Book Review: Juicing the Game scorches the baseball universe

Steroids are baseball’s problem that just won’t go away. But like any major ongoing news story, it’s hard to jump into the steroid fray in the middle and understand the current state of affairs.

Enter Howard Bryant and his masterful book Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power, and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball. Originally published last July, Bryant’s thorough and scathing overview of the steroid scandal hit the paperback shelves recently complete with a new epilogue that updates the tale.

Bryant’s book is covered in quotations praising his writing and his research. As the writers at The Hardball Times noted, “This is the definitive history of Major League Baseball over the past fifteen years.” In producing this authoritative tome, Bryant left no stone unturned.

He provides a more-or-less chronological account of baseball since the late 1980s. He begins with Bud Selig awaiting his Congressional appointment last March, and the story unfolds as a flashback. We hear of collusion deals and cocaine suspensions. We hear of Jose Canseco’s steroid boasts in 1988 and Tony La Russa’s ongoing hypocrisy and cover-ups.

In detailing the rise of steroid use in Major League Baseball, Bryant points to a few sources, all of which combined to create a culture of secrecy and near tolerance for performance enhancing drugs in baseball. Taking into account the hit baseball took from the strike in 1994-1995, the renaissance of baseball coinciding with the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa Home Run Derby in 1998, the drive for more offensively oriented baseball, and the culture of protection and secrecy surrounding the clubhouse, Bryant weaves a narrative of, as the book suggests, the soul of baseball.

While there is no need to rehash the entire novel, I want to take a look at a few people who come out the worst in Bryant’s tale. First among them are Bud Selig and Donald Fehr, the two Generals in the never-ending battle of baseball labor rules. Selig comes off at times as grandstanding, ignorant, too aware, ineffectual and weak on the drug issue. While Selig originally knew about steroids in the early 1990s and wanted to put a drug testing policy on the table in 1994, he knew it would get him nowhere.

Throughout the tale we are left to wonder what Selig knew and when. Bryant’s point seems to be that, until Selig met the father of a teen who committed suicide in the midst of steroid-induced depression, his postures on drug use in baseball were just that. He wasn’t really going to search too hard for the truth about steroids in baseball, and when he learned the truth, he was quick to do nothing. His drug testing plans came about only in the face of severe public pressure, and while he claims he was interested in the issue for a decade, his inactions speak louder than his actions.

On the other side of the table is Donald Fehr, the lawyer in charge of the Players’ Association. Fehr, living in the shadows of the legendary Marvin Miller, has handled this issue with the skill and aplomb of, well, Bud Selig. He is the great obstructionist, not listening to the union members clamoring for a drug testing deal while professing an innocence that doesn’t exist. As Selig as commissioner seems to be looking out for the owners’ best interest, Fehr guards the players and their vaunted privacy ever so closely. No one is watching out for the game’s best interest.

On the field and in the dugout, it’s hard to find a more damning character than Tony La Russa. As I noted earlier this week, La Russa was one of the Steroid Era’s great enablers. It’s clear from La Russa’s more recent comments that he knew about Jose Canseco’s steroid use as early as 1988. Yet, he did nothing about it. He could have alerted General Manager Sandy Alderson about potential illegal drug use. But as a manager he wouldn’t break the code and throw his best slugger to the dogs.

Considering what he knew about Canseco, he must know volumes about Mark McGwire. But he remains steadfast in his defense of McGwire to the point of indirectly incriminating himself. As the book details the Canseco revelations, La Russa original says he knew nothing about drug use. Then, when Canseco points a finger at McGwire, the darling of Tony La Russa’s managerial career, La Russa changes his story. He knew Canseco was juicing, he says, because the slugger told him so himself. Once again, we meet a figure who knew about the drug problem and did nothing to stop it.

Finally, we see the same old people with the same old problems. There is Jose Canseco becoming a baseball pariah and an unlikely source of fact – or half-facts at least – for the steroid era. There is Mark McGwire not wanting to talk about the past. There is the embattled Barry Bonds denying anything under the sun. There is Sammy Sosa fading away, and Rafael Palmeiro flaming out.

These tales, fleshed out and with background, are nothing new. Bryant presents them within the context of the period, and he connects the dot. For someone looking to understand what went wrong with baseball in the late 1990s, this book is the place to start and end. While I eagerly await my copy of Game of Shadows, for now, Bryant’s tale provides all you need to know about steroids in baseball.

Despite this glowing praise, I do however find some fault in the new epilogue. Bryant, writing the epilogue last winter, tries too hard to wrap up a story that he knows is not over. Throughout the pages that appeared in hardcover, Bryant’s many sources said over and over again that the steroid scandal was far from over. Yet, the epilogue tries too hard to find baseball’s hidden redemption. Who saved baseball from the Steroid Era?

As the recent revelations about Barry Bonds, Gary Sheffield, and others reveal, baseball’s redemption is not yet at hand. The sport is still coming to grips with the social, cultural, political, and legal ramifications of the tumultuous Steroid Era. When the dust finally settles – and that won’t happen any time soon – Bryant may yet need to pen another epilogue for his damning indictment of professional baseball.

Howard Bryant’s tale of steroids in baseball Juicing the Game is available at a bookstore near you or from your favorite online bookseller.

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