As sports fans, we’ve decided two things about the annual Baseball Hall of Fame announcement. First, we don’t want to flatter the voters — that is, baseball writers — by talking about their nay votes for PED users, their moral preening, or their hand-wringing about the “soul” of baseball.
Second, we’ve decided that we can’t stop talking about this. Let’s expand the ballot, reimagine the electorate, etc.
What’s missing is a portrait of baseball writers during the Steroid Era. The Baseball Writers’ Association of America grants its nearly 600 voting members a curious privilege: They’re responsible for shaping a player’s reputation both during his career and after his retirement. They write the game story and then row the boat across the River Styx.
When a Hall voter sees the name of a PED user on his ballot, he’s not staring at an entry on Baseball-Reference.com. That same voter was also the PED user’s chronicler and idolater; he covered his fall from grace; he heard his confession. The player’s doping had a direct and often negative effect on his career. Deacon White is an abstraction. Mark McGwire is a professional trauma.
The relationship between reporter and subject was never more vivid than between 1988 and 2010. In 1988, a Washington Post columnist leveled the first serious charge of steroid use in Major League Baseball. In 2010, McGwire confessed his own use and put a period on the era. (Ryan Braun and Alex Rodriguez continued the story from there.) Below, I recount scenes from that span in the form of a detective story — one in which the detectives were brilliant, buffoonish, or thoroughly uninterested in the job. For baseball writers, this period is when innocence was lost, when their jobs changed forever. The Hall of Fame vote is not some new expression of professional grief. It is an echo.
Nightwatch sounds like a drama about soldiers on the Northern Wall, but it was mainly for insomniacs without basic cable. Every weekday at 2 a.m., Charlie Rose’s face would appear on CBS. Rose would question his guests, quote from their books and films, and lift a skeptical eyebrow. On September 28, Rose introduced Thomas Boswell, a sports columnist at the Washington Post. The pennant race was heating up. They would talk baseball.
Boswell began to discuss Jose Canseco, who was wrapping up baseball’s first 40/40 season and soon to win the American League MVP. Canseco, Boswell said, is “the most conspicuous example of a player who has made himself great with steroids.”
All over America, the nodding heads of baseball writers snapped awake. “The first thing I thought was, OK, here comes a lawsuit,” said Bob Nightengale, then of the Kansas City Star. “That was the stunning thing: not that he was saying some dark secret that we didn’t know but that he would say it publicly.” Nightengale picked up the phone and called a pal in the Bay Area to see if he needed an item for his notebook column.
“I was not surprised,” said Ray Ratto, who was the Giants beat writer at the San Francisco Chronicle. “But I remember thinking, I wish there was more than just Boswell’s say-so.”
Indeed, the first major shot fired by the press amounted to one writer’s word. But among baseball writers, the word couldn’t have been stronger. Boswell was writing in the same zip code as Red Smith. Though he’d only been a Post columnist for four years, he had published three essay collections. “That’s when Boswell was the swinging dick in the country,” said Ratto. “When he said stuff, people stopped and listened. There’s always one guy on the East Coast who gets to be that guy for a while. Back then, he was that guy.”
It’s hard to overstate the shock waves this sent through baseball. The next day, the Oakland A’s manager, Tony La Russa, said Boswell was full of it.
Boswell fired back that La Russa had been one of his sources. He said La Russa had told him, “Jose made some mistakes back then” — during his time in the minors — “but he’s all natural now.” Boswell showed his notes — which contained the words “Jose Canseco milkshake,” the slugger’s concoction of steroids — to a fellow reporter.
Canseco said he was about to sign a $1 million endorsement contract with Pepsi. When Boswell uttered the word “steroids” on national TV, Pepsi pulled the offer. That October, when the A’s went to Fenway Park to play in the ALCS, Red Sox fans in right field chanted “STER-oids! STER-oids!” (In Oakland, someone held up a sign that read “Drug Test Boswell.”)
There was one strange thing about Boswell’s accusation. It never appeared in the Washington Post.
