Book Review:  Juicing the Game

All right, let’s get this out of the way at the outset. No beating around the bush.

Juicing the Game by Howard Bryant is a greak book. Not “very good.” A great book.

I’m not sure it’s precisely the great book that the author (or his publisher) intended. But still, it’s a great book.

This will require explanation, of course, and hopefully that will ensue. But let’s see if this helps:

If Howard Bryant is a pitcher, and this book a crucial game, then Bryant’s out there on the mound facing a ferocious, brutally intimidating All-Star lineup. They’re all there: Epic Scale leading off, with Daunting Complexity in the two-hole. Coming up third is the switch-hitting dynamo Historical Context Plus Contemporary Immediacy. The cleanup hitter is none other than the devastating Moral Depth. And as if that weren’t enough, following them is the ever-dangerous Scientific-Medical Detail, and then the pesky combo of Keep It Moving and Have Some Fun With It. And so on.

Enough to force most pitchers to run for cover, or at least retreat into just-get-through-it mode of cliche, superficiality, and oversimplification. But Bryant will have none of that. He stands up to the challenge with resolve, confidence, even elan, and delivers a stunning complete game victory. It isn’t a perfect game, or even a shutout–he gets into trouble here and there, and nicked around a time or two–but he works through it, and the result, if not a masterpiece, is a remarkable, memorable performance.

It’s hard to imagine any other author handling this spitting cobra of a task any better. If Howard Bryant hadn’t yet arrived as a sports author of the highest order, then let’s be clear: He has now.

The Deeper, Broader Achievement

Juicing the Game doesn’t entirely succeed in what would appear to be its primary intent–to be the definitive account of steroids in baseball–but it succeeds brilliantly on an even broader scale: This is the definitive history of major league baseball over the past 15 years. Bryant doesn’t quite handle every aspect of the wickedly complex issue of performance enabling/enhancing drugs in competitive sports, though he comes closer than anyone else has so far.

But the background and context he sets up in which to pursue the issue is astounding. The complete panoply of what major league baseball is today, and how it got that way, is presented in a manner that’s comprehensive yet concise, detailed yet clear, and a sobering yet breezy, captivating, page-turning read.

Did I mention it’s a great book?

The work it best compares with is John Helyar’s Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball, from 1994. That one was a seminal piece, a tremendous achievement, and the best single book yet written about major league baseball ownership. Juicing the Game stands tall beside it, page for page, insight for insight, as essentially a companion piece or even a next chapter on that ever-compelling subject.

Bryant’s work compares well with Helyar’s not just on the basis of content—or even scope—but style as well. Lords of the Realm dazzled not only through what it described, but just as importantly how it described: the presentation was easy, flowing, funny, novel-like. Juicing the Game, at least most of the time, achieves that chatty, gossipy, conversational energy. It’s a jazzy read, and for a work of this seriousness and heft, that’s a singular achievement.

The Staggering Inventory

Herewith an incomplete list of what’s to be found within the 402 pages of Juicing the Game:

- A crystal-clear explanation of why MLB ownership was spoiling for a fight, and hotly eager to provoke the 1994-95 work stoppage.

- All of the numerous short- and long-term effects of that event.

- A terrific discussion of Baltimore’s Camden Yards ballpark and its influence, together with a penetrating examination of the career and personality of Orioles Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, Jr.

- A sure and smart exploration of MLB’s stodgy image issues in the mid-1990s.

- An insightful consideration of the career of long time Baltimore outfielder Brady Anderson.

- The very best examination I heve yet encountered of the personality and career of former slugger Jose Canseco, along with a pretty good glimpse at the difficult subject of 1996 NL MVP Ken Caminiti.

- A remarkably cogent inquiry into the complex dynamic of former A’s and Cardinals first baseman Mark McGwire, Orioles outfielder Sammy Sosa, the events of 1998, and their still-reverberating consequences.

- A fair presentation of “The Crusaders,” those individuals who have tirelessly pursued the objective of confronting the rampant use of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball and other sports over the past decade or two.

- A sensible description of the various substances in question: steroids, creatine, andro, hGH, and so on, along with an intelligent discussion of the challenges involved in testing for their use.

- A deeply insightful portrait of Yankees first baseman Jason Giambi.

- A thorough and rational accounting of the various factors that may (or may not) have contributed to the boom in major league offense: the ballparks, the baseball itself, the strike zone, and teams’ new willingness to favor offense over defense at all positions, as well as the dramatically stronger batters, of course.

- Fair, thorough, and perceptive inquiries into the complex personalities, motivations, and accomplishments of Major League Baseball Players Association Executive Director Don Fehr and Padres CEO Sandy Alderson.

