The blood test dated December 2002 made it clear Jason Giambi had a problem. And as Victor Conte stared at the report in his office in Burlingame, Calif., he knew he could deliver a solution.
Conte didn't know Giambi. Not personally. Their connection was through Greg Anderson, a squarely built personal trainer who was a member of Conte's inner circle, as well as a boyhood friend and confidant of Barry Bonds. A month earlier, Anderson had been tagging along with Bonds on a barnstorming tour of Japan when he met Giambi. During the weeklong trip, Anderson told the Yankees first baseman about BALCO, the small but influential nutrition company that produced a supplement that Bonds endorsed. The two agreed to meet in California when the tour was over.
Despite the autographed photo of Bonds on his wall, Conte wasn't much of a baseball fan. He was an ex-high school track star, and the Olympics were more his thing. But a Bay Area resident couldn't help but know about Giambi. The big man had played seven years across the bridge in Oakland, studying at the feet of McGwire and Canseco. After the A's barely lost to the Yankees in the 2001 ALDS, Giambi had taken George Steinbrenner's $120 million to wear the pinstripes of his dad's favorite team. The slugger almost gave The Boss his money's worth, hitting 41 homers and knocking in 122 runs as the Yanks won the AL East easily. But they were pushed aside by Anaheim in the ALDS. So in Bronx terms, the season was a failure.
Giambi knew that the next season would be different: baseball would be testing its players for steroids for the first time. And Conte knew, as he looked at the blood workup provided by Anderson from Giambi, that the Yankees slugger was loaded with Deca-Durabolin, a steroid that lingers in the blood for months. He'd be a sitting duck for the new testers.
Conte considered himself the MVP of the steroid underground. He gave Tim Montgomery a variety of performance enhancers and saw him become the world's fastest man in September 2002 -- and no one had caught on yet. Two of the drugs Montgomery used were still in Conte's storeroom: a liquid steroid called the clear and a testosterone-laced lotion called the cream. Anderson knew their powers well. Conte says he told him about them himself. (Anderson, and Giambi, through a spokesman, declined comment for this story.)
From Christmas to July 2003, Anderson called Conte roughly once a month to ask for doses from his exclusive stash. Conte asked no questions. He'd just drop a half-dozen 7-cc vials into a small cardboard box, cradle it in bubble wrap and leave it at BALCO's front desk for Anderson to pick up.
Giambi later described in grand jury testimony that was leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle that he arrived at spring training in 2003 with both substances coursing through him. He also was using human growth hormone (hGH) that he'd gotten from a supplier in Las Vegas, where he owned a house. Anderson told him he could supply more should Giambi run out and added that his new friend was very lucky to be in Conte's club.
As the 2003 season reached its dog days, business couldn't have been better for Conte. Bonds, his chief endorser, was making a case for a sixth MVP at Pac Bell Park, and BALCO's supplements were being sold by 70 companies worldwide. But while Conte counted his millions, federal agents were searching his trash and rifling through his mail. On Sept.3, they swooped down on his lab. Conte sat in his lobby for hours as agents seized his records.
Two days later, many of the same agents raided Anderson's nearby apartment. They found steroids, drug calendars, detailed invoices and $63,920 in cash stuffed in envelopes. Among the names on the calendars: Giambi and Bonds. (Bonds' lawyers later asserted the calendars tracked a legal supplement their client decided not to use.)
The raid hardly registered in the Bronx, where Giambi was putting the finishing touches on another strong season. But by mid-October, he looked like a different player. He would later testify that he'd stopped using steroids after the All-Star break when he injured his left knee, and the injury had only gotten worse since. When the Bombers met Boston in the ALCS, he had only three singles in the first five games before redeeming himself with three solo homers in the final two. His struggles continued against the Marlins in the Series, and he even asked out of Game 5. After the Yanks lost in six, a somber Giambi said: "We had an opportunity to win these games, no doubt about it. We just could never seem to get that big hit."
The big hit. That's what his life was about now. Like McGwire and Canseco before him, Giambi had become a prisoner of the big hit and all that went into launching one. Ironically, Giambi was about to take the biggest swing of his career -- off the field. And it would help to expose Conte's business and the wall of silence that sheathed it.
On Dec. 11, Giambi walked into a grand jury room in the San Francisco federal courthouse. Three weeks earlier, MLB had announced that more than 5% of its players had flunked their drug tests. Testing was here to stay. Now the 32-year-old star was going to tell all. Did Mr. Anderson provide you with injectable testosterone, federal prosecutor Jeffrey Nedrow asked. According to testimony, Giambi replied, "Yes."
He said he assumed Bonds used the same stuff, although he added that Anderson never actually told him so. He also said he'd taken steroids in his final season in Oakland. And he admitted to using hGH and several different colored pills supplied by Anderson, including one he thought was Clomid, a female fertility drug that boosts testosterone levels.
Conte watched news footage of Giambi leaving the courtroom. By then, he knew his own run was over. The clear and the cream had been uncovered and his supplier, whom the feds would later claim was the self-described father of andro, Patrick Arnold, was no longer sending him new samples. The BALCO raid had made him radioactive.
But, for the most part, baseball's wall of silence stood strong. When a noticeably leaner Giambi arrived at spring training in 2004, beat writers peppered him with questions about his grand jury appearance and rumored drug use. He denied ever taking steroids. So did teammate Gary Sheffield, who had testified in the case as well. Later that summer, as a mysterious parasite and benign pituitary tumor threatened Giambi's health and torpedoed his season, he never admitted to doing anything wrong.
Conte knew better.
And [Victor] Conte knew, as he looked at the blood workup provided by [Greg] Anderson from [Jason] Giambi, that the Yankees slugger was loaded with Deca-Durabolin, a steroid that lingers in the blood for months. He'd be a sitting duck for the new testers.