Howard Bryant became a sports writer so that he could write a book about racism and Boston sports, specifically as it pertained to the Red Sox. “Shut Out” featured fine reporting but the writing was surprisingly repetitive and weak in spots. However, it remains an extremely useful book in spite of its flaws because the subject is so rich. I always felt as if Bryant did not have a strong editor to help make his narrative shine. That is not the case with Bryant’s second effort, “Juicing the Game,” a story that is much larger in scope but one that is also told with great precision and focus. Bryant’s reporting continues to be top-notch (and this book certainly could not have been written if Bryant was not established inside the game), but it is his writing that has grown by leaps and bounds. If “Juicing the Game” is not a truly great book–and it might just be–it certainly is an exceedingly good one. It is the story of the Bud Selig Era and will go down as the logical successor and ideal companion to John Helyar’s “Lords of the Realm.”
I wasn’t exactly sure what the book was about when I first heard about it. I assumed it was an expose about steroids, a subject that doesn’t exactly captivate me. But “Juicing the Game” is really an insider’s history of the professional game since Fay Vincent was commissioner. It features a huge cast of characters and explores how and why the current Offensive Age, the Steroids Era came to be. Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the book is that Bryant does not attempt to simplify a complicated situation. The bottom line may not be complex (mo money, mo problems), but Bryant doesn’t lay the blame on one thing in particular-—instead, the entire game is complicit:
To Glenn Stout, the crumbling of the 1998 monument resembled nothing less than a classic morality tale. It wasn’t just the players, and it wasn’t just drug use, Stout thought, but the entire baseball institution that was under indictment. Baseball needed to recover from the strike, and found itself seduced by a culture of uncontrolled accumulation. Every segment of the game was culpable. It was the players who used whatever substances were available to maximize their achievements, and in turn their earnings, at the expense of their credibility. It was the fans who did not care that the game was being made less legitimate as long as they were treated to a more exciting product. It was the press and the broadcast media that chose to reap the added profits and increased exposure that came during the boom time instead of employing the stamina and scrutiny required to confront a spiraling baseball culture. Finally, Stout thought, it was the owners that profited from drug use and ran from the responsibility until there was nowhere else to go.
Tony Gwynn did not believe baseball was in crisis, but thought the decade of offense had to some degree been engineered by design. The strike had forced the game’s hand, Gwynn believed. Piece by piece, from the gradual institution of a tighter strike zone, to the manipulation of the baseball, to the construction of home run-friendly parks, and ultimately to allowing player’s growth in size to go unchecked and largely unquestioned, baseball had manipulated its product toward greater offensive production. It was a stunning consideration.
“Take into account us trying to regain and recapture the American public’s imagination and the hitter’s realizing that if he got bigger and stronger he could hit the ball out the other way,” Tony Gwynn said. “And it all manifested itself into a product people liked. And now it’s too late to go back. It’s too late and you can’t go back.”
This line of thinking reminded me of Mel Gibson’s drug dealer trying to go straight in Robert Towne’s movie, “Tequila Sunrise.” He can’t seem to get out of the business, and he tells the Michelle Pfieffer character:
“Nobody wants me to quit. The cops wanna bust me, the Columbians want my connections, my wife she wants my money, her lawyer agrees, and mine likes getting paid to argue with them…I haven’t even mentioned the customers. You know they don’t want me to quit.”
In the late 1990s, home runs were sailing out of the park at an alarming rate and everybody was making money. Nobody wanted the party to stop. But if everyone is culpable to an extent, Bryant lays the responsibility squarely on the leaders of the game. “They’ve really damaged something,” the historian David Halberstam tells Bryant. “It’s a fascinating look at the psychology of weak, greedy men.” More than anything, “Juicing the Game” is a story about the failure of leadership–from Selig and Fehr and the owners on down:
In the end, Bud Selig is alone, isolated to a degree from the game over which he presides, the old history major banking on the fact that indeed history will absolve him, his renaissance destroyed largely by his own opposition to investigation. “We need to move forward,” Selig says in defense of the era. It is the worst indictment of the tainted era, that the commissioner of baseball honors the years he once so happily called the greatest in baseball history by refusing to look back at them.
