The book Game of Shadows will be released this week but its surprise is gone. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that anyone was shocked at its contents. Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, two excellent investigative journalists, have detailed what they allege are the schedules of steroid and supplement use by Barry Bonds, as directed by his personal trainer and by BALCO mastermind, Victor Conte.
There is little doubt, if any, that Bonds used anabolic steroids, growth hormone, and other substances. Bonds continues to assert the ‘ostrich defense’ – that he took supplements given to him by his trainers, but that he did not know the contents of these supplements. Whether knowingly or not, Bonds certainly appears to have taken steroids. Such use of such drugs was morally and ethically wrong, but not against the rules of baseball at the time.
Instead of continuing the debate of “did he or didn’t he” – an issue that has less and less actual significance in an era where the absence of a positive test is not enough to clear an athlete – I want to take a look at this as a science experiment. Assuming that the information alleged in Game of Shadows is correct, Bonds and his trainers turned him into one of the greatest guinea pigs of all time, hoping to make the greatest baseball player of the era even greater.
There is no question that Bonds was great prior to 1998, the first documented time where it is alleged that Bonds began to use performance-enhancing substances. The first question we must ask is if Bonds saw results. In 1998, Bonds hit 37 home runs and had a slugging percentage of 609. While his slugging percentage was slightly up, his home runs were actually down from the previous season. Bonds’ home runs went down again in 1999, to 34, however the rate went up. This is the season where Bonds had elbow problems, cited in the book as evidence of steroid use. It is in the following five seasons where Bonds’ home run total exploded. Given this, is it possible that Bonds began using in late 1998 but did not see effects until the following season? [For a more complete look at steroids and statistics, check out Baseball Between The Numbers and The Juice]
The second question we must ask is why did Bonds wait so long to use performance enhancers. If we take Jose Canseco at his word, steroids were widespread in the mid-to-late 1980’s, continuing unabated through the 1990’s. Bonds is quoted in the book as being jealous of the attention focused on ‘white boy’ Mark McGwire and not-so-pale Sammy Sosa. Clearly (no pun intended), Bonds would have had means, motive and opportunity to take steroids prior to 1998. If jealousy is all it took to push him down a path, why didn’t Cal Ripken’s streak bother him or losing his MVP award to Jeff Bagwell in 1994?
We must also look closely at both the schedule and type of steroids Bonds was alleged to be using. Going from the excerpts available at the time this article is written, Bonds took ‘stacks’ (combinations of various drugs intended to have an increased effect over taking individual drugs) and ‘cycles’ of very specific steroids and growth-enhancing compounds. In the chemical underground, these stacks and cycles are as researched and documented as on-base percentages and ranges are in baseball. Few people anywhere know more about these chemicals than Anthony Roberts. Roberts is the co-author of “Anabolic Steroids – The Ultimate Research Guide” and an acknowledged expert on the use of steroids for maximum results.
I showed Roberts some of Bonds’ stacks and asked for his reaction. “They are all mediocre cycles, at best,” Roberts said. “I would have come up with this in high school and nothing like I’d write out now.” Roberts is saying, in essence, that Bonds’ alleged steroid regimen was misguided, less than state of the art, and in some cases, counter productive.
One of the stacks used by Bonds was a combination of deca-durabolin (a drug admittedly used by Jason Giambi) and winstrol (the drug used by Rafael Palmeiro in 2005.) Is this a good stack for baseball, I asked Roberts? “No,” he responded. “Deca is detectable for eighteen months and winnie (winstrol) can hurt your joints.” Bonds had no concern about the detectability of deca; there was no testing, but joint pain is certainly something that would have gotten Bonds’ attention and been performance-reducing rather than the opposite, intended effect. Roberts’ own research has shown that winstrol’s anti-estrogenic effects, a positive for anabolic effects, actually reduce the body’s production of cytokines, substances produced by the body to reduce inflammation and pain.
If this was an early cycle, Bonds likely didn’t like the results, if there were any. Bonds’ trainers allegedly switched him to winstrol with a testosterone cream that came to be known as ‘the cream’ (the cream is a testosterone gel which is legally prescribed for men with low testosterone). Known as Androgel, BALCO used a Texas compounding pharmacist to increase the concentration of the testosterone to nearly 10% rather than the normal 1-2%.* This would likely have the effect of reducing the joint pain associated with winstrol, but not have the same gains as the previous deca-winstrol stack.
Bonds went through several stacks involving various drugs, including the one most associated with BALCO. Known as THG or ‘the clear’, this ‘designer steroid’ was unknown to testers and therefore undetectable. Before its revelation to testers, there was no possible positive test for the drug. It is still unknown to the general public how effective this drug was. The benefit of THG was not increased efficacy. The only reason to use THG was to avoid detection.
The problem is that Bonds is alleged to have used THG in 2001 and 2002, prior to testing in baseball. Giving the drug to track stars or football players makes sense, but at the time, drugs like deca with 18 month detectable periods were cheaper, well known, and just as efficient. Using THG prior to 2003 in baseball is the equivalent of using a stealth bomber to fly over a country with no rader; sure, you could do it, but why bother?
By 2003 (according to the documents used by the government in building their case against Victor Conte and Greg Anderson and cited by Fainaru-Wada and Williams in a companion piece in Sports Illustrated), Bonds’ 2003 schedule included the use of human growth hormone (HGH), oral testosterone, testosterone cream, THG, insulin, and trenbolone, another anabolic steroid. While the schedule (alleged to be used by Bonds when on the road and marked with Giants away games), does pose problems to Bonds’ ostrich defense in regards to possession, it also makes little sense as a stack to be used in a tested environment. Trenbolone and trenbolone acetate are widely used veterinary and food-use steroids (Google it and you’ll scare yourself) with a detectable period of five months. Just as taking an undetectable steroid when there is no testing makes no sense, it makes even less sense to take an undetectable steroid in combination with two that are easily detectable.
Bonds’ 2003 urine samples were seized by the government as part of the BALCO investigation, along with the samples for several other players. Despite the negotiated anonymity of the survey testing (there was a checklist that made it possible to match up samples to individuals), there has never been a public acknowledgement that Bonds, Giambi, or any other athlete tested positive in the initial or retests of those samples. Bonds testified under oath that he never knowingly took anabolic steroids. If the government was in possession of a positive test for such steroids I think that (given all the other leaks and documents available) such a fact would be known. If Bonds were taking the quantities of steroids stated in the documents, I have no idea how Bonds would have avoided a positive test.
Let’s review – in 2002, Bonds is alleged to be taking steroids such as deca and winstrol, drugs that have long detectable periods. If taken early in 2002 and never taken again, it is likely that a sample taken during spring training of 2003 would show traces of steroids. Moreover, if Bonds was taking THG, a drug thought to be undetectable in 2003, there would be no reason to attempt to mask that drug in tests. Subsequent tests should have found THG but as yet, we have no evidence that they did (to be fair, we also have no evidence that they did not).
In essence, Barry Bonds allowed a self-taught chemist and pretty solid bass player to experiment on him with powerful steroids, hormones, and prescription pharmaceuticals. Knowingly or unknowingly, Bonds was given drugs that go against the spirit of sport and may have helped him put up numbers the game has never seen before. However, those drugs may have been the wrong ones. “I would have had him Lr3IGF-1 [insulin growth factor, now sold as Increlex by prescription] and GH [growth hormone.],” said Roberts. “Neither are detectable and both will help with strength and power. If testing were a concern, then testosterone and Oxandrolone.”
That’s right. The exhaustive and excellent research done by Fainaru-Wada and Williams definitely proves one more thing – Bonds got the wrong stuff.