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A compelling summary of the steroids scandal

Game of Shadows Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroids Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports, By Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, Gotham Books, 352 pp, $26

In Game Seven of the 2003 American League Championship Series, New York's Jason Giambi hit two solo home runs off Pedro Martinez. Without those homers, the Red Sox would have led 5-0 after seven innings, and who knows how the Sox might have fared? Within two months, Giambi had reportedly confessed to a federal grand jury that he had been using illegal steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs.

Giambi is depicted along with slugger Barry Bonds on the cover of ''Game of Shadows," written by San Francisco Chronicle investigative reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams. Because both Bonds and Giambi were under investigation, the two players were not among those who were subpoenaed to testify before the US House Committee on Government Reform in March of last year.

Understandably, attention has focused on Bonds. As he enters the 2006 season with 708 career homers, Bonds will almost certainly eclipse Babe Ruth's total of 714 and approach Hank Aaron's all-time mark of 755.

The book's two authors present a compelling portrait of conspiracy built around Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative founder Victor Conte, one that has enveloped other drug providers and a number of track and field stars -- national champions and US Olympic team members -- and Major League baseball players. When steroid tests were administered anonymously in 2003, 7 percent of the Major Leaguers tested positive.

In America, one is innocent in the eyes of the law until proven guilty. The court of public opinion is another matter, and most readers will complete ''Game of Shadows" convinced by the preponderance of evidence (circumstantial or otherwise) that Bonds has used steroids.

There are no new bombshells here, but additional leaked grand jury testimony fleshes out the story. There is considerable drama in the telling, and the writers have turned a complicated story into an easy read. Particularly fascinating is the profile of Conte and the jealousies between him and other enhancement gurus that ultimately helped break the case. There is even the suggestion that it might have been Conte himself -- a man whose own attorney quit, citing his client's ''narcissistic personality disorder" -- who was the source of much of the material fed to the Chronicle writers. Conte was supplying illegal drugs but at the same time appears to have envisioned himself as a potential crusader best positioned to truly clean up American sports.

The investigative journalists clearly believe Bonds is guilty. There are improbabilities to contend with -- for instance, that Bonds could be the one slugger in Major League history whose power stats almost doubled after age 35 -- and a sobering accumulation of allegations, data, and testimony that leaves little room for doubt.

The authors marvel at baseball's unwillingness to directly confront the crisis, arguably the most profound one the sport has ever faced. Tough penalties for testing positive only occurred following congressional pressure. The naming of George Mitchell to head up an investigation into the matter came only days before the start of the 2006 season and came under fire almost immediately due to Mitchell's possibly conflicting position as director of the Red Sox.

Should Bonds reach Ruth's mark, will Commissioner Bud Selig celebrate the accomplishment? Fainaru-Wada and Williams see that as akin to former commissioner Kenesaw Landis announcing a ''new anti-gambling policy after the Black Sox scandal, and then agree[ing] to personally award Joe Jackson his next batting trophy." Should Bonds's home run record be expunged? As representative John Sweeney declared in the book, ''If anything in life is attained improperly, it ought to be scrutinized and possibly taken back." The story of steroids has yet to fully play out, but this volume presents a well-researched summary of the scandal to date.

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