bonds, he knew in his gut he was a cheater. (The agent would even face accusations that he blew certain aspects of the BALCO probe because of his zeal in pursuing Bonds.) When such a subjective take drives a historic investigation, it's worth pausing to think a minute about what could be behind it. I have never met Novitzky, have never seen him interviewed; I would never accuse him of racism. But given the outsize dislike Bonds inspires, it's hard not to wonder if such intense personal animus, wherever it springs up, might have a racial component. And then there's the question of whoever handed the grand jury testimony to Williams and Fainaru-Wada, which happens to be illegal -- what is their motivation? Are they driven by Barry-hate? And are we expected to believe, as the two writers clearly do, without knowing the source of the leaks, that race played no role in the way Bonds has been hounded? Sorry, it's a good book, but it doesn't prove that. Life is harder for black superstars, from Jackie Robinson to Willie Mays to Curt Flood to, yes, Barry Bonds in 2006. "Game of Shadows" is diminished by not grappling with those issues more honestly.

I don't know entirely what should come next, for baseball or for Bonds. But I don't have to. Quite honestly, I stopped writing about the sport because 1) I wasn't that good at it, and 2) I love baseball and I was getting jaded. There's a lot of racism (in all directions), sexism, cheating, lies, dishonesty -- and a lot of love, courage, integrity and passion, but I wasn't in a position, as an occasional female sportswriter, to see much of the latter. I stay in the stands now, and I nurture my baseball love, and my baseball illusions in as much as they're necessary to sustain that love. So yes, I finally read "Game of Shadows" and I'm glad I faced it down. I wish Williams and Fainaru-Wada good luck finally getting at the ultimate truth. I believe they're trying. I hope Major League Baseball listens to Bill Clinton, and focuses its steroids investigation on the future, rather than coming up with ways to take away records won when Selig and his friends were counting their money and ignoring their players' ever-growing bodies and home-run totals. Me, I'm sadder but wiser. But I'll still be cheering for Bonds on Thursday, his 14th Giants home opener and maybe his last. They can't take that away from me.


Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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