“Like any other newspaper of substance,” said George Solomon, who was the Post‘s sports editor, “you have to have your sources. You have to be 100 percent sure of what you print. At that point, we were not. What Boswell said on CBS was Boswell’s opinion.”
Boswell had put the notion of steroids in baseball into the air. But he hadn’t gotten it into the newspaper.
July 1995–May 1997
Baseball writers knew, right? They knew and they didn’t tell us. Well, by the mid-’90s, they knew something. But it was hard to square what they knew with what they could get past their editors.
Back then, before McGwire and Braun and Melky Cabrera, a scout would lean against the cage and nod at certain ballplayers. “See that guy?” he’d say. “He’s making my job hard.” Players like Frank Thomas and Tony Gwynn would complain loudly; Ken Griffey Jr. did the same, but usually off the record. But the players would hesitate to name their colleagues, and they had little evidence.
“It was truth without portfolio,” said Ratto. “It was quote marks, truth, close quote marks.”
“Everybody says, ‘You knew. You knew,’” said Richard Justice, who was the national baseball writer at the Washington Post. “I didn’t even know what there was to know.” Indeed, unless a baseball writer had covered the NFL or Ben Johnson in Seoul, he had little medical knowledge of steroids. Major League Baseball encouraged such ignorance. The league had no steroid testing policy.
A writer would bring his notes to Solomon and Solomon would say, “Try again, pal.”
Nightengale, who’d moved to the Los Angeles Times, hit on an idea. What if he didn’t name a player? What if he just reported the chatter? His piece would a libel-proof account of what people were saying about steroids.
In June 1995, just after McGwire passed the 250–home run mark, Nightengale began sidling up to players like Gwynn and GMs like Randy Smith of the Padres. The reporting turned out to be easy. “I think so many guys were just irritated how prevalent the problem had become,” Nightengale said. “They just wanted that out there.”
Nightengale’s July 15, 1995, story, “Steroids Become an Issue,” announced, “Anabolic steroids, the performance drugs of the 1980s in football, track, weightlifting and some other sports, apparently have become the performance drugs of the ’90s in major league baseball.” You could see an editor’s jittery hand in that “apparently.” “It’s like the big secret we’re not supposed to talk about,” Gwynn told Nightengale, “but believe me, we wonder just like the rest of people. I’m standing out there in the outfield when a guy comes up, and I’m thinking, ‘Hey, I wonder if this guy is on steroids.’”
Today, Nightengale’s piece would have rounded the bases on Twitter and social media. “Back then, in ’95, there was no Internet as we know it today,” said Ken Rosenthal, then a Baltimore Sun columnist. “Even reading an out-of-town story was hard to do.” There were few follow-ups.
Gwynn seemed to understand the trickiness of the reporting task. “I think we all have our suspicions who’s on the stuff,” he said, “but unless someone comes out and admits it, who’ll ever know for sure?”
In the late ’90s, baseball writers started calling doping experts to help figure out what they were seeing. “I was ensconced in Rolodexes,” said Charles Yesalis, who taught at Penn State and cowrote The Steroids Game. “I guess I was great for quotes.” The experts became the best witnesses to the writers’ naïveté.
As doping experts saw it, baseball writers were suffering from a number of misconceptions. The first was the myth that weight lifting didn’t do much for baseball players. (Later, this was replaced by the idea that steroids only helped power hitters.)
There was the wagging paw of McGruff the Crime Dog. “The ‘war on drugs’ makes a lot of us just presume that a lot of people are going to abstain from this behavior,” said John Hoberman, a doping historian at the University of Texas. “That turns out to be misleading.”
What Yesalis heard was a lack of scientific knowledge. “I remember one guy saying, ‘Yeah, Doc, but I don’t have all those degrees and scientific training,’” Yesalis recalled. “I said, ‘Bullshit. Even if you never lifted a weight, go to a hard-core gym and talk off-the-record to serious lifters. It’s not rocket science. You can literally learn everything in an hour of your time, counting the 10-minute drive to and from the gym.’”
Pete Williams, then a writer at USA Today’s Baseball Weekly, was mesmerized by Ken Caminiti’s eyes. “They talk about eyes being the windows to the soul,” said Williams. “His eyes would go from intense to angry to mischievous in a matter of minutes.”
