Bryant's book short on facts

Bryant's book short on facts

Baseball owners invest hundreds of millions of dollars to buy their franchises. It should surprise no one that they want to make money. After suffering through a devastating work stoppage that cancelled the 1994 World Series and the beginning of the next season, attendance at games plummeted over 20 percent. Many fans swore off baseball altogether and some came to call the game the "national past-its-time."

During 1995-97, however, Cal Ripken's consecutive game streak began to rekindle an interest in the game. Still by 1998 baseball's recovery still had a long way to go. Then along came the home run chase of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, each of whom shattered Roger Maris' record of 61 home runs in a single season. McGwire reached a new plateau of 70 home runs. The last two months of the season were an electrifying media event, with Sosa and McGwire developing animated gestures of celebration and exulting in all the attention.

Baseball fans were turned on again and Commissioner Bud Selig proclaimed that baseball was back. The years that followed also witnessed massive home run performances by McGwire, Sosa, Juan Gonzalez, Alex Rodriguez, and, of course, Barry Bonds who hit 73 taters in 2001.

Fans loved the power and were enthralled by the record breaking. Attendance continued to grow. But something was wrong. Many power purveyors had transformed bodies. They suddenly looked like the governor or California, even though a year or two earlier they looked more like Gray Davis.

In "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power, and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball," Howard Bryant suggests that Selig and his lieutenants were well aware that these players were taking steroids, but they refused to rain on baseball's parade. Baseball's recovery was too fragile and the excitement was too intoxicating.

That's an outline of the argument in Bryant's 400-page book. The story of steroids and baseball is certainly worth telling, and Bryant has told much of it reasonably well. In the end, though, Bryant tells a meandering, incomplete, distorted and tendentious tale.

One basic problem is Bryant plays fast and loose with his numbers and sources. There are no citations for his numbers or most of his claims; only a lost list of sources consulted in the back. Statistical inaccuracies are liberally spread throughout. For instance, Bryant writes that MLB's revenues surpassed the $1 billion mark for the first time in 2000, but that threshold had been reached 12 years earlier in 1988. He also claims that the players' minimum salary grew 100-fold during the reign of Marvin Miller as head of the union, whereas the actual minimum grew from $6,000 to $40,000 from 1967 to 1984.

Bryant's anecdotes also seem to challenge veracity. Consider his characterization of former Padres (and present Red Sox) owner, Tom Werner, following a contentious owners' meeting in Kohler, Wisconsin in 1993. Bryant writes (p. 113): "Tom Werner ... was left near tears over the utter lack of respect he was shown by his fellow owners." Werner himself recollects his interview with Bryant and the event rather differently: "I told him I was infuriated at my fellow owners." Nonetheless, by page 313 Bryant has Werner not near tears but in tears at Kohler: "The man who had been driven to tears by the crudity of his fellow owners ...."

Later, Bryant asserts that Jerry Reinsdorf's signing of Albert Belle to a five-year, $55 million contract in November 1996 happened nearly a year after the new collective bargaining agreement. In fact, this signing catalyzed the agreement which was not signed until December 1996.

Bryant intimates that pitcher David Wells was fined $100,000 by the Yankees for making comments about player steroid use in his autobiography. Not so. Wells' fine was because he claimed that he pitched while inebriated on more than one occasion.

He also claims that there is no guaranteed pay in the NFL. False as well. Over one-third of player compensation comes in the form of upfront signing bonuses.

Bryant dedicates part of a chapter to denouncing MLB's deal with QuesTec -- the technology used to simulate a strike zone and assess the ball/strike calls of the umpires. Bryant's account, however, seems to depend on one person who represented the umpire's union. Whatever internal management issues QuesTec may have had, the technology itself has proven to be very effective. Bryant intimates that QuesTec is another instance of unscrupulous, ineffectual leadership in baseball, but the evidence suggests the technology has been accepted by the umpires and yielded important quality control over the men in blue.

