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Little Fish, Big Fish 

Memo to Ashcroft: Why aren't you pursuing Barry Bonds the way you did Martha Stewart?

Wednesday, Mar 17 2004

Page 2 of 3

Two weeks later, during another stakeout, agents saw Anderson arrive at Balco Labs in a car driven by "a person identified as a baseball player." Anderson and the ballplayer got out, and Anderson, a friend of Bonds since Little League days, introduced the unnamed athlete to James Valente and Balco owner Victor Conte. The four entered Balco's offices, and seven minutes later they emerged and the baseball player drove off with Anderson in the passenger seat. "Neither the baseball player nor Anderson carried anything away from Balco," IRS Special Agent Brian Watson wrote.

Added Special Agent Jeff Novitzky in an earlier affidavit discussing the same stakeout: "Athletes have been surveilled spending short amounts of time within Balco, indicating the possibility of steroid administration from within Balco Laboratories."

The documents don't name Bonds, and another ballplayer could certainly have chauffeured Anderson to Balco. And Anderson could have hurried straight from Balco's offices to the Giants' stadium to meet a ballplayer other than Bonds.

But while these documents intentionally hide players' names, they inadvertently illuminate the underlying phoniness of the current national debate surrounding sports fraud.

Baseball owners posit themselves as victims of the doping problem. Their hands are tied by collective bargaining agreements that limit testing, they say. Loosen these fetters and owners will supposedly do the right thing and institute systematic testing.

But Special Agent Watson's affidavit suggests a different reality. Anderson -- identified by a police informant as a well-known steroids dealer -- apparently had the run of the Giants' facilities. It's hard to believe the team's front office couldn't keep Anderson from being waved into secured areas by guards, from being allowed to double park in the secured players' lot, and from entering normally off-limits players' facilities as if he belonged there. I detect a conspiracy of silence: How disappointed were Giants managers when their star player magically gained 30 lean pounds?

Claims that systematic drug tests will clean up sports are also specious. Testing of the sort currently demanded by politicians like Arizona Sen. John McCain has, in every case in which it's been implemented, proved a sham. The development of effective drug tests and new, undetectable doping techniques is a Cold War-style arms race that's been plaguing professional sports since the 1960s. The endless, repeating story has gone like this: The doping camp discovers, or develops, an undetectable performance enhancer. After a few years, sports regulators find out about it and spend several years attempting to develop an effective test. Typically dopers stay a half-decade ahead of testers.

Balco executives and their doper clients narrate this war in e-mails gathered by IRS Special Agent Watson. They describe a lopsided détente in which testers seek to detect an imbalance of testosterone, and athletes counter by using the masking agent epitesterone, for which no definitive test exists. Cheaters scan doping regulators' banned-substances lists so they know which drugs to stay away from, then seek out obscure medications such as Norbolothone, a steroid that was never released commercially and thus evaded the banned-substances list for six years, according to Watson's affidavit. In other cases pushers get around the list by customizing their own drugs, such as the steroid THG, a Balco specialty.

It's inconceivable to me that Major League Baseball would implement anything more than nuisance testing without the prod of criminal prosecution of athletes. For sports corporations, image is everything, regardless of reality. That's why seemingly rigorous yet ultimately ineffective drug tests are ubiquitous in all high-profile sports save baseball. It's why positive test results are relatively rare in any sport. And it's why customs stings and police raids invariably produce results suggesting systematic drug use by "clean-testing" competitors.

This leaves police work as the best way to fight doping fraud. And unless the Justice Department includes in its case the most prominent members of this conspiracy, athletes will find other supplier peons to do their dirty work.

"The paradigm has shifted; the person receiving the drug is in the position of being a kingpin. That person has a $20 million contract and has benefited from the drug -- if that's true that they're using," says Ellerman, the lawyer for Balco's vice president. "I don't see how that's consistent with Ashcroft's idea of sending a message."

The promenade that runs between the Giants' stadium and the bay is set with manhole-size brass medallions commemorating Bonds' home runs. Around the corner, a gift shop sells Bonds jerseys; a few steps farther a cathedrallike entrance invites fans into what has become a temple to Barry Bonds. Awhile ago I showed the edifice to my friend Toño, who was visiting from Mexico. A group of tourists stood near the entrance, faces in the air, mouths agape, eyes as big as baseballs.

"It's because they're Dominicans," Toño said.

Neither of us is a baseball fan, but we understood how travelers from such a sports-enraptured nation felt.

Twenty years ago, Toño and I were enthralled by the exploits of Italian bicycling star Francesco Moser. He had been known for winning the difficult Paris-Roubaix race over cobbles, in the rain. In 1984, Moser became a demigod in the sport by traveling to high-altitude Mexico City to break the hour record, cycling's most prestigious timed event. The next year I moved there and caught Moser mania. Toño and I bought Moser-brand racing bicycles with his 51.151 km record engraved in the fork crown. Sometimes when it was raining I would seek out potholed roads, tilt my head to the side to shield one eye from water like Moser did, and imagine myself the Italian star.

In 1994, at the age of 42, Moser announced he would travel to Mexico City to break the record again. The resulting hysteria compelled an Italian magazine to urge him to stay home. His native country was suffering the humility of corruption trials, the editorial said; if Moser failed, Italy's spirit might never recover. During the race I spoke with a priest who was the Vatican's envoy to sport. He was so excited by the spiritual implications of Moser's attempted comeback that he grew red in the face trying to explain. Moser failed, barely. But his effort inspired me.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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