The ethical thing to do would have been to be honest. To admit to steroid use the first time he was asked, to say how long he’d been using, and to stop using. Of course, it would have been more ethical to have never used them in the first place. But when Jason Giambi first started getting asked about the supplements he was taking, he could have chosen honesty. Instead he chose to lie.
The consequences of being honest, however, would have been devastating. If the public knew the things he had put into his body, his reputation would have been destroyed, his statistical accomplishments questioned, his MVP season disrespected, his dreams of election to the Hall of Fame gone forever. If he lied and the truth came out someday, the consequences would have been just as bad, perhaps even worse. It would have been better to tell the truth. It was easier to lie.
On December 11, 2003, Giambi went before the grand jury to testify about his relationship with BALCO and trainer Greg Anderson. The prosecutors, interested more in bringing down the drug dealers than bringing down famous athletes and getting their names in the paper, told Giambi that if he told the truth, he’d be granted immunity from prosecution. If he lied, he’d be charged with perjury, and he’d go to jail.
Suddenly, lying wouldn’t be so easy.
On the same day Giambi testified before the grand jury, Gary Sheffield—who would sign to play with the Yankees eight days later—gave his testimony.
Sheffield testified that Greg Anderson had provided him with “The Cream” and “The Clear,” as well as the Mexican steroid “Red Beans,” in 2002. He said he didn’t know what they were, was taking them to relieve the pain of his arthritic knees and as part as an injury-reducing regimen, and was only doing it because Barry Bonds had insisted—while urging him to not ask questions. And if it was steroids that he was being given, they didn’t work—2002 was his worst season since 1998.
Bonds’ testimony a week earlier didn’t quite mesh with that, though his self-defense was the same. He had never knowingly taken steroids, but he had taken “The Cream” and “The Clear” for his arthritic knees in 2003—the same reason Sheffield had given—and when Anderson told him it was flaxseed oil, he just said, “Whatever.”
And just like Sheffield, Bonds said that if they were steroids, they didn’t work. All of Bonds’ meaningful numbers in 2003 were lower than they’d been in 2002.
Giambi’s testimony was different. He confessed that he’d used steroids, had used them knowingly, and had used them before he’d ever met Greg Anderson. For the most part, he knew what he was taking, and everything he didn’t know he was taking was from ignorance, not deception.
Giambi may have been dishonest, telling partial truths to hide other more damning facts. But unlike the other superstars who testified, he implicated the steroid distributors without deflecting the blame for his actions onto them. But one assertion he made was the same. When asked if he’d still be using steroids if the BALCO investigation hadn’t happened, he said:
I didn’t actually notice a huge difference, to be honest with you. I, of course, got injured this year. So, that’s not a fair assessment, either. Maybe, yes, no, I don’t know.
Sportswriters love to destroy heroes, almost as much as they love to create them. It wasn’t always like that; the writers used to consider themselves part of the game, and they considered it part of their job to create, spread and protect the myths that surround it.
Americans wanted their sports stars to be heroes; they wanted them to be someone their kids could grow up admiring. They didn’t want to know about their all-too-human sides, their weaknesses, their flaws. If they had any flaws, it was that they struck out too often or walked too many batters. Where they went at night, what they put in their bodies, and whom they went home with wasn’t what people wanted to know, and so the press didn’t tell them.
Along the way, that changed. Fans changed, wanting to know the inside dirt, and reporters changed, wanting to pull back the curtains so the world could see the men who played the games for what they were—warts and all. People still wanted their athletes to be heroes, but they wanted the real thing, not a concocted image. And when the men who played the games were unable to live up to that expectation, they were attacked.
And it wasn’t enough to attack them when their weaknesses were exposed—their weaknesses had to be sought out now. Nobody was willing to just accept things at face value; there was always something else there just beneath the surface that the players didn’t want you to see.
Fifty years ago, if a reporter had seen a bottle of androstenedione in Mickey Mantle‘s locker, he probably wouldn’t have asked what it was, and he certainly wouldn’t have written about it had he asked. In 1998, they asked, they wrote about it, and they began to question how legitimate it was what Mark McGwire was doing that season. As it turns out, andro didn’t seem to do that much anyway, and Jose Canseco would later suggest that McGwire had left it there specifically to be found, hopefully to throw the reporters off the scent. In that, it succeeded, for a few years at least.
When Bonds started hitting home runs at a faster pace than McGwire in 2001, reporters almost immediately commented on how much bigger Barry was than just a few years previous and if he’d been using steroids to bulk up. Bonds’ denials did nothing to slow the speculation, and by the fall of 2003 it had been talked about so often it was generally assumed to be fact. Fifty years ago it wouldn’t have been talked about at all.
For better or for worse, the relationship between ballplayers and reporters had changed.
Giambi knew that if the reporters crowded outside the courtroom in San Francisco found out what he’d said under oath, they’d destroy him. He had to hope that his secret testimony would remain a secret, that the transcript would stay out of the hands of the newspapermen and would never find its way before the public eye.
He never stood a chance.
In the middle of the negotiations over the new collective bargaining agreement in 2002, a Sports Illustrated article by Tom Verducci revealed that former slugger Ken Caminiti had used steroids in his 1996 MVP season. In the article, Caminiti asserted that more than half of all major leaguers were using steroids. The reaction was explosive.
Neither the players nor the owners were all that interested in a major steroid testing program before the article came out. After it, they couldn’t afford to not be interested, at least publicly. The new collective bargaining agreement called for survey testing in 2003, with mandatory testing with penalties implemented in 2004 if more than 5% of the tests came back positive.