The real problem with "Juicing the Game" though lies not with its unreliable reporting, but with the inconsistent and often confused presentation of its core argument. Bryant treats it as self evident that steroids bolstered the owners' profits, but he never considers the economic implications of the June 2002 Congressional testimony by Rob Manfred, MLB's vice president for labor relations. Manfred notes that between 1998 and 2001, the apex of baseball's steroid era, the number of players on the disabled list grew by 16 percent and the average length of stay on the list increased by 20 percent. Put that together with the growing salaries, and the cost to owners of disabled players grew from $129 million in 1998 to $317 million in 2002 (curiously, Bryant describes this increase as "nearly doubled.") Even if steroids help to account for Barry Bonds' 73 homers in 2001, surely the owners could not expect such record-breaking performances to recur with any regularity. What they could anticipate is the growing cost of players disappearing on to the disabled list and the shortened careers of their stars.

Then there's the issue of steroids' role in the power surge. What about all the other factors: smaller ballparks, expansion diluting pitching talent, better equipment, smaller strike zone, taking away the brush-back pitch, among others. Bryant quotes a report from statistical guru Bill James to dismiss the effect of smaller stadiums. But the cited James' quote states that smaller stadiums might account for as much as 20 percent of the power surge.

There's also the matter of deciphering the effect of steroids or other performance-enhancing supplements when the player taking them is committed to spending several hours a day doing workout programs. What part of the power comes from the rigorous workout regime and what part comes from the drugs? If steroids are decisive, why did Barry Bonds not hit 70-plus home runs in 1999? After all, Bryant quotes Bonds' teammate Charlie Hayes expressing astonishment the first day of Spring Training in 1999 at how Bonds had transformed his body over the offseason. And if steroids are the crucial factor, why were there 10 percent more home runs hit in 2004 than in 2002? Or how does one explain Jason Giambi's remarkable comeback in 2005?

Bryant finds fault with lots of people, but Bud Selig is his true boogeyman, stating that Selig's "stubbornness, his refusal to accept the truth that his inability to recognize, confront and accept responsibility for steroid use was his greatest failure." But Bryant overlooks the prevailing gestalt in baseball until recently that quickness, hand-eye coordination, strong wrists, and good reflexes -- not bulging muscles -- are the traits that promoted strong offense. He also seems to downplay the union's refusal to accept a random testing program.

Yet Bryant notes that Selig called a meeting of team trainers and doctors in 2000 and was surprised to hear about the widespread use of steroids in the game. Selig followed up by introducing a Minor League testing and sanctions policy in 2001, and then by insisting on an antidoping policy in the 2002 labor agreement. It wasn't until 2002, after all, that Ken Caminiti gave his interview to Sports Illustrated, claiming that 50 percent of players were on steroids.

Ultimately, Bryant chooses to align himself with the position of Representatives Tom Davis (Republican, Virginia) and John Sweeney (Republican, New York), who led the March 2005 hearings about steroid use in professional sports. It was politically convenient for them to villainize MLB's leadership, just as it was, they thought, politically intelligent in June 2005 to threaten baseball's antitrust exemption if MLB allowed George Soros to become a part-owner of the Washington Nationals. Why trust Congress in this matter? After all, it was Congress back in 1994, led by Senator Orrin Hatch, that passed the DSHEA act -- which essentially legalized a wide assortment of supplements to the benefit of companies that had contributed to Congressional campaigns.

If Congress is concerned about the habits of America's youth, and they should be, then it should be appealing to the leagues and the players' associations to join together in an educational campaign. Congress might even provide some funding.

The point is not that Selig acted perfectly. He could have had more foresight and been more forceful. Rather, the point is that there appears to be no evidence, and certainly nothing adduced by Bryant, that Selig acted conspiratorially or cynically in reacting to baseball's doping problem.

The reality is that doping in sports is an enormously complex problem. New compounds are developed weekly. Together with masking agents and new delivery methods, it becomes extraordinarily difficult to monitor use. It is not an accident that the IOC is considered to have the gold standard of antidoping programs, yet the BALCO scandal implicated more Olympic athletes than players from team sports. Down the road a few years, the issue will grow more complicated still when gene doping becomes an option. Bryant virtually ignores these complexities.

Bryant ends his book in a messianic tone. Not only does the steroid issue lose all ambiguity, it undoes all the gains baseball has made since 1995. He writes: "The speed with which Selig and his unassailable decade have come completely undone is stunning." Again, Bryant lacks evidence. In 2005, baseball is setting all-time attendance records.

Andrew Zimbalist a contributor to, is Robert A. Woods Professor of Economics at Smith College. His latest book, National Pastime: How Americans Play Baseball and the Rest of the World Plays Soccer, was published by Brookings earlier this year. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.