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In the early 2000s, rampant steroid use across Major League Baseball became the biggest scandal in the sport’s history. But fans didn’t want to hear the difficult truth about their heroes – and the league didn’t want to intervene and clean up a mess it helped make. 

We look back at how the scandal unraveled with our colleagues from the podcast Crushed from Religion of Sports. Their show revisits the steroid era to untangle its truth from the many myths, examine the legacy of baseball’s so-called steroid era and explore what it tells us about sports culture in America.

We start during the 1998 MLB season, when the home run race was on. Superstar sluggers Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa battled to set a new single-season record, and McGwire, the St. Louis Cardinals first baseman, was portrayed as the hero baseball needed: part humble, wholesome, working man and part action hero, with his brawny build and enormous biceps. So when a reporter spotted a suspicious bottle of pills in his locker in the middle of the season, most fans plugged their ears and refused to acknowledge that baseball might be hooked on steroids.

Joan Niesen, a sportswriter and host of the podcast Crushed, takes us on a deep dive into an era that dethroned a generation of superstars, left fans disillusioned and turned baseball’s record book on its head. The story takes us from ballparks and clubhouses to the halls of Congress to explain how baseball was finally forced to reckon with its drug problem.

Dig Deeper

Listen: The seven-episode Crushed podcast is available from Religion of Sports.

Credits

Reporter and host: Joan Niesen | Lead producer: Jessica Pupovac | Editor: Katharine Mieszkowski | Production manager: Amy Mostafa | Sound design: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda | Mixing: Claire Mullen | Digital producer: Sarah Mirk | Episode art: Molly Mendoza | Executive producer: Kevin Sullivan | Host: Al Letson

Special thanks to Jane Ackermann; composer Michael Kramer; Devon Manze, Michael Garofalo and Meghan Coyle from Religion of Sports; Crushed executive producers Gotham Chopra, Ameeth Sankaran and Adam Scholssman.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons FoundationDemocracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

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Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. It’s almost midnight in the summer of ’98 and the St. Louis Cardinals’ clubhouse is jampacked with reporters. Everyone is jostling for space, ducking under cameras, waiting.
Steve Wilstein:It was glorious. The circus came to town.
Al Letson:That’s Associated Press reporter Steve Wilstein. He’s a part of the scrum. They are all there to cover the home run race. Mark McGwire had just hit his 45th homer of the season and is on pace to break the single-season record.
Steve Wilstein:I was giddy about it. I was a Little League player who liked hitting home runs and now to see these guys do it and as far as they were hitting it, it was baseball at its best.
Al Letson:But Wilstein is there to cover baseball history.
Steve Wilstein:My philosophy is to bring the reader as close as possible into the scene and to the locker room. I’m always filling my yellow legal pad with notes about details that may or may not make it into a story. It’s just something I did my whole career and sometimes it pays off.
Al Letson:He notices Cardinals legend Stan Musial’s number displayed on the wall above McGwire’s locker. He writes that down along with other stuff he sees inside the locker.
Steve Wilstein:I saw the can of Popeye’s spinach which I thought was funny and then I saw this pack of sugarless gum. I knew his father was a dentist so I thought that was cute and all-American. It wasn’t chewing tobacco.
Al Letson:You see, sports lockers are really more like cubbies. There are no doors, no padlocks with combinations. They’re just open spaces overflowing with gear, plastered with pictures of wives and kids. So Wilstein figured his observations were fair game and as he scans the shelf one final time, he notices a small bottle of pills that should go in the notebook too.
Steve Wilstein:I didn’t know what it was and so I spelled it out carefully in my notebook.
Al Letson:What he writes is androstenedione. It’s a mouthful so most people just call it andro. When he carefully copies those 15 letters into his notepad, it sets of a chain reaction that will turn the home run race from a party to something very different.