When 5-7% of the tests came back positive, the speculation began. Who were the 5-7% of players who had tested positive, and would they be caught again in 2004? Who would stop using? Reporters and fans looked to spring training, anticipating camps full of mysteriously shrunken sluggers.
Bonds came to camp as massive as ever. Sheffield looked the same. Giambi looked emaciated.
Only four months after confessing his past steroid use to the grand jury, Giambi refused to come clean publicly. He hadn’t used steroids, and he hadn’t really lost all that much weight—only a few pounds. It was a ridiculous claim, and of course, a lie. But Giambi was still hoping that he could keep his past use a secret.
But in San Francisco, the staff of the San Francisco Chronicle were relentlessly pursuing every lead they could to provide readers with an inside look at the BALCO investigation. On March 2, they finally hit paydirt, receiving leaked information that Bonds, Sheffield and Giambi, as well as Benito Santiago, Marvin Benard and Randy Velarde, had received illegal steroids from BALCO.
None of the players implicated responded directly to the accusation, but their manners of responding said a great deal. Bonds refused to answer any questions, and Sheffield appeared unconcerned. Giambi was clearly shaken. But still, he didn’t confess.
As the team headed to Japan to open the season, Giambi knew he had to produce in 2004 if he wanted to survive this scandal. Bonds’s and Sheffield’s reputations and historical legacies were at risk, but there was little doubt that they were naturally great players. Both had been stars for years; Giambi’s stardom was more recent and involved a surprising offensive explosion in his late 20s. People assumed that the slimmer-looking Giambi was clean. A huge offensive season would help to dispel the impression that he was a product of steroids, and a poor one would solidify it.
In Oakland, Giambi was always a hot starter. Only once, in 1997, had he gotten off to a poor start, and he hit .311/.408/.564 before May in his A’s career. In New York, not so much. In 2002 and 2003, he combined to hit .239/.360/.408 in March and April, which is hardly statistically significant, but certainly doesn’t help to get the press off your case. A month-long slump in August will dip your numbers, but they’ll still look good. A month-long slump in April is the entirety of your numbers.
If anyone needed a hot start in 2004, it was Giambi, and through mid-April, he was getting just that. His batting average was just .229 after 13 games, but he’d hit three homers and was walking at a Bondsian pace—15 to go with four HBPs. With a .500 on-base percentage (OBP) and a .543 slugging percentage (SLG), he was producing despite his low average.
A bad slump dropped his on-base plus slugging (OPS) to .878 at month’s end, but he exploded in May to bring his line back up to .270/.406/.540 by May 21. He was on pace for 35 homers, and while it wasn’t anywhere close to his MVP-caliber seasons, he was 33, he was coming off of knee surgery, and everyone figured he was clean this year.
But on the RBI single that brought his OPS up to .946 in the ninth inning of the game against the Rangers on May 21, Giambi rolled over his ankle and had to be taken from the game and put on the disabled list. When he came back, he hit a homer to win the game for the Yankees, but over the next 17 games through the end of June he hit just .167/.315/.283 with just one more homer. He was still drawing a ton of walks, but he’d slapped just 10 hits in 60 at-bats, only three of which went for extra bases.
It wasn’t just a slump. Giambi felt weak and tired; he was getting mid-80s fastballs blown by him. On June 29, he found out why, after doctors diagnosed him with an intestinal parasite. Given medication to treat it, Giambi sat out for a week, except for three pinch-hitting appearances. But the medication and the rest didn’t help—he hit just .156/.286/.178 for the rest of July.
In April he was posting strong numbers and was on pace for a typical Giambi home run total. Now he had a .762 OPS and was on a pace for 19 homers—and both those rates were falling daily. If it wasn’t a slump, and it wasn’t a parasite, then why was Giambi hitting like he was filming a remake of “Pride of the Yankees?”
Another trip to the doctor brought a new diagnosis, and a scary one. A tumor had been growing on Giambi’s pituitary gland—non-cancerous, treatable with medicine, but dangerous nonetheless. And while it, and not Giambi’s quitting of steroids, was the apparent cause of his offensive collapse, the cause of the tumor itself was a subject of open speculation. Clomid, the fertility drug Giambi had taken to enhance and mask his testosterone injections under Anderson’s program, had been shown in studies to exacerbate pituitary tumors.
Giambi didn’t play another game for nearly two months, and his offense never recovered. He posted a .423 OPS down the stretch, and was left off the postseason roster. As the Yankees became the first team in MLB history to lose a postseason series they’d once led 3-0, Giambi could only sit on the bench and watch it happen. With Tony Clark and John Olerud combining for a .449 OPS in the series, Giambi could do nothing to help.
It had been the worst year of Giambi’s life, when everything that might have gone wrong had gone wrong. He’d lost his power and his health, and for a while it looked like he might lose his life. His season had ended meekly; his team’s season had ended in humiliation.
On December 2, the San Francisco Chronicle published excerpts from Giambi’s testimony, revealing that Giambi had, despite public denials, knowingly used illegal steroids. The fans and the press vilified him, and the Yankees, owing $80 million, looked to dispose of him. As 2004 ended, it appeared Giambi was going to lose one more thing.
References & Resources
Much of this information in this article is derived from the grand jury testimony of Barry Bonds on December 4th, 2003, and of Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield on December 11th, 2003, as illegally leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle and presented in this , this and this article. The author has written under the assumption that this information is factual.