Book Review – Juicing The Game

I’ll admit, I hadn’t followed this whole steroids scandal in baseball as much as others had. I might’ve been turned away from the topic because of the endless hours we were subjected to it locally on the Dennis and Callahan program on WEEI last winter.

When I heard the Howard Bryant was preparing a book on the topic of steroids, my interest was piqued a bit, as I had enjoyed Bryant’s debut book “Shut Out” very much. The book, entitled “Juicing the Game – Drugs, Powers, and the fight for the soul of Major League Baseball” has been out since July, but hasn’t caused the buzz that I had expected from it, at least locally.

I received the book and found it to be as informative as I expected. What’s interesting is that the title is something of a misnomer, as the book isn’t entirely about steroids. It tells the story of baseball in the post-1994 strike era and how the game regained its fan base from that disastrous strike which resulted in the World Series being canceled that year.

You see the rise to power of Bud Selig, as well as his reign and his legacy to the game, as well as his glaring lack of leadership during some critical times. Steroids are the main theme, and the book traces their use from the “Bash Brothers” A’s of the late 1980?s and through the 1990?s as home run totals rose, and players like Brady Anderson broke the 50 home run barrier. The game became more popular, reaching a crescendo with the magical season of 1998 and the home run race of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.

Around these events, questions as to the reasons for these numbers were few. A USA Today article in 1997 outlined Ken Caminiti’s “routine”, which included popping handfuls of different pills and supplements throughout the day. No one really thought twice about it. During the ’98 season, McGwire use of Androstenedione came out, and the AP writer who first reported the news was treated as a pariah, both by figures in the game, but also by his fellow media members. The game was enjoying its highest popularity in decades and all was well.

While steroids and supplements might’ve been a large factor in the rise of home runs, there were other reasons. Umpires and the way they called games, their strike zones changing over time, and also being inconsistent. Another is the introduction of QuesTec into the game, which is a fascinating story in itself. Ballparks, starting in the early 90′s became smaller and smaller. Even the baseball itself was different. The entire game was juiced?not just the players. All of these things are chronicled in the pages of the book.

A group dubbed “The Crusaders” plays a major role in bringing the dangers of steroid use into the public eye and getting the attention of congress. Their work on laboratory rats, though controversial, is amazing. (They even found cases of “roid rage” in some of them.) If there was a point though where the book did seem to drag a little for me, it was during this part of the book, when the drugs and steroids were being talked about in depth. The information was substantial, in depth and useful for background information, but slowed the book down a little at that point for me.

The roots of the investigation of BALCO and the Barry Bonds/Jason Giambi/Gary Sheffield connections are traced. A 21 year old rookie reporter for the Mateo Daily Journal breaks the story of the IRS raiding the BALCO labs in September, 2003. A can of worms is opened, which leads to a Grand Jury investigation and then to the congressional interest and hearings on the issue of steroids in baseball. All this happens under the watch of Bud Selig, who has tried to introduce steroid testing into the game since 1994, but comes off looking very weak and indecisive.

The book does a very nice job of pulling all these events together, and Bryant’s notes and bibliography in the back show the impressive amount of research done by him in putting this book together. Quotes from people all over Major League Baseball lend support to the conclusions drawn.

As far as local figures, Theo Epstein, Larry Lucchino, Terry Francona, David Ortiz, and Curt Schilling are among those from the Red Sox who are mentioned and talked to in the book. Gabe Kapler is mentioned on page 287: “Players ridiculed suspects, such a Gabe Kapler, a journeyman outfielder known for his chiseled physique and interest in bodybuilding.”

At first glance it might seem a bit curious that this book has not received more attention locally, especially on the Dennis & Callahan program which still spends quite a bit of time talking steroids, especially with the recent return to action of Barry Bonds. However, D&C and Bryant have not had a friendly relationship in the last few years, with the radio duo taking a number of shots at the Herald columnist and his comments on racial issues and other subjects. This prevents the book from even being mentioned on a program which has spent so much time on the very subject covered in the book. The program and the audience miss out on a great local source of information on a topic that is of national interest.

I was able to ask Howard Bryant a few questions about the book and his work on it. Here’s the exchange we had:

Looking back on your time as a beat writer covering the A?s (1998-2000) and Yankees, do you look back and kick yourself over things you saw and heard and didn’t think twice about at the time?

No, because I knew that the job never really entailed doing investigative work. Beat writing is extremely restricting and conflicting. If anything, not having the forum to examine the things I’d been hearing motivated me more to one day find a job that would allow me to do exactly that.

Did you get any cooperation from the commissioner’s office in this book? Bud Selig is shown to be weak and indecisive at several points of the book, yet at times it seems you may have had conversations with him, such as on page 53, where you write “Selig made a deal with himself: Baseball would never lose the public again. Not on his watch.” Was this something Selig confided to you, or someone else?

You’ll have to check the source notes in the back of the book, but I spoke with Bud at length, probably a dozen times. The narrative on page 53 came from a direct conversation with him.

In reading another review I saw a comment about the title that caught my interest. It appears that “Juicing the Game” contains a bit of irony. The book is far more than just about steroids as one might assume by the title. It’s more about the entire post-1994 strike era, and the challenges and issues baseball faced during that time. It is also apparent that by outlining all of the issues, that baseball is not just a game, but a business. So it’s not all about juicing, and it’s not just a game. Irony, or me reading too much into something?

The publisher was interested in the story because it was more than a steroid book, yet wanted something in the title that was clear that the book dealt with juicing. To me, the title of the book worked because the game was juiced on so many levels. The ballparks were juiced, the players were juiced, the ball was juiced, because everything was geared toward more offense.

During the course of researching and writing this book, what came as the biggest surprise to you? Who was the most helpful?

The biggest surprise, I think, was the number of opportunities baseball had to clean up the game and did not. The amount of data it had compiled, the government testimonies, the overwhelming proof of a problem and yet its response was so lukewarm.

The most helpful people were the medical people who were willing to come forward and educate me on a difficult subject.

What efforts did you make to talk to Barry Bonds for the book? How successful were you?

I’d asked Barry Bonds on four occasions over the past two years to talk to me and since he did not, I was completely unsuccessful.

The book finished up after the congressional hearings this spring. Since that point we’ve seen Rafael Palmeiro contradict his forceful testimony by testing positive for steroids. We’ve seen Jason Giambi’s career undergo a miraculous resurgence after he was nearly sent to the minors earlier this spring. We’ve also read about your source which mentioned a possible 50 more positive tests. Is what we’ve seen and heard just the tip of this iceberg? Is baseball headed for a cataclysmic downfall?

I don’t think baseball is near any type of cataclysmic downfall, mostly because like most complicated stories, few people care to assess the damage. The rest have blinders on and have come to accept a cheapening of the product as “progress.” I think the game has been reduced, certainly in the eyes of the younger generation, which does not hold the sport in any kind of high esteem. I think the lasting effect will be a slower ebb, much like the political world after Watergate. You still follow, you still vote, but you believe less and less in the institution. Over time, I think we’ll see the end of the sport as a “national pastime,” even as it continues to soar financially. It is a nuanced argument that requires real thought at a time when people don’t want to think. They don’t want to know, which is no different than how the baseball leadership responded. They just want to be entertained, at all cost, because they know what is behind the curtain. It is an attitude in of itself rife with cynicism.

Who do you think has lost the most from the whole post-1994 strike era? Bud Selig? Mark McGwire? The fans?

The biggest loser in all of this is anyone who wanted the truth.