This week, we’re partnering with a new podcast called Crushed from Religion of Sports. It looks at how baseball got hooked on performance-enhancing drugs and whether it’s ever recovered. Joan Niesen, the host of Crushed, is a sports writer and St. Louis native. She was just 10 in ’98 and she remembers it as the summer she fell in love with baseball. Joan picks up the story.
Speaker 4:While the Cardinals are getting ready, big Mark McGwire needs just two home runs to tie and three home runs for baseball history.
Joan Niesen:1998 was Major League Baseball’s biggest season in decades.
Speaker 4:This could be the weekend that McGwire breaks Roger Maris’ single-season home run record.
Joan Niesen:Fans packed ballparks to watch Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chase the most sacred record in sports, and the league needed every moment of airtime, milked the spectacle for all it was worth. You see, four years earlier, a player strike had canceled the World Series and left fans disillusioned.
Speaker 6:I think it stinks. I mean they’re just already making enough money.
Speaker 7:The whole thing’s a result of obscene pursuit of wealth.
Speaker 8:It’s really not our pastime anymore.
Joan Niesen:Now, home runs were bringing baseball back and McGwire, the St. Louis Cardinals’ first baseman, was the hero baseball needed. He was humble, hardworking, wholesome, the whole shebang. He looked the part too, tall, brawny with short red hair and action figure biceps.
Speaker 9:Oh, he’s gorgeous. He’s cute.
Speaker 10:Do you think Mark McGwire’s more interesting than the president?
Speaker 11:Definitely.
Speaker 12:People are out here to see him. That’s basically why we got our tickets really.
Speaker 13:Mark McGwire is a true American hero.
Joan Niesen:That summer, it was easy to be distracted by the fireworks, to see what we wanted to see, but not for Steve Wilstein. When he got home from St. Louis and started paging through all of his reporting, one word on his pad stuck out, androstenedione. What was in that bottle? He picked up the phone.
Steve Wilstein:I called a friend of mine who was a doctor and he told me that it was used by bodybuilders and he mentioned to me that somebody using that is probably using other steroids.
Joan Niesen:If what he’d said was true, Wilstein had a much different story on his hands than the one he imagined, but before he started writing, he had more research to do and calls to make. First, Wilstein reached out to a few Olympics writers. What did they know about this pill? One answered right away. The International Olympic Committee or IOC had outlawed it a year earlier. Not only that, after gold medalist shot putter Randy Barnes tested positive, he was banned from the games for life, and as Wilstein thought more about what he’d just learned, something else began to nag at him.
Steve Wilstein:I had known McGwire for more than 10 years. I never saw him look like that.
Joan Niesen:McGwire had gotten really big. At this point, he was listed at 250 pounds which was 60 pounds heavier than the average player.
Steve Wilstein:Your mind is thinking, “How do they get so big?”
Joan Niesen:He wasn’t the only one. Players across baseball were getting more gargantuan each year, but how? Wilstein hadn’t set out to answer that question, but he was about to. Wilstein was no stranger to covering athletes whose performances seemed almost unbelievable and he learned to question what he was watching. You see, anabolic steroids had begun to creep into many sports by the ’90s. They’re synthetic or manmade testosterone. They make athletes bigger, stronger, faster, and they’re also illegal. So was andro an anabolic steroid or was it just an innocent over-the-counter supplement? Back then, that’s how the FDA classified it.
Steve Wilstein:I went online and found that it was being sold openly on the internet and then I called GNC and I talked to somebody who I didn’t know, and I said, “Tell me about androstenedione. Do you sell a lot of it?”
Joan Niesen:Turns out, they did. The supplement industry was booming. Just a few years earlier, Congress had passed a bill that totally deregulated it. Advertising for this stuff was everywhere. Wilstein didn’t know it at the time, but even McGwire had an endorsement with a supplement company, one that sold andro. But if it was legal and all of a sudden deregulated, why had the IOC just banned it? Wilstein found a few reasons.
Steve Wilstein:First of all, it could artificially boost performance so it had the effect of cheating and it’s used usually in conjunction with Winstrol or stanozolol and Deca-Durabolin.
Joan Niesen:Those are all anabolic steroids.
Steve Wilstein:But I couldn’t write about all those things and I didn’t want to insinuate at the time that he was using those things. All I knew was the andro.
Joan Niesen:And as he kept reporting, he found it wasn’t just the IOC that had clamped down.
Steve Wilstein:By 1998, the NFL had banned it and so had the NCAA. So anybody caught using it in any NCAA tournament or in the NFL or in the Olympics would be banned or would be thrown out of the tournaments.
Joan Niesen:Wilstein learned the NBA, NHL, and Major League Baseball still allowed andro use. In fact when it came to drugs, baseball was particularly lawless. It had no policy at all, just an honor system. Anabolic steroids were technically against the rules, but only because the government had made them illegal in 1990 and that was the extent of baseball’s guidance. It told players not to take illegal drugs, but there were no tests and no punishments.
Steve Wilstein:So the thrust of my story wasn’t so much a condemnation of McGwire. It was about the difference between baseball’s rules and everybody else’s rules.
Joan Niesen:Wilstein’s story ran in newspapers across America under the headline Drug Okay in Baseball, Not Olympics.
Steve Wilstein:Sitting on the top shelf of Mark McGwire’s locker next to a can of Popeye’s spinach and packs of sugarless gum is a brown bottle labeled androstenedione.
Joan Niesen:In retrospect, it reads as almost too fair toward McGwire.
Steve Wilstein:No one suggests that McGwire wouldn’t be closing in on Roger Maris’ home run record without the over-the-counter drug, but the drug’s ability to raise levels of the male hormone, which builds lean muscle mass and promotes recovery after injury, is seen outside baseball as cheating and potentially dangerous.
Joan Niesen:Wilstein had written a story about baseball’s lack of a drug policy, but readers took it as an accusation that McGwire was a fraud. Fans refused to hear it. They’d invested so much in the home run race, in McGwire that they took the story as an affront.
Speaker 14:Yeah, I think it’s no story really. It’s something that the media’s chasing.
Speaker 15:It’s legal. Do it. That’s just smart. That’s not stupid.
Speaker 16:Well for one thing, he hit 49 home runs the year before that andro whatever it is was even invented.
Joan Niesen:McGwire himself pointed a finger at Wilstein to distract from the implications of what he’d written.
Mark McGwire:There’s no basis on that article. The basis was that some guy from the AP was snooping in my locker.
Joan Niesen:Tony La Russa, who was McGwire’s manager during his early years in Oakland and again in St. Louis, was outraged. He threatened to ban media from the clubhouse even though he had no power to do so.
Tony La Russa:This guy goes into the gym every day and works. All that hard work is being tainted by crap like this.
Joan Niesen:Wilstein doesn’t think he overstepped and neither do I. It’s not as if he went looking for salacious details about McGwire. He only reported on things relevant to his story and andro was just that. It might have had a direct effect on the home run race and baseball wasn’t regulating it.
Steve Wilstein:If I had seen something like Viagra, I never would have reported it because it wouldn’t have any relevance to baseball, but if you see something that is a testosterone booster, well that does have to do with baseball.
Joan Niesen:Looking back, it’s shocking to see such a one-sided reaction. Wilstein had uncovered the beginnings of baseball’s biggest scandal since Pete Rose bet against his own team. Instead of thinking critically, most people plugged their ears and yelled.
Steve Wilstein:If I turn on sports talk radio in my car, I would hear people really angry about the story and attacking me and they’d call me all kinds of names, a lot of expletives. There was also a lot of hate letters and emails that were violent. They took it as an attack on McGwire, but in a sense, they take it as an attack on themselves because they’re so involved and immersed in him. People don’t like to see their heroes taken down.
