A look at baseball's dark side

How steroid use cast a dark shadow over the nation's pastime

Howard Bryant is a Boston author who writes mostly on Major League Baseball. But his "Juicing the Game" is about so much more than baseball that it will speak to any reader concerned with substance abuse, the power of politicians, the influence of scientists, the frustrations of whistle-blowers, the role of journalists, the impact of professional athletes on youngsters, and - it's tempting to say - truth, justice, and the American way.

It is a remarkable book: well-reported, compellingly written, a narrative breathtaking in scope.

It is not perfect. It is occasionally flawed by Bryant's meanderings away from the main topic: steroid use and abuse in professional baseball. Yet even the meanderings will be fascinating to those who love baseball.

Readers who are not avid fans should consider themselves warned. Quite a few sections that deal with the skills and personalities of specific athletes, players' union officials, and team owners can be skipped. But there is always something thought- provoking in the next section, so beware of jumping too far ahead.

Bryant examines the controversies over steroids and other alleged performance-enhancing drugs from perhaps every viewpoint imaginable: current players, retired players, field managers, team owners, clubhouse trainers, personal trainers, members of Congress, journalists who write regularly about baseball, sports statisticians, medical researchers, and fans who pay to attend games.

As a result, the book is populated with hundreds of characters. If one character can be legitimately labeled the connecting thread through the dense forest, it is Bud Selig, longtime owner of the Milwaukee Brewers baseball franchise and first among equals as the sport's commissioner.

Bryant treats all his real-life characters with empathy, admirably refusing to stereotype. Selig sometimes comes off as selfless, sometimes as selfish, sometimes as candid, sometimes as avoiding the truth.

Could he have moved against the use of steroids by professional baseball players sooner than the dawn of a new century? Yes, he could have. The reasons he did not are complex, and Bryant deserves credit for ferreting these out, and then presenting them in a morally neutral manner, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions.

Bryant relates significant events taking place far away from baseball stadiums that unexpectedly encouraged steroid use by professional athletes. Who knew, for example, in 1994 that the benign-sounding Dietary Supplements Health and Education Act would "create a medicine cabinet the likes of which the sports world had never seen"?

It can be argued that the use of steroids and other performance-enhancing supplements is nobody's business but the athlete's. If athletes are willing to ingest substances that might help them succeed while also harming their health long-term, so what?

Bryant does not preach and he does not offer definitive answers. But the mass of material he presents raises all manner of hard-to-answer questions.

If it is proven that Barry Bonds has used steroids, how should his outstanding performances on the baseball field be evaluated? Is it correct to assume that with his natural talents, a steroid-free Bonds would have become the most talented, dominant player of the modern era?

No one can answer these questions, Bryant says. But that's not a reason not to explore them. That is precisely what "Juicing the Game" does so skillfully.

Steve Weinberg is a director of the National Book Critics Circle and an enthusiastic participant in three summer slow-pitch baseball leagues.

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