The Padres first baseman’s face was businesslike one afternoon in 1997 as he showed Williams his goody bag. That’s what Caminiti called it. Inside, Williams saw bottles and plastic bags full of pills. It was the stuff, apparently, that was making Caminiti huge. Caminiti swallowed a couple for Williams.
That spring, Williams had gotten a call from an agent. There’s this new supplement called creatine, the agent said. Kind of like a legal alternative to steroids.
Williams was 27 years old, close enough to his college days that he still hit the weights. He ordered some grape-flavored creatine. He “loaded” five grams and went to USA Today‘s basement gym to give it a shot.
“I had an incredible workout,” Williams said. “I remember going into the locker room and taking my shirt off and feeling jacked. I was like, ‘Holy cow, this stuff works.’” His post-workout high set him off to report on the supplement Baseball Weekly would dub the game’s “new gunpowder.”
Baseball Weekly had a decent travel budget and Williams was able to interview lots of players. The list now reads like a suspect list of the steroid era. Mark McGwire. Jason Giambi. Mike Piazza. They wanted to talk to Williams. The word cheater was barely in circulation. In the age when few ballplayers took weight lifting seriously, the players thought of themselves as innovators. Orioles center fielder Brady Anderson, whose home run total jumped from 16 in ’95 to 50 in ’96, pulled out supplement after supplement to show Williams. There’s this, Anderson said. And this … McGwire declared Power Creatine “the best product on the market today.”
For the face of his creatine story, Williams picked Caminiti. That made sense. Caminiti was an alcoholic who had gone through rehab and emerged with his manly swagger intact. “Caminiti is a throwback,” Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci had written the year before, “a ballplayer who would look good in heavy flannel.”
“I think Ken Caminiti started the national trend of men wearing goatees in the late ’90s,” Williams said. “I had one myself. That’s what a badass Caminiti was.”
Caminiti was also a pharmacological miracle. Verducci reported that he had gained 20 pounds of muscle. His body fat was 9 percent. He was crushing home runs: from a total of 18 in 1994 to 26 in ’95 to 40 in ’96, when he won the National League MVP.
On April 12, 1997, Williams met Caminiti in Philadelphia during a rain delay. Most of the Padres had crowded around the clubhouse TV to watch Tiger Woods shoot a 65 at the Masters. Williams and Caminiti found a table. They talked. And talked. And talked some more. Williams watched Caminiti’s eyes. “I think he wanted to tell me at that point,” Williams said. Williams doesn’t remember if he asked Caminiti about steroids, but doubts that he did.
Two weeks later, Williams and Baseball Weekly‘s photographer, Tom DiPace, brought Caminiti into an ancillary room at Turner Field for a photo shoot. Caminiti’s eyes activated again. They scanned back and forth. “I need 10 minutes,” Caminiti said.
“He walks into the gym next door,” Williams said, “and starts furiously doing hammer curls and other things. About 10 minutes later, he comes back and says, ‘Let’s go.’”
The photo on the cover of the May 7, 1997 issue of Baseball Weekly had Caminiti breaking a bat with his hands. The headline read: “PUMPED!” Williams keeps a copy on his wall as a reminder that you can always ask one more question.
The story that took PEDs out of the realm of rumor was almost a sidebar. On August 19, 1998, Steve Wilstein of the Associated Press published 2,910 giddy words on McGwire and the home run chase. Three days later, he published an additional 1,113 words on a bottle of androstenedione he saw in McGwire’s locker. It was as if the two stories of 1998 — the home runs and the chemicals — couldn’t occupy the same real estate.
Wilstein was a by-the-book writer who’d been content to stay in the AP’s starless universe. “Steve wasn’t a guy who would drop his pants to get people to look at him,” said Ratto. “He was a solid, classically trained reporter.”
Unlike most baseball writers, Wilstein had done several reporting tours at the Olympics. In Seoul, he tried to ask Ben Johnson for an interview days before the 100-meter final. “He roared at me,” Wilstein said. “I think he was on a ‘roid rage. He sounded like a lion.” A few weeks later, Wilstein heard the crowd chant STER-oids! at Canseco.