Al Letson:To fans in Major League Baseball, Wilstein had written a hit piece not only on McGwire, but on all the fun everyone was having. The league had no incentive to engage. It was too busy building up players like McGwire as role models, heroes, the best thing baseball had to offer.
Speaker 19:Down the left field line, is it enough?
Al Letson:Wilstein’s story came out just a few weeks before McGwire broke the home run record.
Speaker 19:Gone. There it is. 62.
Al Letson:But his record wouldn’t last long. That’s next on Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.
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Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Back in ’98 when St. Louis Cardinal Mark McGwire broke the single-season home run record, it was a big deal. Baseball’s commissioner Bud Selig handed him a trophy on the field. President Clinton called to congratulate him, but three years later, the tone had shifted.
Speaker 20:[inaudible] straight to right field. [inaudible]. There’s a new record holder.
Al Letson:Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants was baseball’s new home run king, but this time around, the reaction was different. No one from the opposing team even congratulated him as he rounded the bases. After the game, Bonds gave a speech to the crowd. It was subdued.
Barry Bonds:We’ve come a long way. We’ve had our ups and downs.
Al Letson:Baseball’s commissioner wasn’t even there. The president never called. The spell of the home run race had been broken. The magic had run out. Bonds was a Black man in a whitewashed sport and fans held him to a different standard. Think about it. McGwire and Bonds both looked as if they were taking steroids when they broke the record, but only with Bonds were people willing to see that possibility, to let it brew in the moment. Here’s sports writer Howard Bryant.
Howard Bryant:The public was like, “Okay. We’re done celebrating.” Were they done celebrating because it was Bonds? Were they done celebrating because he was Black? Were they done celebrating because this is ridiculous? Yeah, it was probably all of the above.
Al Letson:Today, we’re looking back at baseball’s steroid era with our partners from Religion of Sports. Their new podcast Crushed looks at what happens when your love of a sport is built on a major league lie. Joan Niesen, host of Crushed, brings us back to the summer it all started to unravel.
Joan Niesen:In the summer of 2001, Jeff Novitzky was glued to his television. A lifelong fan of Bay Area sports, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing from Barry Bonds. He was baseball royalty, the son of a Giants legend, the godson of Hall of Famer Willie Mays. He’d been the best player in baseball for more than a decade ever since he was a speedy, live, five-tool player who could do anything, everything, but over the past few years, Bonds had remade his game and his body. He was a home run machine. So Novitzky wedged himself into the packed stands in San Francisco anytime he could score a ticket. He kept showing up for games, standing with the crowd to cheer Bonds, hoping for a new home run king, but the next year, things became complicated. You see, Novitzky was an IRS special agent and in 2002, he got a tip about the case that would make his career.
Jeff Novitzky:My father’s really good friend was a high school track and field coach in the San Francisco Bay area and he actually just, a casual conversation, started talking about this place in Burlingame, California called BALCO Laboratories.
Joan Niesen:BALCO, it stood for the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative and it claimed to be a supplement company based in a nondescript office park near the San Francisco airport.
Jeff Novitzky:What he was hearing is some very high profile athletes were going there and getting what he knew to be designer-type steroids.
Joan Niesen:This is where we are now. We’ve moved past androstenedione, past testosterone to mad scientist stuff. These drugs were undetectable because tests don’t just flag any and all steroids. They have to be looking for a specific hormone or compound and if a steroid is developed in secret like these were, then it isn’t on any lists and there’s no way to test for it. If BALCO was an illegal steroid ring, it was more than likely ducking its taxes which meant Novitzky had the leeway to investigate. He was immediately intrigued. You see, he’s the son of a college basketball coach, had been a star high jumper in high school, and played Division 1 college hoops. He loves sports.
Jeff Novitzky:I don’t have all good qualities, but the ones that I do have that are good I can trace back to lessons I learned growing up playing sports.
Joan Niesen:Novitzky got to work. His first order of business was to figure out what exactly was going on at that out-of-the-way office park. So he defaulted to a tried and true tactic, what any good agent would do to kickstart this kind of investigation, dumpster diving. Novitzky began to keep watch on the BALCO building and to show up late on Mondays, the night before trash day.
Jeff Novitzky:So I’d wait til sometimes midnight, 1:00 in the morning so that everyone from the business park had gone home, pull my car into the area where the trash was, and then quickly transfer it from the trash bin to my car and then take out of there. I’d usually go find some lighting nearby so that I could then examine it.
Joan Niesen:He did this every week for a year. This sounds disgusting, but to Novitzky, it was some of the easiest dumpster diving of his career.
Jeff Novitzky:I’ve had some nightmare garbage runs where people were suspecting that their trash was being looked for and they were putting dead animals in their trash. I mean so you could imagine late at night, you’re cold, it’s already a little bit scary, you’re looking into this dark bin, and you start pulling out dead animals. That can have an impact on you. So comparatively in my trash examination career, this was one of the easier ones. I did the trash runs on Monday night. By Tuesday morning, I started looking forward to the next Monday night. What am I going to find next week? I was finding evidence that just was blowing my mind. I was finding discarded performance-enhancing drug wrappers, notes from athletes ordering their next cycle of drugs, email addresses that were being used, bank account information.
Joan Niesen:Novitzky said he found notes from one of BALCO’s main chemists, the mastermind behind all these undetectable steroids, a guy by the name of Patrick Arnold. Arnold had made his reputation as the first person in the US to manufacture and mass produce andro, those pills Steve Wilstein found in Mark McGwire’s locker. This was all connected, these new drugs and the drugs that had been seeping into baseball for years. Sure, BALCO was working with athletes from a variety of sports, football, track and field, you name it, but Novitzky’s case zeroed in on America’s pastime.
Jeff Novitzky:Once we started conducting surveillance on it, we started to see some very, very high profile customers coming in and out of BALCO, including Barry Bonds.
Joan Niesen:Now as far as Bonds was concerned, this wasn’t a huge surprise. BALCO’s front was that it was a supplement company and Bonds was open about the fact that he used its products.
Jeff Novitzky:So as opposed to paying BALCO, he basically did promotional material for them, saying, “Hey, it’s these supplements that I’m using.”
Joan Niesen:There was no paper trail linking Bonds to a steroid purchase, but that was fine. Novitzky was fairly certain the slugger was using thanks to what he’d found in the trash. He also suspected Bonds and other Giants players were getting their steroids from Bonds’ personal trainer, a guy named Greg Anderson. He would turn out to be the key to this whole case and Anderson worked with BALCO in some capacity.
Jeff Novitzky:We saw him show up at BALCO, step inside for a matter of minutes, come out with something, and then get into his car and I surveilled it up to the Giants ballpark. He parked in the players’ parking lot, went inside the park for five or 10 minutes, and then drove off. So in terms of putting pieces to the puzzle together, it surely appeared that BALCO had Major League Baseball clients.
