Game of Shadows Obscures the Real Steroids Issue
by Keith Glab, Baseball Evolution
March 8, 2006



Game of Shadows, which will be published later this month, makes it pretty hard to believe that Barry Bonds didnít use steroids and other Illegal substances. That being said, much of the evidence produced against Barry does come from a jaded and possibly abused ex-girlfriend. Of course the portayal of Bonds as abusive, womanizing, selfish, egotistical, controlling, sexually dysfunctional, and racist is no accident. Authors Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams take great care to display Bonds in the worst possible light.

Shadows have obscured the real issue here. Pretty much everybody thought that Barry was a juicer even before this "bombshell" hit. Pretty much everybody thought that he was a jerk before this book became publicized. Nothing much has changed. Tom Verducci labels it "a work of confirmation." What would be far mor useful to know, though the subject was barely mentioned in SIís exclusive excerpt, is how much steroids have affected Bondsí success in the game of baseball.

Asher, Scott, Karl and I have debated this topic for hours, so we thought weíd bring in an expert to mediate a bit. Brian Grasso serves as Executive Director for the International Youth Conditioning Association, and is considered one of the premier experts on youth athletic development in the world. He speaks to young athletes across the country about how steroids are superfluous for youths to compete at a professional level, and that proper conditioning would aid development more.

"Steroids arenít necessary," claims Grasso. "90% of young athletes donít train properly. Thay donít lift well, they donít have good training programs they donít have good nutritional programs, they donít go through good restoration programs to really keep their bodies fit."

Brian does concede, however, that steroids can provide an edge to baseball players that have already established themselves as skilled athletes. "At the level that a Barry Bonds or guys like that are at, their ability to improve on their performance is a very small window. When you hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases, youíre pretty much at the top of the class already!"

"Steroids work, and in the case of Major League Baseball players, theyíre effective. Unfortunately, they are. With kids, our point is, youíre nowhere near that level yet. Thereís a million things you could be doing to increase your performance."

One thing Game of Shadows does address is that the Human Growth Hormone that Bonds supplemented his steroids with may have increased his visual acuity, allowing him to post the best strikeout-to-walk rates of all time. This is something that known steroid benefits could never account for.

In 2003, accounts of supposedly random steroid testing forced Bud Selig to happily announce that steroid usage was only visible among "5-7%" of Major League players. Most experts believe this to be a very low estimate, since certain illegal substances, such as HGH, Cream, and Clear, remain undetectable. Still, even if just 7% of the 40 man rosters on each of the 30 teams were using steroids, thatís a total of 84 players. Game of Shadows even mentions that several other Giants players were given the exact same substances that Bonds was.

If all these players are doing the same things as Bonds, how is Barry at an unfair advantage? And why canít anyone else using these substances match Bondsí production, or at least show the same degree of improvement that Bonds exhibited between 1998 and 2001?

"If you take a medocre athlete and give him steroids, heís going to excel to a degree," explains Grasso. "Ruben Sierra, although a wonderfully gifted athelete and certainly a gifted baseball player, just isnít in the same class as Barry Bonds. Inevitably, even with performance enhancers, your high-end ability is what it is, as it related to sport. Yes, it will increase your strength. Yes, it will increase your power and potential hip torque, etc."

"The defining aspect is your innate ability. It enhances that, but to a cap."

In the newly published The Last Nine Innings (Sourcebooks), Charles Euchner debunks the myth that steroids only enhance hitters.

"[S]teroids can help any athlete that wants greater strength," Euchner writes. "If the most important part of a pitcherís body is his legsówhich create the power that propels the body forward and acts like a shock absorber for the body as it completes its violent motion forwardóthen improving the strength of the legs can improve the pitcherís power."

"Steroids also reduce the recovery time for injuries. But maybe more important, performance drugs could give pitchers the stamina they need to survive the season of 162 games and 19 more postseason games. In fact, when baseball adopted its first drug-testing program in 2005, pitchers were as likely to test positive as position players."

This is important to note when comparing Bonds with players from other eras. Many of the pitchers whom Bonds faced likely had the same advantages as he did.

The dichotomy of steroidsí effects on durability is best explained by Grasso.

"The body can only gain at a certain rate," Grasso reveals. "When you strength train, your body releases testosterone and other hormones are secreted and released into the bloodstream. What steroids do is provide an equilibrium in the body that provides recovery and regeneration."

"One of the fallouts of steroids has always been said to be soft tissue degradation. Specifically, ligaments and tendons become less sturdy. So we actually find that some people who use steroids are actually less durable. You are more prone to recover better and be more durable because of it. You are also technically more prone to soft tissue injury like sprains and strains."

"So itís a double-edged sword. I donít think that one negates the other; both are very valid. If you run through a season where youíre healthy, steroids could in fact help your durability. But if you run into one injury, it may plague you for a lot longer than it would have for someone who was not taking steroids."

Gee, sound familiar? The fact that Bondsí last six seasons fit this model perfectly further supports the notion that he was on the juice. But if we say that steroids helped him hit a few more homers and play in a few more games during certain seasons within that span, donít we also need to acknowledge that they may have cost him a season and a half of DL time? Steroids may have hurt his career numbers nearly as much as theyíve boosted them.

If Bonds finishes his career with 756 homers, I think we could reasonably assume that he would not have broken Aaronís record without the help of illegal substences. But anyone who now believes that Bonds isnít still among the top ten players of all time is putting an awful lot of weight on some particularly unsure footing. To summarize:

  1. As exstensive as the investigative efforts of Fainaru-Wada and Williams are, the fact that they rely heavily on a woman who experienced a bad breakup with Bonds poses a bit of a problem. She has a vested interest in portraying Bonds in a negative light. For the record, I went to college with Bondsí next door neighbor in suburban Pittsburgh, who claimed that Bonds was one of the nicest people heíd ever met. I put about equal stock in each of those accounts.
  2. Possibly hundreds of Major League hitters used steroids during the same period as Bonds, so the fact that he was the best hitter in baseball during this period does confirm his greatness.
  3. As many pitchers may be using steroids as are hitters, meaning that the so called "Steroids Era" probably still hasnít favored hitters as much as the Ruthian Era of the 1920ís and 30ís did.
  4. Steroids probably gave Barry more power. HGH probably gave him better vision. He may have been able to play a few more games between 2000-2004 because of these substances. But these same substances may also be reasponsable for the significant injuries and slow recovery time Bonds endured in 1999 and 2005.

Why America so desperately wants to dig through Barryís life and undermine all that he has accomplished, I have no idea. But in my mind, illegal substances have played a fairly small role in building one of the greatest baseball careers ever.

Related Links:

Asher's Response
http://developingathletics.com/
The Last Nine Innings
The Great Steroid Debate of 2003
Sports Illustratedís exclusive Game of Shadows excerpt

 




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Disagree with something? Got something to add? Wanna bring up something totally new? Keith Glab resides in Chicago, Illinois, and can be reached at keith@baseballevolution.com.



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