In 1998, STER-oids was rarely associated with McGwire in print. That spring, Verducci had asked McGwire point-blank if he’d ever used. “Never,” McGwire replied without hesitation. When Wilstein joined the home run beat that summer, he had an even more basic question: How’d you get so big?
“He said, ‘I just use creatine, eat a lot of steak, and I work out a lot.’” Wilstein thought that didn’t smell right.
The strangest omission of the steroid era was reporters’ failure to write, “This doesn’t look right.” Instead, baseball writers played Word Power: “bigger-than-life,” “bulging,” “Bunyanesque.” (The latter was also used to describe McGwire’s heart.) “In retrospect, do I wish I and others had noted the bodies of McGwire and [Sammy] Sosa and written, ‘What the heck was going on here?’” said Rosenthal. “That would have been a fair column.”
“It did not register that something nefarious was going on,” said Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan. “People say, ‘You overlooked it!’ No, I was stupid. … I’ll take naive and stupid over willfully evil.”
That fall, as McGwire neared Roger Maris’s single-season home run record, the press was ready to swoon. But McGwire’s innate shyness took over. He held news conferences outside the locker room so his teammates wouldn’t hear. He was lingering in the shower one afternoon, hoping deadlines would thin the journalistic herd, when Wilstein claimed a spot next to his locker. Wilstein opened his yellow legal pad and wrote what he saw. Creatine. A can of Popeye’s spinach. A photo of McGwire’s son. A pack of sugarless gum. McGwire’s dad was a dentist — it was a nice detail.
He also noted that McGwire had a bottle of androstenedione. “It was right in front of my eyes,” Wilstein said. “Literally, right in front of my eyes. And I don’t use the word ‘literally’ too often.” He wrote down the name in his notebook.
For two weeks, this secret knowledge sat in his notebook undisturbed. “It could have been something like St. John’s wort,” Wilstein said. “I didn’t know what it was.” He called a doctor, his go-to source on medical stories. He discovered that andro, while legal, had been banned by the NFL and the NCAA. Randy Barnes, an Olympic shot-putter, had been given a lifetime ban for a drug that was sitting in McGwire’s locker.
Wilstein was a busy guy. By the time his andro story was ready, he’d moved on from the home run chase to cover the U.S. Open. The AP sent another reporter, Rick Gano, to ask McGwire about the drug. McGwire denied using it. The AP tried again with a second reporter, Nancy Armour. Tell him my name and that I saw it, Wilstein told Armour. This time, McGwire confirmed it. “Everybody that I know in the game of baseball uses the same stuff I use,” he said.
The first of Wilstein’s McGwire stories was pure Chevy commercial Americana. (“‘Americans love power,’ McGwire says. ‘Big cars. Big trucks. Big people.’”) The second was a preview of the doping journalism that would characterize the next 15 years of baseball writing. It’s worth noting that from Wilstein’s original question — how’d you get so big? — he was only able to put together a partial answer. But he got further than anyone else.
“I thought it was rock-solid reporting,” said T.J. Quinn, who was covering the Mets for the Bergen County Record, “and that [Wilstein] was a victim of a clubhouse mentality that oozed up to the press box.” The clubhouse code says that all secrets of the locker room must remain there. La Russa — again coming to his player’s defense — tried to ban the AP from the clubhouse.
In an odd twist, several writers joined La Russa’s crusade. This is an unfortunate tic of sportswriting — when a writer becomes so deadened by the code of silence that he begins to demand it himself. (This frequently occurs when writers blame players for “throwing teammates under the bus.”) A Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist called Wilstein “rude.” Dan Shaughnessy wrote in the Boston Globe, “No wonder players loathe the media.”
I spoke to Shaughnessy recently about the steroid issue. “I’ve never been an investigative reporter,” he said. “I’m not really interested in that. It’s not what I got into this for.”
