After reading Game of Shadows, I learned a lot about Barry Bonds and steroid use in general. I never knew about his maligned relationships with girlfriends, players and managers. I also learned a lot about how players used steroids and how they got away with it.
One of the first things I noticed in this book is how much it refers to Bonds getting free passes. “Most high school baseball players have to work hard for playing time. They must show up early to practice, perform all the drills and run all the sprint the coach assigns, cheer and give high-fives when somebody scores. Barry Bonds didn’t have to do any of that because of his talent, and because of who he was.” Even while he was at Arizona State, it says a different set of rules was made for Bonds. When it was clear that Bonds’s physical appearance was changing in San Francisco, the book says the Giants chose not to confront him about it in order to not alienate their star slugger, also because he was their star attraction in opening their new ballpark.
The first modern-day case of this that comes to mind is with LeBron James. For seven years, the Cavaliers gave James every perk around Quicken Loans Arena and allowed him to do anything he wanted. This included, of course, allowing his friends to walk around the arena like they owned the place. James has also been accused of being a jerk to ball boys and other team employees throughout his career, but in every instance, he got away with it because of who he was. When James was dunked on by a college player from Xavier, the tapes were destroyed. But despite all the evidence that James was an asshole, it took his departure from Cleveland for everyone to finally realize it.
This is also shown in Bonds’s plight with Dusty Baker. Former Pirates All-Star Al Oliver said, “If you can’t play for Dusty Baker, you can’t play for anyone.” But that is the type of player Bonds was. He wanted it to be his team, not Dusty’s. It was the same situation with James. When thinking about the Cavaliers teams during the Mike Brown era, it is clear that James had more control of the team than Brown did. With Brown now in Los Angeles, it will be interesting to see if the same situation occurs with Kobe Bryant.
To me, the most ironic part of the book comes within the first five chapters. After a number of disappointing seasons in the mid 1990s, Bonds realized that Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa had become bigger stars than himself. Despite a lifetime batting average of .265, poor defense and poor base running, McGwire was hailed as the savior of baseball. As a onetime 40-40 player, the book says that Bonds disliked that McGwire was so popular. But despite resenting the player McGwire was, that was the player he was about to become. In the two years prior to 1999, Bonds stole 65 bases, but in the remaining nine years of his career, Bonds stole only 69 more. Bonds’ time in the field as well as his putouts also decreased over those nine seasons and after winning his eighth Gold Glove in 1998, Bonds would not win another. Had Bonds retired following the 1998 season, he would have finished with three MVPs, eight All-Star appearances, eight Gold Gloves, and seven Silver Sluggers and would likely be in the Hall of Fame. However Bonds instead became the player he so much despised. Despite all of McGwire’s home runs in 1998 and 1999, his most remarkable season may have been in 2001 when he batted an abysmal .187 yet still hit 29 home runs.
Throughout the book it is apparent that Bonds, and other steroid users were always one step ahead of Bud Selig and Major League Baseball. Bonds started out by using a substance that could be easily detected, but because there were no drug tests, it did not matter. Bonds then moved to substances such as The Cream and The Clear, which were much harder to detect. Even now that MLB does have mandatory drug tests, there are drugs that do not show up in those tests. In order to stay ahead in the game, baseball should hire someone like Victor Conte or a company similar to BALCO to help detect drug users and new substances.
The thing that amazes me the most in this book is the master public relations work done by Bonds and his crew during the 2001 home run chase. As an 11-year old baseball fan at the time, I had no idea of how much of an asshole Bonds was because it was rarely reported on during that season. I kept up on sports news every day but still never caught on. I feel like the media was afraid of Bonds and therefore did not ask him about steroids or his personal life. It is amazing that so few people questioned this sudden surge of power. Even Skip Bayless, one of the most cynical journalists I know of said Bonds’s transformation came “by purifying his diet, supplementing with over-the-counter muscle builders … and lifting till he cried.” No matter how bad someone’s character is, people are willing to look past it as long as you are producing on the field – especially if you are producing at the level Bonds was in 2001.
While the public and the media may have been oblivious to steroid use in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I have trouble believing MLB Commissioner Bud Selig and other baseball executives knew nothing about it, rather that they just turned a blind eye. It is no secret that the players strike of 1994 left baseball in a poor state. But the home run chases of the late 1990s and early 2000s brought popularity back to the game. Exposing the steroid-using players would only give baseball another black eye and further remove the sport from popularity. While they may not have known how widespread the use of performance-enhancing drugs was, I do believe they had to have some knowledge of their use. Even as late as 2005, the Giants persisted that there was no reason to believe Bonds had used performance enhancers despite all the evidence to the contrary. “ ‘ They’ve got their heads buried so deeply in the sand,’ explained one person familiar with the front-office mentality. “They’re trying to hold their noses and get to 715 and then to 755.’ ” ESPN’s Peter Gammons put is best when he said it was the sport’s “dirty little secret.” Now in order to make up for what it had done earlier, Major League Baseball has gotten tough against steroids and enlisted its three- strike policy. Baseball is just now finally beginning to distance itself from the steroid era, but had it not turned a blind-eye in the first place, this all could have been avoided.
It is funny to me how many people insist on going after the messenger rather than the culprit. The book states that the San Francisco Chronicle received many angry emails proclaiming that they had fabricated stories about Bonds’s steroid use. This is common today as well. When stories broke about Ohio State football players selling gear for cash or items, many people attacked The Lantern for outing its own players. It was not until after many read this book until they finally realized what the paper had reported was correct. If anything, the Chronicle should have been criticized for not reporting Bonds’s use of banned substances sooner.
The coolest thing about this book is how much detail it goes into about the personal lives of these players. The book reveals so much information that no one knew about and gives the reader the sense that the authors were standing in the room when it all happened. The in-depth detail reminds me of the book Moneyball. Some of the scenes in the book use so much detail that I am sure Bonds himself probably does not remember that much. If nothing else, the book is a great example of investigative journalism in sports.