- Several piercing looks at Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa, with a highly unflattering result.

- A well-reasoned discussion of not only steroids and related compounds, but also such substances as amphetamines and ephedra, and how their use is not at all limited to burly sluggers, but all types of players, certainly including pitchers.

- An examination into the broader modern ethos within which the use of performance-enhancing drugs is not necessarily perceived as scandalous, or even remarkable.

- A thorough presentation of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative case.

- The most frank and insightful inquiry I have yet encountered into why and how the sports media (both print and broadcast) essentially ignored the performance-enhancing drugs story for decades.

- The very best examination I have yet encountered of the personality and career of Giants left fielder Barry Bonds.

- And, of course, a presentation of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Government Reform Committee’s hearings on the issue of steroid use in major league baseball.

- And, yes, frequent and prominent discussion of Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro.

More Than the Sum of the Parts

He isn’t always completely successful at managing it, but by and large Bryant does a remarkably good job at weaving the dizzyingly numerous threads of his tapestry. The very long list of people and topics isn’t the dry encyclopedia it may come across as here, but is instead organic and engaging.

Bryant accomplishes this daunting feat by doing what Helyar did: The people in the book aren’t so much people as characters, and the topics not so much topics as plot. We’re invited to “get to know” the central characters, who are rendered with subtlety, complexity, and compassion, and as events unfold — even though we “know how it’s going to turn out”–we find ourselves caught up in the story.

The Imperfection

This is the book’s central strength, but it isn’t achieved unerringly. Bryant generally does an excellent job of avoiding the trap of allowing his characters to lapse into one-dimensional “hero” or “villain” roles; the primary actors are shown to follow reasonable (if not always laudable) motivations along with their selfishness, greed, and duplicity. But the book’s culminating event–the congressional hearing–isn’t presented with the balance and elegance of the rest.

Instead, it’s oversimplified: the congresspeople involved, particularly Representative Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), come across almost as chivalrous knights, bravely and selflessly saving the day. Bryant had earlier taken care, at several points, to acknowledge the culpability of Congress in contributing to the problematic circumstances, specifically in passing the Dietary Supplements Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994, which Bryant strongly portrays as ill-conceived. But the hypocrisy and grandstanding self-interest of politicians standing by for years while the situation brewed, and then suddenly (and pompously and self-righteously) proclaiming to be ready and able to “solve the problem,” is left largely unexamined.

And more fundamentally, the overarching legal issue–the pros and cons, the wisdom or foolishness, of the legality of steroids and other drugs–is somehow never addressed. This is the book’s one major, glaring omission.

The Bottom Line

So it isn’t a perfect game, or a shutout, but it’s a clear and compelling victory. We read this book for what it says about the issue of drugs in baseball, which is considerable and important. But in that process, we find ourselves, if not learning new things, then certainly seeing many disparate essentials of the larger baseball world in fresh and clear perspective, and coming away with a sharpened understanding of the whole sport.

For better or worse, drugs are (and have been for a very long time) an essential aspect of baseball, but the game remains a far more complicated and elusive organism than the element of drug use can ever encompass. Bryant’s triumph, whether or not it was his primary intent, is in richly illuminating that larger and more challenging reality–a reality that is in many ways truly grand, but in others disturbingly grim.

There is, of course, one central character in Bryant’s story, present throughout, truly at its heart. Understanding baseball commissioner Bud Selig is critical to understanding modern baseball, and Juicing the Game provides a masterfully comprehensive, nuanced, insightful understanding of Selig. The character that emerges is, while sympathetically human, thoroughly unattractive. While it’s certainly true that the business of modern baseball is dauntingly complex, and likely beyond the capacity of any commissioner to firmly control, Selig’s leadership is demonstrated to be sadly wanting in many important regards. Among other failings, most generally Selig seems to be–there’s just no other way to put it–not terribly bright.

History will judge Bud Selig, of course. More than anything else, Juicing the Game is a history of major league baseball during this commissioner’s tenure. For all the booming prosperity of his sport, and for all the cheery conviviality that Selig appears to genuinely manifest, authentic success in his role remains beyond him, and there is more than a little sadness at his core. As Bryant concludes:

In the end, Bud Selig is alone, isolated to a degree from the game over which he presides, the old history major banking on the fact that indeed history will absolve him, his renaissance destroyed largely by his own opposition to investigation. “We need to move forward,” Selig says in defense of the era. It is the worst indictment of the tainted era, that the commissioner of baseball honors the years he once so happily called the greatest in baseball history by refusing to look back at them.

References & Resources
Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power, and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball, by Howard Bryant, New York: Viking, 2005.

Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball, by John Helyar, New York: Ballantine, 1994.

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