But the harshest blowback came from the St. Louis media. When the New York Post asked a local photographer to take a picture of McGwire’s locker, the Post found that the photographer had ratted out the paper to the Cardinals. Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz, also working with the permission of the team, attempted to re-create Wilstein spotting the andro. Miklasz stood several feet from McGwire’s locker. With Grassy Knoll precision, he announced in his August 24 column that he had to “intentionally look, and look hard” to read the label.
Wilstein dryly suggested that this was because Miklasz was too short.
There were good stories to be written about andro. It was legal. It was not banned by baseball. To a certain mind (say, mine), Wilstein had merely shown that McGwire was the same pharmacological innovator from Pete Williams’s Baseball Weekly article. But to write that would have been to hold two ideas in one’s head at one time. As the home run chase dragged on, andro returned to where it came from: a sidebar.
Wilstein, in some tellings, was martyred for his scoop. He was not. Wilstein was well-liked enough by Major League Baseball that the league granted him exclusive access to Ted Williams at the next season’s All-Star Game. At the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Wilstein asked C.J. Hunter, the husband and coach of sprinter Marion Jones, a version of the question he had asked McGwire: How’d he get so big?
Wilstein wrote the name “BALCO” on his legal pad.
This time, he never got around to following up. “You win some,” Wilstein said, “you lose some, and sometimes you get rained out.”
Nothing to Hide
Tom Verducci needed a confession. After the andro episode, the chatter around batting cages and clubhouses had gotten louder. Allegedly clean ballplayers approached Verducci and told him they now feared they were in the minority. Verducci pitched a steroid story to Sports Illustrated before the 2002 season. But the story needed a face.
The clip file on PEDs was growing. That March, the New York Times‘s Buster Olney quoted general managers who were worried about steroid users cheating them out of big contracts. Keith Olbermann had taken to carrying a list of PED suspects to games inside his scorebook.
“I remember having a conversation in 2002 with Mariners third baseman Jeff Cirillo, who was struggling with the Mariners, asking, basically, how was he supposed to compete when others were taking PEDs,” said Laura Vecsey, who was a columnist at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “He was earnestly questioning whether he was going to have to go down that road, too, since MLB’s production was being skewed by the PED users’ ability to perform, stay healthy. We had this discussion while looking over at Bret Boone and his ever-expanding musculature.”
But reporters still couldn’t fashion a story from pure pluck. As it happened, almost every PED user outed in the press came as a result of reporting on official documents (the federal investigations, the 2003 “confidential” test) or by eliciting a confession. “If you tried to report a story in ’98 on McGwire and Sosa with three anonymous sources, my sense is you would never have gotten that story in the paper,” said Mark Fainaru-Wada, who reported on the BALCO scandal for the San Francisco Chronicle. “If you did, it wouldn’t have resonated. It would have been totally different.”
Verducci had collected one confession, from an anonymous minor leaguer he called “Pete.” A pal from television told him that Ken Caminiti, who’d been arrested for cocaine possession in 2001, had mentioned steroids in an interview. Verducci called him. Nightengale was also after Caminiti. But Caminiti invited Verducci to Houston.
The reporter and ballplayer sat in Caminiti’s garage. Caminiti told Verducci he had used steroids during his MVP season in 1996, the same season Verducci had described his manliness in Sports Illustrated. Caminiti had no problem with his confession appearing in the magazine. He was ready to talk.
“I’m not sure I knew this at the time,” Verducci said, “but he was in recovery as a drug and alcohol addict. Obviously, part of that process is to be honest with yourself. I don’t know how many times he told me, ‘I have nothing to hide.’”
It was as if Verducci had found Caminiti in an Alcoholics Anonymous confession. My name is Ken and I am a PED user …
In the age of the “Jose Canseco” Twitter account, it’s hard to remember just what a degraded life-form Canseco was in the winter of 2005. Canseco had quit baseball three years earlier. Now, he was alleging that an estimated 80 percent of players were using steroids. For baseball writers, Canseco’s story didn’t turn him into a potential source. It made him a bad apple who was trying to bring down the sport. “In baseball, when it’s your word against Canseco’s, they invoke the forfeit rule,” wrote Boswell.
Canseco was working on a tell-all book about his own doping history and baseball’s steroid problem, but he needed help from two media dons to get past the sportswriters and reach the public.