Joan Niesen:Inside the Giants clubhouse, head trainer Stan Conte noticed Anderson hanging around.
Stan Conte:He was a really big, huge muscle man guy with tons of tattoos.
Joan Niesen:He was everywhere, by Bonds’ side in the clubhouse, in the weight room, as he broke the home run record. Conte suspected Anderson was a drug dealer and went to the general manager with his concerns.
Stan Conte:I had told Brian Sabean that we had a drug dealer in the clubhouse and he said, “Do you know any DEA agents?” Well I did actually, one of the ex-patients of mine years ago. He said, “Well call them and see if Anderson is under surveillance or they’re looking at him.”
Joan Niesen:That agent told Conte nothing was going on because at that point, the investigation was in the hands of the IRS, but when Novitzky had enough evidence to act, he got a search warrant and looped in a local narcotics task force, the Food and Drug Administration, and the US Anti-doping Agency. This was now much bigger than taxes.
Speaker 25:An Internal Revenue Service raid at the headquarters of BALCO just south of San Francisco.
Speaker 26:All of a sudden, SWAT teams came in. It was like out of the movies.
Joan Niesen:That was in September of 2003 and at first, it didn’t turn many heads. The BALCO raid was a local news story and little more until the federal government convened a grand jury. It called star athletes who’d been linked to BALCO to testify about whatever the raid had turned up. American sports were headed to court.
Speaker 27:Sometime role models like Yankee slugger Jason Giambi, home run record holder Barry Bonds, or linebacker Bill Romanowski and dozens of other athletes have all been called before a federal grand jury to talk about the nutritional help they’ve gotten from BALCO Labs.
Joan Niesen:To get the athletes to cooperate, the government offered them immunity. That way, they could tell the truth without any threat of legal trouble.
Jeff Novitzky:In traditional drug investigations, you’re not going after the end user. Typically, what you’re trying to do is flip them, try to figure out who’s the one selling.
Joan Niesen:This was the government’s strategy for clamping down on steroids in sports, to cut off supply. Novitzky didn’t object, but still, something felt off to him.
Jeff Novitzky:What these athletes were doing was perpetuating a fraud on their sports. They were getting millions and millions of dollars from it. Notwithstanding that, we still said this deserves treatment of a typical drug investigation. As long as these athletes are truthful to us, we’re going to consider them just witnesses.
Joan Niesen:As soon as word got out that athletes were set to testify, journalists began to stake out the federal courthouse in San Francisco, taking notes and recording footage. Lance Williams, an investigative reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle, was one of them.
Lance Williams:The grand jury, after it convenes, subpoenaed some 35 great athletes, some of the greatest athletes of the era and every last one of them had to walk into the federal building in San Francisco and take the elevator upstairs. A couple of the athletes, I remember, gave the finger to the camera people and one guy wore a jacket over his head, I recall.
Joan Niesen:Bonds testified. So did Giambi, a former MVP, and gold medal winning track star Marion Jones. The list went on and the public clambered to know what was happening behind closed doors. This, the scene, the cameras, the live shots beamed across the United States, it was exactly what Novitzky had hoped for when he took the case.
Jeff Novitzky:Your job as a federal agent is to find those real high profile cases specifically that the media is going to be excited about and cover and then get the word out to the governments enforcing these laws or investigating this would be a great case that would get significant impact and positively affect voluntary compliance with laws.
Joan Niesen:That sounds like law enforcement jargon, but it’s not. It’s actually important. What Novitzky is saying is that a case like BALCO, one that reaches so many eyes and ears, can shift the national conversation. It might be a deterrent, might make drug dealers afraid the government was coming for them next. It also could make athletes leery to use steroids or open fans’ eyes to how pervasive this stuff was in sports. So the feds needed the press. They just miscalculated how to handle that relationship. You see, for all the reporting done from the courthouse, there was no way for any of the media there to know what the athletes had said. The government held their testimony under wraps. Then four people were charged with crimes related to BALCO’s distribution of illegal steroids. The lab’s founder was one, Greg Anderson, the trainer, was another, but the athletes didn’t get in any kind of legal trouble and their names were redacted from the indictments.
Lance Williams:They went out of their way, the government did, to protect the public from learning the only information anybody really cared about, what the sports stars had done. So our reporting job after that, Mark and me, was to try to fill in the blanks and figure out who the athletes were and what they had done.
Joan Niesen:Williams and his reporting partner at the Chronicle, Mark Fainaru-Wada, worked source after source. They needed to find someone who would tell them what had happened behind closed doors, but it was a big ask. Because the grand jury testimony was sealed, it was illegal for anyone with access to share it, but eventually, a source delivered and anonymously leaked the testimony. There were pages and pages of sealed documents implicating dozens of athletes, Jones, Giambi, and there was even more dirt on Bonds, enough to confirm without a doubt that he’d received steroids from BALCO.
Speaker 29:Bonds has repeatedly denied using steroids, but a report in the San Francisco Chronicle today drew him ever closer to a scandal, embarrassing the sport to say the least.
Joan Niesen:Except Major League Baseball never seemed particularly ashamed or even as if it had noticed what was going on. Bonds was never suspended or forced to answer to any of those accusations, and our IRS agent, Jeff Novitzky, kept showing up to watch him play. Through it all, through the mountains of trash and hours spent bored in his car staring at the BALCO lab, Novitzky remained a Giants fan. As he came closer and closer to cracking the case, the sheer enormity of what he was undertaking began to wear on him.
Jeff Novitzky:Most hallowed record in sports just goes down and now all of a sudden, I have the answers to how that was achieved and how that happened. There were times during that investigation where I’d go to a game and here I am sitting in the crowd with everybody else and Barry goes yard and I’m standing up and cheering and then sitting down and thinking, “Man, this is kind of like weird that you’re still a fan and cheering, yet you know what’s going on.”
Joan Niesen:It was impossible to turn off the part of his brain that had been programmed his entire life to pull for the Giants. Of course, it was. This stuff isn’t rational and Novitzky knew that when news of his investigation broke, fans would be defensive, angry, as irrational as he was when he stood and cheered the man he was in the process of taking down.
Jeff Novitzky:For a period of a year and a half, I’d go to these games, even just walking through the street, looking at people’s faces, in my head thinking, “Wait til you find out what the truth is here. People are going to be freaking out,” and they were when it came out.
Joan Niesen:The Chronicle reported Bonds had denied using steroids in front of the grand jury under oath, but it also reported on the evidence Novitzky had turned up, the paper trail that indicated Bonds had in fact been juicing for years. Giants fans by and large believed their favorite player. They said Novitzky had a vendetta. They said Fainaru-Wada and Williams did too. They said their story was bogus, that they were making it up.
Lance Williams:I remember I was going to meet my son at the Oakland Coliseum and I was riding over on BART.
Joan Niesen:That’s a public transit system in the Bay Area.
Lance Williams:Mark and I had been on some sports talk TV show the previous day and there’s this guy looking at me, and he had seen me on TV and he was a big Giants fan. So as I was getting up to leave the train, he started yelling at me. He said, “It’s personal with you and Bonds, isn’t it?” He’s following me. He’s yelling, “Barry’s not going down. You going down.”
