Seven years ago, while visiting Orlando, Fla., with his family, Barry Bonds stopped by Ken Griffey Jr.’s house and told him he was about to start using steroids.
This scene opens the 13th chapter of my upcoming Bonds biography, Love Me, Hate Me. Bonds was there. Griffey was there. I have verification.
And yet, even before I sat down to write the chapter, I knew the inevitable aftermath. Bonds would deny everything and call the writer a no-good sack of shit. Griffey would shrug his shoulders and yawn, “Never took place.” Indeed, when ESPN the Magazine ran the excerpt two weeks ago, Bonds and Griffey responded predictably. They both insisted the conversation was fictitious.
“I don’t remember it ever happening,” Griffey said. “The only thing that Barry and I ever really talked about was me coming out to San Francisco and working out with him. And I told him, ‘For six weeks, I can’t leave my family.’ … As far as the other thing, that conversation didn’t happen.”
Around the same time Griffey’s words scrolled across the bottom of my TV screen, I received a phone call from an ESPN producer. He wanted a comment.
“A comment on what?” I asked.
“On Jay Canizaro,” he said. “He’s denying everything.”
Canizaro, a one-time journeyman second baseman, had spoken to me at length about his early years with the Giants, when he watched Bonds balloon from Lara Flynn Boyle to Lee Haney. A former steroid user, Canizaro knew all the signs of a juicer. Zit-coated skin. Peanut-sized testicles. Moodiness. And Bonds was a juicer.
“Hell, he took off his shirt the first day and his back just looked like a mountain of acne,” Canizaro told me. “Anybody who had any kind of intelligence or street smarts about them knew Barry was using some serious stuff.”
Now, he was backtracking. Suddenly Canizaro admired Bonds as a great sportsman and was shocked—shocked!—that anyone would suspect the legend of cheating.
I called Canizaro that afternoon. In front of me were a printed transcript of our interview and a copy of the audiotape. My hands were shaking. My blood was boiling. I asked him how he could go on national TV and deny what he told me, especially considering I had it all on tape.
Canizaro hemmed and hawed. He stammered and stuttered. Finally, with a hint of humiliation in his voice, he admitted that he was, of all things, scared. How, he wondered, would his comments play to his major league brethren?
I was angry. I wasn’t surprised. In Major League Baseball, there is a code. The Code. Simply put, ballplayers do not rat out other ballplayers.
In society at large, such a philosophy is rare. If, say, a corporate executive is wronged by his company, he does not hesitate to level embezzlement or fraud charges against a fellow CEO. But baseball isn’t the boardroom. The sport is composed primarily of young, tanned men who, from an early age, have been commanded to adhere to one of the world’s most banal credos: What happens in the clubhouse stays in the clubhouse. It’s the sad truth about most professional athletes, and the reason you should deter your child from becoming one: Success is based upon an unnatural ability to follow along and limit cranial exertion.
“No matter what another player does, you’re not supposed to call him on it,” says Matt Treanor, a catcher with the Florida Marlins. “I’m not saying that’s always right, because sometimes people deserve to be called out for their actions. But to do so risks your place in the game, and very few of us want to do that.”
Four years ago, when former San Diego Padres star Ken Caminiti told Sports Illustrated that steroids were an epidemic in baseball, he wasn’t cast out by his peers. Why? Because Caminiti refused to name names. When Jose Canseco tattled on stars like Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, and Juan Gonzalez in his book Juiced, he was deemed a liar and a fraud. Jason Giambi, later unmasked in the book Game of Shadows as the Yankees’ DHI (Designated Hormone Injector), audaciously referred to Canseco as “delusional.”
Jim Bouton, who released the tell-all biography Ball Four in 1970, was the first to truly test baseball’s code. By the time the former Yankee pitcher’s book hit stores, Bouton had already been granted leper status. “To me, the most natural thing in the world is to see an injustice and speak out about it,” says Bouton, who was banned from Old Timer’s Day at Yankee Stadium for nearly 30 years on account of his transgressions. “I actually think that’s a very human instinct. But baseball has a lot of paranoia to it. It fosters the mentality that to violate the code of secrecy is to break a cherished rule.”
Ken Griffey Jr. probably lost the most during baseball’s steroid era. Entering the late 1990s, Griffey and Bonds were neck and neck as the game’s premier players. Griffey was a five-tool powder keg who won the 1997 American League MVP after hitting 56 homers and driving in 147 runs. But within four years, he was obsolete. Perhaps part of it can be attributed to injuries—Griffey has spent much of his late career on the disabled list. But more telling is the fact that as Bonds, McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and dozens upon dozens of others allegedly injected themselves with this and that, Griffey stayed clean.
The Cincinnati Reds star has every right to rip Bonds, to scream, “Yeah, Barry told me he wanted to use! And I think it’s bullshit!” Instead, he’s slave to the code. On the same day he denied my book’s contents, Griffey was asked whether he thought Bonds had used performance-enhancing drugs. After a lengthy pause, Griffey spoke as only a brainwashed ballplayer could. “[Barry] believes in going to the weight room five and six times a week … he works hard,” he said. “I’ve got cousins who work in gyms that all they do is lift weights and make Barry look small. You go in the gym and give 100 percent, you’re going to see results.”
In other words, the code rules all.