The first was Judith Regan. Her publishing house, ReganBooks, specialized in nonfiction pulp. Regan turned Mick Foley into a memoirist and commissioned O.J. Simpson’s If I Did It. Canseco’s book was like the latter written by the former. “Maybe it was due to my own lack of knowledge about the particulars of inside baseball,” Regan said, “but I saw it as a human story, nothing more. I felt that the smearing that he had endured was unjust. That’s why I bought the book.”
With the help of ghostwriter Steve Kettmann, the bad apple would dynamite the Bad Apple Theory. Canseco liked to lie in bed and talk about fellow steroid users. Kettmann would sit nearby and take notes. They looked like patient and analyst.
Canseco said McGwire used steroids. He said Jason Giambi used steroids. He named Pudge Rodriguez and Juan Gonzalez and Rafael Palmeiro. Kettmann wrote Juiced in Canseco’s disarmingly frank, Dr. Feelgood voice. “The first two paragraphs of that book were brilliant,” said Rosenthal. “It punched you in the face. I admired him as a writer.”
Which made Canseco’s second benefactor — Mike Wallace — all the more important. John Hamlin, a producer at 60 Minutes, had gotten a tip about Canseco’s book from a friend at another network. (The friend couldn’t act on it because his employer was a Major League Baseball rights holder.) Hamlin began calling baseball people and confirming the details. Almost no one would talk on the record, but they suggested that Canseco’s account was true. One of the few allegations Hamlin couldn’t verify was Canseco’s insistence that Roger Clemens was juicing.
The 60 Minutes segment aired on February 13, 2005, the day before the book’s release. Canseco wore a sport coat with no tie and looked serene. “He didn’t even know how afraid he should be of Mike Wallace,” Kettmann said. Wallace poked at a few discrepancies: Had Canseco injected McGwire “often,” as he wrote, or just twice? But Canseco won the day with his gonzo deadpan.
Wallace: Where were you injecting?
Canseco: Into your gluteus maximus. Which is your butt muscle.
Wallace: Your butt muscle.
The public ignored the baseball writers and sided with Canseco. Juiced became a no. 1 New York Times bestseller. “Did we legitimize what Jose Canseco was saying?” Hamlin said. “Yes, absolutely we did. Would it have been the same had it been 20/20 or Dateline? Who knows?”
July 2002–April 2011
In 2002, New York Daily News reporter T.J. Quinn read Caminiti’s confession in Sports Illustrated. Quinn had heard that McGwire was telling players that if you stacked human growth hormone with steroids, you wouldn’t incur soft-tissue damage. “It was factually incorrect,” Quinn said, “but ballplayers believed it.” He pitched his editors a story about HGH.
Quinn’s piece was published on July 21, 2002. An editor, Teri Thompson, was impressed and moved Quinn from the Mets clubhouse to the Daily News “I-Team.” The day after the story ran, Quinn was approached by another baseball writer. Did you write that you only get the benefits of HGH by injecting it? the writer asked him.
Yes, Quinn said.
Well, the writer said, I’ve been taking my HGH directly from the bottle.
It was a sign that baseball writers still didn’t know much about PEDs.
Quinn was a new kind of baseball writer. Reporting on PEDs was no longer left to beat writers, who were both too busy with day-to-day MLB coverage and too entangled with their subjects. “That was something that editors learned,” said Filip Bondy, a Daily News columnist, “that it was important to put aside a couple of people who have time and resources to do this stuff, as opposed to someone working on the next free-agent moves.”
In the 21st century, sports editors have found that anyone can become a franchise player: a “rumors” guy, a fantasy expert, or a long-form writer blowing kisses to his fans. PED reporters joined the lineup and their scoops added gravitas. Even the News‘s Mike Lupica cheered on the I-Team.
“It separates your section from other sections,” said Bondy. “You’ll hear some writers griping steroids taking more space, but at the same time it’s freeing them from having to report on them.”
More to the point: “It wins awards, too.”
