Let's get my credentials out of the way. I am not someone that baseball is going to "lose" if they don't solve the steroids problem. However, I take the allegations in "Game of Shadows" very, very seriously, and I'm not going to be celebrating any of Barry Bonds' home runs between now and 756.
I've been a baseball fan since the 1981 strike, when I discovered the game through its absence on TV and radio. I went to my first game at Shea Stadium in 1982 on the day that I turned 8 and a half. Mookie Wilson homered that day. He was not, as far as we know, on steroids. Mike Schmidt did not play for the Phillies that day, due to an injury. Schmidt recently came out with a book denouncing steroids, a book that's selling slightly fewer copies than "Game of Shadows".
Even though I raised myself a Mets fan, a team that a few years later rose and fell at the altar of white powder, I did grow up in a Yankees' household, and always took Roger Maris' record very seriously. I was moved and impressed when Mark McGwire brought the Maris family along on September 8, 1998, and made them such a central part of Number 62. When Barry Bonds later said he wanted to "take" Babe Ruth's record for career homers by a left-handed hitter and then warned us to "don't talk about him no more", I was not quite as moved, and certainly not impressed.
Bonds and Marion Jones are not the only big revelations in "Game of Shadows". Who would have imagined that such Bay Area fringe players as Armando Rios and Randy Velarde were BALCO customers? Then again, we learned from Jose Canseco's book last year that steroids alone do not make one a great athlete.
"Game of Shadows" is a remarkable work of investigative journalism. When I read books like this I always pay attention to the sources and footnotes. "Game of Shadows" is better footnoted than a typical Bob Woodward book, although for obvious reasons reveals fewer source names than a less controversial sports biography like "Namath". The authors make good use of Bonds' pre- and post-steroid statistics in their appendices. They're not able to name all of their sources, but the rest of the reporting has the ring of authenticity so I can accept that they did their best to verify all their interviews with anonymous sources "familiar with Bonds" or "familiar to Conte".
The only part of the book that disturbed me, for a moment, was the blatant editorializing. It's not enough for the authors to document that Victor Conte systematically sought to provide performance-enhancing drugs to an increasing roster of high-profile athletes, and it's not enough for them to prove that Barry Bonds injected himself with the whole range of Conte pharmaceuticals. They do descend to name-calling. Conte's departure from the group Tower of Power is turned into something creepy; his family's own legal problems, which don't appear related to BALCO, are also brought into the light of day. In the brief section describing Bonds' claiming of the single-season home run record in October 2001, his victory speech is described as "rambling".
However, even the editorial comments can be seen as objective journalism. Bonds himself has made increasingly bizarre public statements part of his public persona. And where the authors reprint some of the immature things Conte chose to submit to the Usenet forum, those Usenet posts are public record; anyone can access them even today, and when you do, you'll see that the authors didn't even use the most inflammatory Conte quotes. Conte's online persona, at least, is worthy of scorn.
What happens next? The book's final chapter and its epilogue show how both baseball (Bud Selig, Donald Fehr) and the government (the U.S. Attorney for San Francisco) have attempted to sweep the steroids mess under the carpet. The government seemed more interested in plugging leaks than in punishing lawbreakers. The authors reveal conflicts between USADA, the IRS and John McCain on one hand, and federal prosecutors on the other. The final chapter closes with a San Francisco Giants' flack defending Bonds' achievements, in spite of all the documentary evidence of fraud. This book wants to make baseball fans angry when the government and baseball officials will silently acquiesce to Bonds' history-making.
Hank Aaron's all-time home run record is going to fall one day. It would be nice to be able to root for the man who breaks it. I gave my best to Mark McGwire in 1998, and evidently all for nothing. I am not going to be fooled again so easily.