Book Review: Game Of Shadows And Love Me, Hate Me

Game Of Shadows
By Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams (Gotham Books, $26).

Love Me, Hate Me
By Jeff Pearlman (HarperCollins Publishers, $25.95).

Every year, baseball fans are treated to a number of quality books, sometimes almost too many to read them all. We’re spoiled. Ask a football fan how often he comes across a great new biography, or a chronicle of a season that’s more than a rehash of readily available information. When was the last great book about the NBA?

Most years, several books battle for the title of best new baseball book. This year, there are better reads to be found, but when it comes to the book that changed baseball, 2006 will be remembered for “Game Of Shadows”.

How many books have led baseball to start a commission to investigate potential scandal? As Barry Bonds tries to catch Babe Ruth, and eventually Hank Aaron in the career home run race, the public debate about Bonds “worthiness” to be compared to former greats will be shaped in large part by the book.

“Game Of Shadows” is the culmination of reporting by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, who are investigative reporters for the San Francisco Chronicle. They have been the Woodward and Bernstein of the steroid beat, tapping secret sources to publicize the twist and turns of the investigation into the BALCO laboratory, including the sealed grand jury testimony of Bond and other baseball players who used the BALCO lab.

In the book, they construct a damning case that Bonds knowingly used steroids, citing testimony by his ex-girlfriend, evidence collected by federal investigators, testimony by BALCO founder Victor Conte and a mountain of circumstantial evidence. Bonds isn’t the only one implicated, however; other baseball players, football players and track stars are also buried under the weight of incriminating evidence.

Contrast In Styles

What may be most shocking is how Conte could pick out seemingly any halfway talented track athlete, and turn him or her into a world record holder within a year or two thanks to his arsenal of performance enhancing drugs.

There’s not a lot of fluff to the book, and there’s little time spent crafting eloquent phrases either. This book is about the nuts and bolts of an amazing work of investigative reporting.

But while “Game Of Shadows” is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the steroid issue in baseball, and sports in general, don’t buy it expecting to understand more about what makes Barry Bonds tick.

That is the subject of “Love Me, Hate Me”, the Bonds biography that has the misfortune of following in the shadows of “Game Of Shadows”.

It’s unfortunate in many ways, because “Love Me, Hate Me” is an entirely different kind of book, and in many ways, a more entertaining one.

Where “Game Of Shadows” is the story of the BALCO steroid scandal, “Love Me, Hate Me” is an exhaustively researched biography on Bonds.

Portrait Of The Man

Pearlman, a former Sports Illustrated writer best known for his story on John Rocker, interviewed nearly 500 people to assemble the story of Bonds life. In this book, steroids are a part of the story (with extensive citations of Game Of Shadows in later chapters), but Pearlman is more interested in painting the picture of Barry Bonds–son, father, husband, baseball player, jerk.

Pearlman’s book is also an impressive piece of reporting. He gets former teammates and colleagues to explain Bonds’ foibles on the record. Arizona State teammates tell about trying to vote him off the team. Fellow Pirates talk about how they were amazed by his disregard for other people, and Giants players talk about a team with two sets of rules–one for Bonds and one for everyone else.

But “Love Me, Hate Me” isn’t a hatchet job. Pearlman doesn’t hide the good that Bonds has done, or how he seems to switch from good to bad at a moment’s notice. Pearlman constructs a nuanced picture of a complicated man. He may veer too much at times into trying to play pop psychologist with Bonds, especially when it comes to how his childhood has led to his inability to relate to people as an adult, but many of his theories seem plausible.