In September 2003, news of the federal raid on the BALCO laboratory was broken by Dana Yates, who worked for a free newspaper called the San Mateo Daily Journal. The San Francisco Chronicle began assembling its own I-Team. Fainaru-Wada had left the sports section to join the paper’s investigative unit. After two weeks of writing about campaign finance, he was handed a sports story. He was joined by veteran court reporter Lance Williams. An editor told Williams to stay on the story till Christmas. He didn’t say which Christmas. Williams would write about BALCO, and the fallout, for the next eight years.
Williams was meticulous. He could navigate through a stack of court documents. Fainaru-Wada ran hotter. He could weave the findings into the narrative of baseball.
By the time newspapers began assigning specialists to focus on PED reporting, they had also grown more committed to the job of peeling back the curtain. By 2003, it was no longer a curiosity for a baseball writer to ask a player if he was using PEDs. Richard Justice, who had become a columnist at the Houston Chronicle, said he asked the Astros’ Jeff Bagwell two or three times. “He would deny it,” Justice said. “I’d say, ‘HGH?’ ‘No.’ ‘Steroids?’ ‘No.’
“Then I would say, ‘Amphetamines?’ He would say, ‘Uh, no comment.’”
But baseball writers were still running into the same stonewalling. “After I asked Bagwell two or three times, what else can you do?” Justice said. “Even when I see him now and he’s 110 pounds.”
During the 2005 congressional hearings that followed Juiced, congressmen transformed into sportswriters with subpoena power. In San Francisco, an IRS agent named Jeff Novitzky assumed a similar mantle. These days, Novtizky’s investigation seems like a nutty use of taxpayer dollars. There’s much skepticism about the usefulness of Novitzky’s investigation, but on the narrow question of building a case against a player, the reams of paper and testimony Novitzky generated proved to be a gold mine. “We benefited considerably from the idea that there was a federal investigation going on that forced people to testify under oath,” said Fainaru-Wada. “It’s just totally different than scrambling back when there were rumors and trying to put together a story based on three or four anonymous sources.”
Barry Bonds lumbered into this world of wised-up baseball writers who were freed from daily beats and armed with documents they’d never had before. As Fainaru-Wada and Williams would later write in Game of Shadows, Bonds had begun to take steroids after the 1998 season when he realized he’d fallen behind McGwire and Sosa. When it came to the press’s PED inquiry, Bonds was late again.
“There’s a part of this that is an accident of timing,” said Ratto. “Bonds didn’t get to partake in the era of good feelings.”
“With McGwire and Sosa, we all loved it,” said Nightengale. “When Bonds broke the record so fast, I think it pissed off the writers. Now, it wasn’t so magical after all.”
Mark Fainaru-Wada was a master of the cold call. He could dial a stranger’s number and Woodstein his way into their heart. Lance Williams was worried he wouldn’t have a source network to match. Then he ran into an associate — an anonymous source who had given him inside dope on several stories across numerous subjects. They were having lunch when the man asked, unbidden, “You been reading up on this BALCO case?” Williams was in.
The BALCO case snared athletes from baseball, football, and track and field. The competition was fierce. “It seemed like I-Teams were getting off planes,” Williams said. “I remember a pair from the Daily Mail in London. There was a middle-aged guy and a young guy, with great accents, and I knew they were going to waltz in and take our story away.”
In late 2004, Fainaru-Wada and Williams would begin publishing excerpts of secret grand jury testimony from sprinter Tim Montgomery and others in the BALCO case. During this period, they never entered the Giants clubhouse to talk to Bonds. When they needed comment, they dispatched Henry Schulman, the Chronicle‘s beat writer.
Quinn scored the most spectacular scoop on December 4, 2003. He thought he was in for a boring day. He’d wait for hours while Bonds testified before a grand jury, then watch Bonds come out and say, “No comment.” As Quinn detailed in a series of tweets last month, he walked into an alcove to take a call. He heard voices behind him. He realized he was sitting outside the grand jury room. He could hear everything that was going on.
Quinn called Thompson at the Daily News. “He was incredulous,” said Thompson. “We couldn’t believe it. He was trying to quietly say, ‘Look, I can hear everything they’re saying.’ The question became, can we report it? Can we be arrested?”