Joan Niesen:Novitzky was also targeted for his role in bringing the truth to light. Critics said he’d overstepped his bounds, was overzealous in taking these athletes down.
Jeff Novitzky:As a federal agent, you’re used to working behind the shield. Pretty early on, we went public with the indictment of the BALCO kind of core players and then my search warrant was unsealed. Then all of a sudden, it was stories not on the IRS investigating, but Jeff Novitzky, this former athlete, investigating.
Joan Niesen:Remember, Novitzky had played college basketball.
Jeff Novitzky:The defense teams jumped all over this and started to spin that narrative. “Hey, Jeff is a former athlete, failed athlete, didn’t get to where he wanted to get to, and he’s basically just jealous of all the success and this is his way of getting back.”
Joan Niesen:He even got death threats.
Jeff Novitzky:Things like, “Someone should go put a bullet in Novitzky’s head.” I just didn’t know at what point somebody could try to come after me.
Joan Niesen:For a while, the FBI followed him to make sure he was safe.
Jeff Novitzky:But I carried my gun with me everywhere I went. I wouldn’t carry it openly, but I had either a little ankle holster or like a little fanny pack that the gun would be in. So kind of scary to think about it, but I coached all my girls, so I’m coaching soccer, softball, volleyball, and I was thinking through scenarios. “Hey, if someone attacks me here and I’m coaching all these kids, what do I do?”
Joan Niesen:You’d think that this case would have made everyone irate at the athletes who cheated, but instead, fans were angry at the IRS agent and the government went after the journalists who’d exposed the truth. The Department of Justice threatened Fainaru-Wada and Williams, demanding they give up their source. Here’s Williams again.
Lance Williams:Once they lock in on you, they treat you like you set off a bomb under a police station. I mean they go really hard. So that’s what we were up against.
Joan Niesen:Williams and Fainaru-Wada were not about to comply. Yes, what their source had done was illegal, but they’d promised anonymity. They wouldn’t go back on that and a federal judge sentenced them on two counts of contempt of court.
Lance Williams:We were sentenced to 18 months and then the prosecutor said, “When you’re done, we’re going to convene a new grand jury and call you in front of that and if you won’t talk again, you’ll do another 18 months.” So it was like oh, man. That’s starting to add up.
Joan Niesen:Williams and Fainaru-Wada filed an appeal and waited. Meanwhile, BALCO’s founder and Greg Anderson pled guilty so the case never went to trial. Then the Justice Department identified the Chronicle’s source without the reporters’ cooperation, and it was just about the last person anyone would have expected, Troy Ellerman, the lawyer who’d represented some of the BALCO defendants. He was incensed by the fact that prosecutors seemed to be covering for star athletes. Leaking was his act of rebellion and he was sentenced to 30 months in prison, more than twice as much time as any of the dealers or distributors. And the athletes, the players who’d been the faces of their sports who in some cases still were?
Lance Williams:Major League Baseball did nothing. The Giants did nothing. Nobody did anything and it was almost like this story had never been written. Commissioner Selig, despite his professing a profound interest in cleaning up the game, his main initial reaction to the indictments in the BALCO case was to issue a gag order. Nobody in baseball was supposed to talk about BALCO and when Reggie Jackson, who at the time had some kind of capacity with the New York Yankees, said, “Well of course they were juicing. How else do you think the guy’s hitting 70+ homers,” words to that effect, he got yelled at by the commissioner.
Joan Niesen:Whether it was because of a shoddy testing program or because BALCO’s stuff was still too good to detect, Bonds never once failed an MLB steroid test and then in 2007, he broke Henry Aaron’s career home run record.
Speaker 30:There it is. Out of here. 756.
Joan Niesen:The only other player in history to hold both the single-season and career records was Babe Ruth himself. Major League Baseball never punished Bonds, but years later, Novitzky found himself back in court with the slugger. You see, Bonds had allegedly lied under oath about his steroid use during the initial investigation back when he had immunity, back when all anyone wanted was a shred of honesty. So in 2011, four years after he retired, he went to trial for obstructing justice.
Jeff Novitzky:I can tell you definitively we were not excited about prosecuting Barry Bonds. We were like, “Oh, you forced our hand. This is going to be really difficult to bring a criminal prosecution against one of the most beloved athletes in the Bay Area.”
Joan Niesen:Bonds was found guilty and sentenced to 30 days of house arrest, but he did manage to get his conviction overturned four years later. By then, Jeff Novitzky had moved on. After BALCO, he turned his attention to Lance Armstrong and he continued to feel like he was being targeted for taking down people’s heroes.
Jeff Novitzky:I mean I still to this day look in my rear view mirror when I’m driving around and kind of have an eye behind me.
Al Letson:All in all, the BALCO case lasted about five years. That’s from Novitzky’s first trip to the trash until the day Troy Ellerman was sentenced for leaking the testimony. Over that time, Major League Baseball’s official stance on steroid testing, at least on paper, totally changed, but it wasn’t because of BALCO and it wasn’t because of Bonds.
Speaker 31:If you would rise with me and raise your right hands?
Al Letson:That’s next on Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.
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Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Today, we’re looking back at how Major League Baseball was finally forced to reckon with its steroid problem. Associated Press reporter Steve Wilstein first saw a suspicious bottle of pills in Mark McGwire’s locker in 1998, but it took seven years before America was finally ready to confront the issue. In 2005, members of Congress subpoenaed Major League Baseball leaders and star players. Here’s McGwire being questioned.
Speaker 33:The year you were breaking the home run record, a bottle of andro was seen in your locker. How did you get to that point where that was what you were using to prepare yourself to play?
Mark McGwire:Well sir, I’m not here to talk about the past. I’m here to talk about the positive and not the negative about this issue.
Speaker 33:Were you ever counseled that precursors or designer steroids might have the same impact?
Mark McGwire:I’m not here to talk about the past.
Speaker 34:As I understand it, both Mr. Schilling, Mr. Thomas, and Mr. [Palmaro] and I think Mr. Sosa has said they never used the substances. Now, Mr. McGwire, would you like to comment on that? I didn’t get a definitive … I didn’t hear you say anything about it. You don’t have to. I just asked. You don’t want to comment? Are you taking the fifth?
Mark McGwire:I’m not here to discuss the past. I’m here to be positive about this subject.
Al Letson:Baseball didn’t want to talk, but lawmakers tried to force them. Here’s Joan Niesen, host of the podcast Crushed, to tell us how it all shook out.
Joan Niesen:In the days and weeks before the hearings, MLB leadership claimed the league’s new steroid policy was the gold standard in sports, but when lawmakers asked to see the policy, they refused to share it. Congress had to issue a subpoena to get its hands on a copy.
Rep. Henry Waxm…:I’d like to run down a few key provisions of baseball’s policy and ask for your professional opinion.
Joan Niesen:That’s Representative Henry Waxman posing a series of questions to Dr. Gary Wadler, one of the doctors who testified that day.
Rep. Henry Waxm…:Does the policy cover all anabolic steroids?
Dr. Gary Wadler:No.
Rep. Henry Waxm…:Does the policy contain adequate penalties?
Dr. Gary Wadler:Categorically in my view not.
Rep. Henry Waxm…:And then let me ask you this. Will this new policy remove the cloud that has been hanging over baseball?
Dr. Gary Wadler:Unfortunately, I think it increased the cloud.
