Baseball players did make one big mistake in 1998, when word spread through clubhouses that taking HGH in conjunction with steroids could strengthen connective tissue and prevent the sorts of joint injuries all their new muscle mass could cause. Ligaments and tendons don’t have receptors for hormones, so the HGH would do nothing to prevent injuries, according to Joel Finkelstein, a Harvard endocrinologist once hired by MLB to study the supplement commonly known as andro.
Moreover, too much HGH could cause heart, liver, and kidney problems. Some steroid users developed back acne, baldness, shrunken testicles, and violent mood swings (those notorious “’roid rages”); cycling off has been connected to depression and, in some cases, suicide. But there are still users who swear steroids in moderation are the closest thing to a fountain of youth man will ever find.
All those years of thorough but unscientific research led to the rise of the BALCO lab, when Conte began coaching athletes through their cheating regimens, telling them that doping, like most things in life, is about balance. Too much is as bad as too little, he told them.
It is possible that baseball may never see a better specimen than Bonds in 2001. Conte took a man who was already one of the game’s greatest hitters, and through trainer Greg Anderson helped him become the greatest living chemical experiment.
There is no dispute that Barry Bonds took performance-enhancing drugs. When he spoke before the BALCO grand jury in December 2003, he admitted taking the substances the U.S. Attorney’s office identified as the clear (the stealth steroid, THG), the cream (a combination of testosterone andepitestosterone), nandrolone, and several other substances. Bonds argued that he did not knowingly take the drugs. The U.S. Attorney’s office thought he was lying and began their perjury investigation, but that’s the only matter in dispute. He took the drugs.
Those who say Bonds never failed a steroid test are correct (although he did fail an amphetamines test last season). But in the anti-doping world, testing has become a bit of a joke. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) push sports federations and leagues all over the world to have the highest-quality testing possible, but chasing the perfect test is like chasing a rain- bow: Even the best one is an illusion. As my colleagues and I at the New York Daily News reported last year, the NFL, which believed itself to be the gold standard of non-Olympic drug testing, had massive gaps in its program. From the end of a player’s season until the beginning of mini-camp—two months for players who were not in the playoffs—no one was tested. We knew because the men who did the testing said they weren’t given names to test that time of year. Those same drug program agents also told us players were only tested at the stadium during the season. That meant a player could leave practice or a game, slap a testosterone patch or rub a steroid cream onto his body, and know that by the time he came back to the stadium the next day, he would have benefited from the drug and the levels in his body would have dropped during the night to the point at which they would not trip a drug test.
We asked Conte what he thought about those gaps, especially the two-month lag some players faced. “Here’s what you can do in two months,” he said. “Tim Montgomery came to us and we put him on a program that was completely undetectable on November 17 of 2000. His baseline bench press was 265, and he weighed 148 pounds. On Jan. 18, 2001, eight weeks later, he weighed 176 and he benched 345. That’s what you can do in eight weeks.”
If there are gaps, the cheaters will find them. And when testers close those gaps, the cheaters will find new ones. Maybe law enforcement will catch some and humiliate them, but they’ll still come. Baseball might be happy to be rid of Barry Bonds next year or the year after, but the game may never be rid of those who want to cheat.