Bryant’s narrative is even-handed and balanced yet authoritative and convincing, not an easy trick. Another pitfall is that Bryant is writing about a topic that has not fully played itself out yet. The introduction covers the Congressional investigation that took place earlier this spring, yet his coverage seems complete, and not likely to become dated by the time the book is released in paperback. That takes real confidence and courage. Bryant has both to spare.
In this dense popular history, Bryant creates striking portraits of the kind of driven, super-competitive, insecure men you find in the game, from Sandy Alderson to Reggie Jackson and Barry Bonds. The sections of Brady Anderson and AJ Hinch are empathetic without being sentimental. I found the behind-the-scenes accounts of the owners, small market vs. big market, as well as the lot of them pitted against the Players Association to be riveting. Amongst other things, Bryant also discusses Alderson’s battle against Richie Phillips and the umpires, the sorry tale of Ques Tec, the Crusaders who fought with MLB to recognize its growing drug problem, the devastating impact of the Dietary Supplements Health and Education Act, the changing perception of the Players Association, both from inside and outside the union, the vilification of Steve Wilstein, the Associated Press reporter who first broke the Mark McGuire Androstenedione story, to the San Francisco Chronicle’s historic coverage of the BALCO affair. (I don’t know enough about the drug culture to know how good of a job Bryant does in relation to performance-enhancing substances, but I’m eager to see what extremists like John Perricone make of his efforts.)
What gives “Juicing the Game” depth is how Bryant is able to set the story in the context of the culture at large. He is especially poignant when writing about the influence of Television. These days, we are bombarded with commercials about drugs that can help everything from weight loss to erectile dysfunction:
Television beamed twin messages that, taken together, forged a mind-set. The first was that, as far as baseball was concerned, the players who received the most attention, the highest salaries, and the greatest adulation were the ones who hit the ball the farthest and threw the hardest. The second was that there existed a pill for everything, and that included, by extension, pills to make a person a better baseball player. In a sense, the baseball player and the average American were being barraged with the same message and seeking the same remedy for vastly different problems. The end result, however, was essentially the same: When in doubt, there was always a drug that could help.
In fact, the sports world in the age of ESPN and the Internet had changed drastically:
To Paul DePodesta, the general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, the reason for watching sports was shifting. A greater number of fans did not seem to care about how these great accomplishments were achieved but rather sought only to be entertained. Not only did the drama of the game not have to be real, but neither did the people who played it. Matt Keough, the Oakland superscout who pitched nine years in the big leagues, agreed. “There was a time when baseball was a sport first and entertainment second. That day is past. It is entertainment first, and then it is a sport.” To DePodesta, this shift had potentially fatal consequences for the world of sports.”
Regardless, this is a story about a cynical, Post-Watergate America (late in the book, Bryant makes a fitting analogy between Selig and Richard Nixon). While some players, owners, writers, and fans–not to mention Congressmen–were morally offended by baseball’s drug culture, others like David Wells “thought that steroid use in baseball represented nothing more than a kind of Darwinism.” Bryant compares the current drug problem with the quiz show scandal of the late fifties and concludes that:
David Wells was a product of a very different America, one that was less loyal, less inclined to be outraged by scandal, and wholly more cynical, believing that the means by which success was gained were infinitely less important than the end result. Not only did David Wells not care that players used steroids, he expected everyone who competed against him, especially considering the enormous sums of money that were on the table, to do whatever it took to get over. Wells exemplified this new American way of thinking, and it explained exactly why the fans kept coming back to the ballpark. In David Wells’ America, it was the crook who got the TV show.
Ironically, the more things change the more they have stayed the same since the end of Helyar’s “Lords of the Realm.” Bryant’s book may end on a darker note, but it is remarkable how relevant Helyar’s concluding paragraph remains:
The Lords and the agents, the lawyers and the czars, had done their best to kill baseball. There was something about the national pastime that made the people in it behave badly. They were, perhaps, blinded by the light of what it represented–a glowing distillate of America. Men fought to control it as though they could own it. They wallowed in dubious battle, locked in ugly trench warfare for dominion over the green fields. The money poured into the game and men gorged and gouged over it–made damned fools of themselves over it.
And the fans, ever forgiving, we still there.
The fans are are still here. Same as it ever was.