Joan Niesen:MLB’s policy was a disaster. It didn’t test for human growth hormone and players could test positive five times before they were banned for life. They were also allowed to leave the room in the middle of their tests. It’s as if the league was inviting them to cheat, and here’s the most ridiculous detail of all. First-time offenders had a choice. They could either be suspended and their steroid use would be made public or they could quietly pay a $10,000 fine and move on without anyone knowing the difference. Baseball said the policy it sent over was just a draft, revising the one it used the previous year in the first season of testing. Here’s Selig being questioned by congressmen, one after the next.
Speaker 37:You say nobody came to you and yet there were articles in the newspaper. Were people turning their backs?
Bud Selig:I don’t believe people were turning their backs. No, I certainly do not believe that. There were very few articles.
Speaker 39:Selig, how many people have you suspended?
Bud Selig:Well this policy is just kicked in.
Speaker 39:Yeah, that’s what I thought.
Bud Selig:I wish I knew in 1995, ’96, ’97, and ’98 what I know today. I’ll acknowledge that.
Speaker 40:I understand and I’ll just tell you. This document, for you to send this to us and expect us to use this during this hearing is an embarrassment to me and I would hope it would be an embarrassment to Major League Baseball.
Joan Niesen:Selig was the only one in the room who might have come off worse than McGwire did, and Major League Baseball needed to do something to look like it was in control of the situation. So Selig hired former Senator George Mitchell to dig into his league’s secrets to try to draw some conclusion about what had happened and how to move forward. The investigation would eventually yield the Mitchell Report.
George Mitchell:For more than a decade, there has been widespread illegal use of anabolic steroids and other performance-enhancing substances by players in Major League Baseball. The evidence-
Joan Niesen:That’s George Mitchell speaking at a press conference after the Mitchell Report was released. The information he shared was damning and the report called the steroid era a collective failure.
George Mitchell:Many players were involved.
Joan Niesen:Everybody was in the wrong and that’s about all the report got right. It was supposed to put MLB under a microscope, help the league turn a corner, and it did document institutional failures and make several recommendations about drug policies and cooperating with law enforcement, but the report only skimmed the surface of the problem. It didn’t hold anyone in power accountable, didn’t point out all the ways managers, front offices, and owners were so distracted by dollar signs that they intentionally looked the other way.
Dave Zirin:There’s not proof of them actually handing them out in clubhouses.
Joan Niesen:That’s Dave Zirin, the sports editor at The Nation. He wrote frequently about baseball in the aftermath of the steroid era.
Dave Zirin:This idea of benign neglect of looking the other way, I mean anyone who’s been in a clubhouse would know that the facilitation of drugs without people in management knowing is kind of ludicrous.
Joan Niesen:Zirin thought the Mitchell Report was more about PR than change, about shifting blame away from the league and toward players, everyone from Bonds and McGwire to guys most of us have never heard of. In fact, it focused most of its resources on cobbling together a list of 89 players who’d allegedly used anabolic steroids. That list, that’s what people remember.
Speaker 43:Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Miguel Tejada, those are just some of the big names revealed in a 20-month investigation into performance-enhancing drug use in baseball.
Joan Niesen:It was safer to blame a few guys who could be hastily scrubbed from the league’s history than to look inward at a beloved American institution.
Dave Zirin:Baseball was trying to cover its own tracks, protect ownership, protect general managers, protect the pipeline, and throw a couple of players under the bus. That’s exactly what the Mitchell Report delivered. I mean the idea is you project the message that we aren’t run by cheaters, we’re on the up and up, and then people go back to parks.
Joan Niesen:Same as it is, same as it ever was. MLB wanted butts in seats. After all, attendance had surged over the course of the steroid era after bottoming out in the seasons after the strike. So the home run race brought fans back, but it never would have happened without steroids. But now, the steroid scandal could end up chasing those same fans away. Here’s sports writer Howard Bryant again.
Howard Bryant:Can you have a financial renaissance and a moral decline simultaneously? The answer is yes. They literally felt like they were fighting for the survival of their industry, and that’s why there was no appetite to really look at what was taking place.
Joan Niesen:Two years after the Mitchell Report was released and five years after the congressional hearings, Mark McGwire was finally ready to talk about the past. He released a statement to the Associated Press admitting that he’d used anabolic steroids during his career. Then he sat for an interview with Bob Costas on MLB Network.
Bob Costas:You used them first what season?
Mark McGwire:Well what season? During the season would I started using it in ’93, the winter of ’93, ’94 going into that season.
Joan Niesen:McGwire said he’d been so beaten down by injuries in the early ’90s that he’d considered retiring until steroids helped him get healthy again, but that’s about all the credit he gave the drugs which he kept on taking for years.
Mark McGwire:Man, I knew I was talented. I knew the man upstairs gave me the ability to hit this baseball, gave me the hand-eye coordination. My parents gave me the great genetics, but I was running into these roadblocks.
Bob Costas:Could you have hit 70 home runs? Could you have had a home run ratio greater than anything Babe Ruth did in his time without using steroids?
Mark McGwire:Absolutely. I was given this gift by the man upstairs.
Bob Costas:I was surprised when he repeatedly claimed that all he needed it for was to get back on the field and that he would have otherwise done exactly what he did without PEDs.
Joan Niesen:That’s Costas telling me about the confession a decade later.
Bob Costas:I’m not sure he’s lying. Maybe he really believes it. Maybe he’s convinced himself that he didn’t need PEDs to put up the numbers he put up.
Mark McGwire:There’s not a pill or an injection that is going to give me the hand-eye or give any athlete the hand-eye coordination to hit a baseball.
Bob Costas:Well if that’s the case, then you must genuinely regret … You could have done essentially what you did without ever touching performance-enhancing drugs.
Mark McGwire:It’s the most regrettable thing I’ve ever done in my life.
Bob Costas:Yeah, he wouldn’t come off of it, Joan, and I had some second thoughts the next day. Should I have gone full prosecutorial on him? But as it was unfolding, I knew that he was on the road. Did I have to really deliver the knockout blow? I felt bad for him.
Joan Niesen:As far as confessions go, this was bad. For years, McGwire and other superstar steroid users had wanted everyone to ignore what they saw with their own two eyes and believe the unbelievable and here he was appealing to America to keep on fooling itself. It didn’t land.
Speaker 45:This should have been a great day for McGwire, the first day of the rest of his baseball life, and he blew it.
Speaker 46:I’m sorry. In 2010, I think you’d be naïve to believe that there’s no connection between steroids and performance.
Speaker 47:One of his things was in his tearful apology, “I want to apologize to all the players.” Hey, Mark. How about apologizing to all the fans?
Joan Niesen:So yes, McGwire was let back in. He became a hitting coach, but that didn’t change the fact that many people on the outside saw him and still see him as the face of the steroid era. He is blamed for poisoning a game we hold dear even though MLB didn’t have an explicit rule banning steroids while he played. In fact, McGwire never failed an MLB steroid test. He was never even made to take one. And what about the men who had all the power to put an end to the steroid era back then and didn’t, Commissioner Bud Selig, Players Union Executive Director Donald Fehr? I reached out to both of them for this project and neither would talk. That silence extends to most players too.

