Thursday, May 19, 2005

Inquirer Book Review: The Juice

The Juice: The Real Story of Baseball's Drug Problems, by Will Carroll (Ivan R. Dee, 247 pp. with index; $24.95)


There is a chapter in Will Carroll's new book that is, for lack of a more appropriate description, liquid dynamite. I use the description because, for all I know, Liquid Dynamite is the name of one of those supplement shakes you or your buddy take. They all have bizarre, exaggerated names like Critical Mass and White Lightning. Personally, I like the name Liquid Dynamite.

This particular chapter fits the description---or at least the "dynamite" part. In the chapter, Carroll describes his meeting with a certain "Dr. X" at a small, Midwestern airport. Understand that, as Carroll tells it, this was no chance encounter; quite the contrary indeed, as Carroll's narrative reads like an abridged version of an obfuscation course run in a John Grisham novel (I am surprised that Carroll did not buy an airline ticket with cash under the name "Sam Fortune"), crossed with the meet quick between Jim Garrison and "Mr. X" in JFK.

The chapter weaves its way quasi-conspiratorily through the email contact by "Dr. X" (via a server stronghold no doubt designed, in the movie adaption of course, by a guy named Laslo), through the good doctor's elaborate instructions, through some short-notice cancellations (no doubt owing to perceived security breaches), and finally, to the meeting with a completely indistinguishable man. While reading the chapter, I imagined one of the Sandpeople sitting in a wheelchair.

Why all the precautions?

"Dr. X" may (or may not, Carroll leaves open) be the creator of THG---better known these days as "the clear."

Wow.

The Juice might be worth the price of admission, so to speak, based on that one chapter alone. It is certainly riveting. And enthralling. And infuriating. And, most of all, chilling. Carroll ends the chapter by confessing that, as he drove away from the airport upon the end of his (sole) encounter with "Dr. X," he looked in his rear-view mirror. Trust me, as the reader: when Carroll describes this paranoia, I really want to buy it. "Profile: The Creator" is one hell of a chapter.

It is also designated as Chapter Twelve. In other words, one of the best chapters of non-fiction (I think?) you'll read all year (trust me on that one) is buried in the middle-back of the book.

And so we arrive at the problem with The Juice: it overreaches. Frankly, it suffers from an identity crisis.

Is it a history of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs)? Is it reference guide for non-chemists? Is it a primer for those who are interested in the steroids controversy currently facing Major League Baseball? Or is it an insider's account?

The subtitle of the book ("The Real Story of Baseball's Drug Problems") makes me believe that the last of the choices hits closest to the mark; interestingly, it adopts the subtitle of John Helyar's Lords of the Realm ("The Real History of Baseball"). Helyar's book, which comprehensively tracks the relationship between MLB owners and players (at least up until its publication date), markets itself in such a manner, I would discern, because it is the product of literally hundreds of sources by whom Helyar was granted trust.

Carroll's book, by comparison, provides no such assurance. This leads to the second problem: I'm not sure I believe Carroll when he discusses his fascinating encounter with "Dr. X," or at least not fully.

Early in the book, Carroll profiles a professional baseball, "John Albertson," who used several PEDs, most notably Deca and Dianabol, early in this decade. "Albertson" experienced some brief moments of glory---including a late-season big league call-up and subsequent bloop single, purportedly off of Roger Clemens---but was mainly miserable while on the juice. He suffered injuries---some nagging and some worse---and, by the time Carroll interviewed him, was trying to make his way back up the hardball ladder.

The "Albertson" chapter is incredibly rich with detail. Carroll provides dates and baseball "character traits" (singles hitter in a power hitter position) and certain other clues, but it's all bunk. Just for kicks, I searched for a player who met all or even most of the details on Retrosheet; I even searched over a two-season period, because Carroll's timeline (probably intentionally) contains an inconsistency. Obviously, I wouldn't have mentioned the name even if I found it, but unless I am missing something, there's no such player.

Now, Carroll mentions in his Introduction that he changed certain "nonmaterial facts." Ethically, that is fair enough, I supppose. Obviously, he has to protect those people who spoke to him on a condition of anonymity---including "Albertson," if indeed that is one person, rather than a composite of several. I just wonder why Carroll made "Albertson's" story so detail-specific in the first place (an easier way to throw people off track would be to describe his on-field history rather vaguely, right?).

More importantly, I wonder whether his definition of "nonmaterial facts" would mesh with his reader's (including mine). It's a rather big leap of faith the reader must take here, and I am not certain that Carroll has established his worthiness on that front.*

Later on, Carroll revisits this type of profile with two other people, the aforementioned "Dr. X" and, before the good doctor, a short high school kid named "Wes." Now, "Wes's" story is rather excruciating; he's a formerly 5'8" teenager who regularly administers himself a form of Human Growth Hormone so that he can hit the hallowed Six-Feet Mark. (Carroll portrays this "mark" literally; poor "Wes" has a pencil-mark-on-the-doorframe chart that marks his progress, like he's a young boy or something.) What is excruciating is that "Wes's" parents not only know of his usage, not only approve of it, not only sent him to a doctor for it, but sent him to a doctor who willingly prescribes it. Sure, HGH will make you taller, Carroll writes; that's why it was created, in fact, to give "little people" a chance to grow enough to enjoy the comforts of modern society.

Why does "Wes" use it? So that scouts will look at him as a pitching prospect. "Wes" met one once, and the scout's line will probably be the lasting quote of The Juice: "Call me if you hit six-two."

But, I wonder, did the scout really say this? Did the encounter actually occur? If it occurred, did the scout dismiss "Wes" because he was too short or, rather, because "Wes" wasn't a particularly good pitcher. (Curiously, this is an implied characterization of "Wes's" pitching skill by Carroll and through certain statements by "Wes.") That, in a nutshell, is the problem with changing "nonmaterial facts."

By the time we hit the "Dr. X" chapter, I am fairly dubious. (Then again, maybe a dubious posture would be inevitable in that chapter, considering the otherwise fanciful cloak-and-dagger narrative.)

Well, on what other basis can be evaluate the book? Rightly, it is a primer for a baseball fan who is a layman on "chemical issues"---like me. Here, a couple of ineffective diversions aside (specifically, chapters dealing with the legal issues stemming from the BALCO investigation and a search by contributor Jay Jaffe for indicators of whether 'roids have spiked offensive and home run totals), the book overwhelmingly succeeds. While Carroll is not the most elegant writer and there is at least one horrendous editing error, the book is a breezy 250-page read that, if nothing else, is a handy reference on this current hot-button topic. In particular, the explanations provided by Carroll and his contributors (including his pop, a professor of some stripe) concerning the various types of PEDs (of which "steroids" are but one type) are incredibly helpful.

I learned something from the book, and I was entertained at times---on one occasion, extremely so. It is hard to ask for much more.

Still, like I say above, I wish the book did not overreach. I was fascinated by his thesis, repeated now and again (and in print and electronic interviews), that amphetamines are the real biggies out there right now. Accordingly, I wish the amphetamine discussion(s) had been longer, perhaps at the expense of a somewhat pointless discussion of Barry Bonds's legal future.

But if you want to know what "Oral Turinabol" is, look no further.


* At the risk of being flippant and/or mean, I'll note that Carroll's credibility is not universally considered inviolate.

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