It was agreed that as long as Quinn wasn’t trying to breach the grand jury room — as long as he wasn’t sliding microphones under the door — it wasn’t his responsibility to keep secret testimony a secret.
Here was Quinn listening to something no journalist had heard before: Bonds speaking, under oath, about the stuff he put into his body. It underscores the difficulty of reporting on doping that the Daily News didn’t even publish much of what Quinn heard. “I couldn’t use 80 percent of what he said because there was no way to confirm it,” Quinn said. “I couldn’t even trust my own ears. I wasn’t going to go up to Barry and ask, ‘Can I check a few things?’ And I certainly wasn’t going to go to the U.S. attorney.”
Quinn’s report on Bonds’s testimony appeared the next morning, in the December 5, 2003 edition of the Daily News. “The first reaction Lance and I had was, ‘Bullshit!’” said Fainaru-Wada.
“I was convinced it had been made up,” Williams said. “I made Mark come to the courthouse to show him.” That day, Williams and Fainaru-Wada walked the 17th floor of the Philip Burton Federal Building looking for the possible breach. Sometime later, they saw workmen building a new wall near Quinn’s listening post. The workmen were hanging a big sign that said “DO NOT ENTER.”
After he retired in 2001, Mark McGwire vanished. “People need to understand that he didn’t run and hide [because of the steroid revelations],” said ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian. “He was going to run and hide no matter what.” But the allegations multiplied his natural shyness.
In the baseball press, there was no longer much doubt that McGwire had used PEDs. Teri Thompson found it odd that when the Daily News I-Team published a 2005 investigation, which suggested that McGwire had used steroids, one of McGwire’s lawyers had complimented the paper on the story.
McGwire’s confession marked a turning point in PED reporting. The story left the arms of journalists and fell into the arms of publicists. McGwire’s interviews included Bob Costas, the Associated Press (though not Wilstein), and his lonely knight defender, Bernie Miklasz of the Post-Dispatch. The rollout was devised by former George W. Bush aide Ari Fleischer.
McGwire dodged one last time. “The only reason I took steroids was for my health purposes,” he said. There was a time when baseball writers might have called anyone who questioned that rude. No longer. The next morning, Quinn, who had moved to ESPN, talked to McGwire’s alleged former supplier, Curtis Wenzlaff. Quinn asked him if McGwire had taken steroids to recover from an injury. “Let me put it to you this way,” Wenzlaff said. “If Paris Hilton was to take that array, she could run over Dick Butkus.”
“We’re all jackasses,” said Dan Shaughnessy, the Boston Globe columnist. “You can’t be consistent. I get it.”
“Would you rather have somebody vote who cares or who doesn’t give a shit?” said Bob Ryan.
It depends on what the writer means by “cares.” The Steroid Era baseball writers have thought deeply about PED users and have come to wildly different conclusions.
Bob Nightengale is convinced that the journalistic scrutiny of ’90s ballplayers was uneven. He figures you shouldn’t vote for Bagwell — and against Bonds — just because the Chronicle I-Team never made it to Houston. Nightengale votes for everyone.
Tom Verducci still thinks about the clean players he talked to in 2001. He thinks of those players as victims. He says he’ll never vote for a known PED user.
Steve Wilstein won’t vote for his old quarry, McGwire. He does vote for Bonds. He says he shows care by not punishing the latter for following the path of the former.
T.J. Quinn shows he cares by tossing his ballot in the trash.
Everyone cares — that’s the scary part. It doesn’t require much of a leap to see that what the writers care about isn’t just the final judgment of an era’s worth of baseball stars. It’s the final judgment of an era’s worth of journalism. “It’s not a question of being a moral gatekeeper,” said Ken Rosenthal, who didn’t vote for the PED users. “That’s what guys like me get accused of all the time. I don’t see it as a moral question of, ‘We have to protect the Hall of Fame.’ I just have a hard time justifying the votes for Bonds, Clemens, etc.”
On the other hand, Rosenthal said: “I don’t rule it out in the future. I do take very seriously the argument that there should be a Hall of Fame with these guys in it.
“I’m completely torn about this.”