I contacted more than 70 of them, guys who played at the height of the steroid era, and only five agreed to an interview. You can hear from them in the rest of our podcast series. Unfortunately, McGwire didn’t respond to multiple interview requests, and in a way, I understand why he and so many others would want to stay quiet. Players shoulder the blame for this because it’s easy to picture a face, a once treasured baseball card, and channel anger there in a straight and uncomplicated line to the men who were once our heroes, but that ignores a massive part of the steroid story because really it’s a story of systemic failure, one where baseball leaders were just as complicit as the men in uniforms.
Al Letson:That was Joan Niesen from Crushed. Today, Major League Baseball has one of the most effective steroid-testing programs in sports. It covers a wide spectrum of performance-enhancing drugs. It can trace down to nanogram amounts. Now, it takes three positive tests for a player to be banned for life, which is a pretty good incentive to stay clean. So yes, baseball steroid era is over, but the record book is tarnished and the scandal and all those years of silence from the league planted a seed of doubt and that doubt still festers. When you go to the ballpark this summer, you have to wonder, “Should I believe what I’m seeing?”

Thanks to the whole team at Religion of Sports for bringing us this week’s show. Their podcast looks at the legacy of baseball’s farthest-reaching scandal. Be sure to check it out. That’s Crushed from Religion of Sports, and while you’re at it, don’t forget to subscribe to Reveal on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Our lead producer for this week’s show was Jessica Pupovac of Religion of Sports. Katharine Mieszkowski from Reveal edited our show. Special thanks to Devon Manze, Michael Garofalo, and Meghan Coyle of Religion of Sports. Also to Jane [Ackerman] and composer Michael [Cramer]. Crushed executive producers Gotham Chopra, Ameeth Sankaran, and Adam Schlossman, and a shout out to former Reveal colleague Lance Williams who you heard earlier in this hour talking about BALCO.

