At the beginning, they called it "Project Bingo." It became better known as the BALCO investigation.
Once again, the probe into athletes' steroid use is redefining
America's pastime along with a few other sports, causing some to
wonder if we can really believe what we see. Others simply yearn
for the day when this will all go away.
Barry Bonds. Roger Clemens. Marion Jones. And now, Alex
Rodriguez. Their reputations have been tainted forever, and none of
it would have been possible without an investigation that began
with a dig through a trash bin and a syringe that arrived
anonymously in the mail one day.
"I had a pretty strong inkling, but no idea of the depth and
magnitude and number of athletes," said Don Catlin, the scientist
who tested the contents of the syringe and became the first to
identify the designer steroid THG. "It wasn't so much the number
of athletes as much as their names."
The name Barry Bonds stood out among those that IRS special
agent Jeff Novitzky saw during his investigation, highlighted by
his digs through the trash in the back of the Bay Area Laboratory
Co-Operative starting in the spring of 2003.
Bonds stands charged with lying to a grand jury when he denied
knowingly using performance-enhancing drugs, and his trial is
scheduled to start March 2.
Whether he's convicted or not, his name and his achievements -
especially that hallowed home run record - have been sullied. A-Rod
is on pace to eventually overtake Bonds' record, but now all his
accomplishments come into question, too.
There are 103 names besides Rodriguez's on a list of baseball
players who tested positive in 2003 - names that wouldn't have been
on any list were it not for the BALCO investigation, which merged
with a similar probe being conducted by the U.S. Anti-Doping
Agency; that one was called "Project Bingo."
"It has continued to astound me," Catlin said. "It astounds
me in a sense that once you start working in this field, nothing
surprises you anymore."
Novitzky's digging led to indictments and convictions against
BALCO's founder, Victor Conte, and others.
Outrage over doping in baseball prompted Congress to grill its
executives about their policies and lack thereof. In an effort to
address the doping problem and put it in the past, baseball
commissioner Bud Selig ordered up the Mitchell Report, which is
where Clemens' name surfaced.
Now, a little more than a year later, it's A-Rod in the
But unlike Clemens, Rodriguez admitted he cheated.
Those positive test results from 2003 weren't subject to
discipline and were supposed to remain anonymous, but were seized
by the government in 2004. Federal agents had a search warrant for
the testing records of 10 players involved with BALCO. When they
saw the spreadsheet with the list of names, agents obtained
additional search warrants, copied the entire computer directory
and took the records of all the players.
Rodriguez's name leaked out, but the rest of the results remain
"I think one question that isn't being asked enough is, 'How
did A-Rod's name get out there?"' said Michael Josephson, of the
Josephson Institute for Ethics. "Did somebody have an agenda
there? That was supposed to be classified information, and though
you don't condone what A-Rod did, you kind of start saying, 'Is
there anybody out there I can trust?"'
Some, including pitcher Curt Schilling, want to see all the
names revealed, not just A-Rod's. Should that ever happen, there
will be another, spastic round of "gotcha," most of which will
confirm what we already know: Baseball was - and maybe still is - a
"I think what we're starting to learn is that the guy who's
been the most right about this whole thing is Jose Canseco," said
Rick Gentile, a former executive at CBS Sports who is now director
of the Seton Hall Sports Poll. "He was the crazy man who said 60
percent of players were using. He was the one who said A-Rod was a
Canseco wrote two books - "Juiced" and "Vindicated" - in
which he documented the rampant use of steroids in baseball, and
said Rodriguez was among the guilty.
This, along with the groundbreaking book "Game of Shadows,"
were among the most revealing parts of a narrative that is now
going on six years old (the drama in Watergate was over in about
three) and continues to cut into the legitimacy of much of what we
see on the diamond.
It also might be contributing into turning American sports fans
into cynics - or at least pushing them into denial.
A poll released by Gentile's group at Seton Hall found that 64
percent of people who called themselves sports fans in the survey
had "little or no interest" in the A-Rod story, which dominated
the news - and not just on sports sites - last week.
It's another sign, Gentile said, that news of
performance-enhancing drugs in sports has become background noise.
For proof, we can turn to baseball's attendance figures. The
sport set records for four straight years despite the BALCO
scandal, before finally experiencing a 1.1 percent drop in 2008.
"I think there are a lot of people who say, 'It's been fixed
already, for God's sake,"' Gentile said. "They're testing now,
it's not happening anymore, so let's move on. And they know what
was happening in the past. The A-Rod story was presented as a big
shocker, but it wasn't really a big shock."
Meanwhile, counting those who watched on the Internet,
viewership of the Beijing Olympics was at an all-time high despite
the problems that have tarnished what used to be its marquee sport,
track and field.
Darryl Seibel of the U.S. Olympic Committee said that as
compelling a show as the Olympics are, the sponsors, broadcasters
and viewers want to believe the games are played by the rules.
"The public has an expectation that you're taking it seriously
and doing something meaningful" about the drug issues, he said.
The history of steroid use in the Olympics dates back well
before BALCO. Still, Novitzky's search, along with the
groundbreaking teaming of his investigation with USADA's, called
into question seemingly every achievement in track and field dating
Jones was the biggest star to fall, losing her medals and
getting jail time for lying about her steroid use.
Track and field is still trying to recover from the stigma of
doping. A report recently released by a task force documented the
troubles in the U.S. track system and called performance-enhancing
drugs "the single most important issue in our sport."
Travis Tygart, the CEO of USADA, was the general counsel when
the BALCO investigation began. He remembers how his predecessor,
Terry Madden, "got a lot of criticism for calling it the largest
steroid scandal we have ever seen."
"But we knew," Tygart said. "We knew when you have athletes
at the highest level of sports coming to one source for a cocktail
of drugs, we knew this would change the game forever in the U.S.
and around the world."
Besides trying to level the playing field by ensuring clean
competition, the ultimate goal of agencies like USADA is to
discourage young athletes from giving in to the temptation to
A thoughtful commercial run by the USOC on the Super Bowl
pregame show followed a stud high school athlete over the course of
several days. What starts off looking like a stubborn pimple on his
forehead eventually blossoms into a gruesome asterisk.
The title of the campaign: "Don't Be An Asterisk."
Since BALCO, though, it seems like too many of our sports stars
are asterisks, or asterisks in waiting.
"It's bittersweet," Tygart said. "You have to expose it to
cure it. You have to pull out the cancer to move forward, and it's
really a decision that sports has to make."
Should sports be pure and authentic, or just entertaining and
Can they be all of the above?
Nearly six years after the first poke into BALCO's trash, nobody
has really answered those questions.