Tony Gwynn & Jeff Passan:
BURLINGAME, Calif. – Outside of the building at 1520 Gilbreth Road, the dandelions are dead. The windows need a wash. A bush grown too tall could use a trim. The wood seat of a bench is warped, the green metallic frame caked with rust.
Everything about the BALCO headquarters, the nerve center for the biggest doping scandal in American sports history, looks completely abandoned.
Except the light that leaks through the top of the blinds.
There's life inside, and three knocks reveal it: James Valente, the vice president for BALCO who's got another 2½ years of probation after pleading guilty to distributing steroids, opens the door. Behind him is a tall cardboard placard advertising ZMA, the legal supplement BALCO president Victor Conte peddled to the public.
"BALCO isn't here anymore," Valente says.
"It's a new company," he says. "SNAC."
With that, Valente closes the door and locks it.
In any other case, James Valente would be a forgotten perp, someone doing his time anonymously. Same goes for Conte, who spent four months in prison, and Bonds' trainer, Greg Anderson, who received a three-month jail sentence. But this involves Barry Bonds, and now this involves another grand jury, so BALCO, no matter how much the principals try to forget it or ignore it or separate themselves from it, keeps sprouting up like a weed, at the most inopportune time, in the most inopportune places.
Like on the Internet. Valente, obviously, wanted to return to the days when BALCO wasn't a famous acronym, when it was the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, in a strip mall, south of the million-dollar homes and the airport and the Giants' old stadium, in sleepy San Mateo County, where Bonds went to high school. So he adopted SNAC, which stands for Scientific Nutrition for Advanced Conditioning.
It uses the same office BALCO did, the one where authorities sprung a raid that exposed the company as a steroid-distribution warehouse and provided substantive evidence that Bonds used steroids. On its web site is a picture of Conte with his left hand on the shoulder of Anderson and his right hand on the shoulder of Bonds. Another link offers visitors a chance to "Ask Victor," who, it says, is the founder.
Maybe Valente thought SNAC sounded better than BALCO, Part Deux.
Actually, anything sounds better than BALCO. Bonds would rather room with Jeff Kent than talk about it.
"Is that a baseball question?" he's fond of asking.
The only reason BALCO persists, though, is because of Bonds' fame, which makes a potential perjury indictment appealing to the government. Valente, Anderson, Conte and Remi Korchemny, the track coach who is serving one year of probation, would all be home free if not for Bonds.
Yet Anderson and Valente have been subpoenaed to testify at the grand jury hearing for the perjury case, and Conte twice went public denying he gave Bonds steroids, first to the Associated Press and then in an article under his byline published by USA Today.
From the start, Conte was the loudest member of the BALCO enterprise. And not just in his product- and self-promotion.
"He only came over a couple times," says Linda Kahrs, the owner of Tout About Toys, BALCO/SNAC's next-door neighbor, "to yell for us to move our car out of his spot."
Kahrs was there Sept. 3, 2003, during the raid. To her, BALCO was just another unassuming company. She had seen Bill Romanowski and a few other athletes stop by – never Bonds, she says – and didn't think anything of it. BALCO invited her into the office once; she remembers it as "sterile."
Now, almost every morning, Valente's wife, Joyce – who cried as a court clerk announced the counts against her husband – goes into the office, Kahrs said. DMV records confirmed that the BMW 3 Series outside was registered to her. On this particular day, James Valente was around, too, working for the company Kahrs was told will sell "supposedly vitamins, nutritional supplements."
Eric Uldrick and Ali Pickering, two of Kahrs' employees, would rather talk about the Giants game Wednesday night than BALCO. They want tickets, just in case Bonds ties Babe Ruth for second all-time with 714 home runs.
"To see if he does it," Uldrick says.
"It's still the Giants," Pickering says. "It's still Barry."
And isn't that the moral of this story? It's still Barry. It's always going to be Barry. No matter how hard Valente or anyone else tries, BALCO won't die. Not with the company's logo stripped off the sign in front of the building. Not with a portion of BALCO's building open, with a visible FOR LEASE sign hanging in a window.
Back in front, traffic hustles by on the highway a fly ball from the front door. Why not try to knock again? Once. Twice. Three times. No answer.
Valente, like everyone involved with BALCO, is trying to ignore the past. Only it won't ignore him.