Victoria Baranetsky’s our general counsel. Our production manager is Amy “The Great” Mostafa. Our sound design team is the dynamic duo, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando “My Man Yo” Arudda. Claire [inaudible] Mullin mixed the show for us this week. Our digital producer is Sarah Mirk. Our interim CEO is Annie Chabel. Sumi Aggarwal is our interim editor-in-chief and our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by [Comorado] Lightning. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the In As Much Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson and remember, there is always more to the story.
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Speaker 48:From PRX.

Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior reporter and producer for Reveal. She's also been a senior writer for Salon and Fast Company. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, Slate and on NPR's "All Things Considered."

Her coverage has won national awards, including the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award two years in a row, an Online News Association Award, a Webby Award and a Society of Environmental Journalists Award. Mieszkowski has a bachelor's degree from Yale University. She is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Fernando Arruda

Fernando Arruda is the sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. A composer and multi-instrumentalist, he contributes to the scoring, recording, editing and mixing of the weekly public radio show and podcast. Prior to joining Reveal, Arruda toured as an international DJ and taught music technology at Dubspot and ESRA International Film School. He co-founded a film scoring boutique called Manhattan Composers Collective and worked at Antfood, a creative audio studio geared toward media and ad spots. Arruda worked with clients such as Marvel and Samsung and ad agencies such as Framestore, Trollbäck + Company, Buck and Vice. Arruda releases experimental music under the alias FJAZZ and has performed with many jazz, classical and pop ensembles such as Krychek, Dark Inc., the New York Arabic Orchestra and Art&Sax. His credits in the podcast and radio world include NPR’s “51 percent,” WNYC’s “Bad Feminist Happy Hour” and its live broadcast of Orson Welles’ “The Hitchhiker.” Arruda has scored extensively for theatrical, orchestral and chamber music formats, some of which have premiered worldwide. He holds a master’s degree in film scoring and composition from NYU Steinhardt. Arruda is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Jim Briggs III is the senior sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. He supervises post-production and composes original music for the public radio show and podcast. He also leads Reveal's efforts in composition for data sonification and live performances.

Prior to joining Reveal in 2014, Briggs mixed and recorded for clients such as WNYC Studios, NPR, the CBC and American Public Media. Credits include “Marketplace,” “Selected Shorts,” “Death, Sex & Money,” “The Longest Shortest Time,” NPR’s “Ask Me Another,” “Radiolab,” “Freakonomics Radio” and “Soundcheck.” He also was the sound re-recording mixer and sound editor for several PBS television documentaries, including “American Experience: Walt Whitman,” the 2012 Tea Party documentary "Town Hall" and “The Supreme Court” miniseries. His music credits include albums by R.E.M., Paul Simon and Kelly Clarkson.

Briggs' work with Reveal has been recognized with an Emmy Award (2016) and two Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards (2018, 2019). Previously, he was part of the team that won the Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma for its work on WNYC’s hourlong documentary special “Living 9/11.” He has taught sound, radio and music production at The New School and Eugene Lang College and has a master's degree in media studies from The New School. Briggs is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Sarah Mirk (she/her) is a digital engagement producer for Reveal. Since 2017, she has worked as an editor at The Nib, an online daily comics publication focused on political cartoons, graphic journalism, essays and memoirs about current affairs. She works with artists to create nonfiction comics on a variety of complex topics, from personal narratives about queer identities to examinations of overlooked history. Before that, Mirk was the online editor of national feminist media outlet Bitch, a podcast host and a local news reporter. She is also the author of several books, including “Year of Zines,” a collection of 100 handmade zines, and “Guantanamo Voices,” a collection of illustrated oral histories of the world’s most infamous prison. Mirk is based in Portland, Oregon.

Amy Mostafa (she/they) is the production manager for Reveal. She is a UC Berkeley School of Journalism alum, where she focused on audio and data journalism as a Dean's Merit Fellow and an ISF Scholar. She has reported on science, health and the environment in Anchorage for Alaska Public Media and on city government in Berkeley and San Francisco for KQED. Her work also has appeared on NPR, KALW and KALX. Mostafa holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and public policy. She has most recently reported on housing and aging in the Bay Area. She is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Claire Mullen worked at The Center for Investigative Reporting until September 2017. is an associate sound designer and audio engineer for Reveal. Before joining Reveal, she was an assistant producer at Radio Ambulante and worked with KALW, KQED, the Association of Independents in Radio and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. She studied humanities and media studies at Scripps College.

Kevin Sullivan is the executive producer of Reveal’s public radio show and podcast. He joined Reveal from the daily news magazine show “Here & Now,” where he was senior managing editor. There, he helped lead the expansion of the show as part of a unique partnership between NPR and WBUR. Prior to radio, Sullivan worked as a documentary film producer. That work took him around the world, with stories ranging from reconciliation in Northern Ireland to the refugee crisis during the war in Kosovo.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Sullivan launched an investigative unit for CBS in Baltimore, where he spearheaded investigations on bioterrorism and the U.S. government’s ability to respond to future threats. He also dug into local issues. His exposé of local judges found widespread lax sentencing of repeat-offender drunken drivers. Other investigations included sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests, and doctors who sold OxyContin for cash. Sullivan has won multiple journalism awards, including several Edward R. Murrow awards, a Third Coast / Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Competition award and an Emmy. He has an MBA from Boston University.

Sullivan is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Al Letson is a playwright, performer, screenwriter, journalist, and the host of Reveal. Soul-stirring, interdisciplinary work has garnered Letson national recognition and devoted fans.