Marlon Byrd(notes) wouldn't be pulling down $3 million as a Major League baseball player without getting a second chance from an obscure community college after he nearly had a leg amputated more than a decade ago. So shrugging off Victor Conte's reputation as a notorious steroid pusher, he says, isn't difficult for him.
Conte has provided the Texas Rangers center fielder with a variety of pills and powders for 18 months. Not once has Byrd asked Conte whether any of it could trigger a positive drug test.
"I didn't need to," Byrd said. "From our conversations, there was no need to ask."
Byrd is aware that Conte provided illegal performance-enhancing substances to Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery, Bill Romanowski, Dwain Chambers, Kelli White and many other elite athletes. He knows that Jason Giambi(notes) and other baseball players acquired steroids through the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative that Conte founded and operated. He realizes Barry Bonds(notes) faces federal perjury charges for lying about BALCO drugs.
So Byrd, a burly eight-year veteran, knew what he was getting into when he sent Conte that first email in January 2008.
Some of Victor Conte's nutritional supplements used by Rangers outfielder Marlon Byrd.
BALCO doesn't exist anymore. Conte's San Carlos, Calif., business now goes by the acronym SNAC, standing for Scientific Nutrition for Advanced Conditioning. Byrd read about SNAC products on Conte's Web site, wanted some and reached out.
"I'd been doing the GNC-can search, putting this product with that, seeking and searching," Byrd said. "I tried everything over the counter. I needed an expert."
Soon tubs of "Proglycosyn: The Ultimate Post-Workout Recovery Formula," tubes of "Physiobalm: Muscle and Joint Rejuvenator," and bottles of "Aerobitine: The Ultimate Anti-Fatigue/Fat Loss Formula," "Vitalyze: The Mental and Physical Performance Enhancer" and "ZMA: Rapid Anabolic Sleep Enhancer" began arriving at Byrd's New Jersey home. Later he had the products sent to the Rangers' spring training site in Surprise, Ariz., and to the Rangers' clubhouse in Arlington, Texas.
"Marlon was working with a doctor, doing blood testing, a fairly sophisticated regimen," Conte said. "He faxed me the blood results and nutritional program. I told him, 'You are taking a bite of this and a bite of that. I'll teach you how to sit down and have a feast.' "
Byrd and Conte developed a long-distance relationship, chatting periodically via email and the telephone, and Conte devised a detailed daily regimen of supplements. Byrd was so pleased that he agreed to promote the products, to become a "SNAC athlete." Byrd sent Conte a photo of himself crushing a baseball and signed it: "To Victor. Thanks for the help. The man with the plan." Just last week Conte added the photo to an online gallery that includes obviously juiced body builders as well as Bonds, Jones, Romanowski and other pro athletes whose careers are forever linked to steroids.
"He wanted to join this family," Conte said. "It was something beyond the products. Marlon wanted to be part of history."
Even one as checkered as Conte's. Two years ago, the Rangers instructed pitcher Scott Feldman(notes) to dispose of Proglycosyn he'd obtained from SNAC after a reporter saw it in his locker. "Our doctors say there may not be anything wrong with [Conte's products], but there's no sense having yourself associated with the name at this point," general manager Jon Daniels said at the time.
Feldman quickly distanced himself from Conte, too, claiming he never used the product. However, SNAC sales receipts produced by Conte a few days ago indicate the pitcher purchased a total of 16 tubs of Proglycosyn in January, February and April of 2007, far more than one person could use.
The Rangers' revulsion of any connection to Conte was understandable then. His name – if not his merchandise – was tainted. Bonds was approaching Hank Aaron's home run record, and BALCO was synonymous with cheating. The federal investigation into Conte's operation was ongoing, culminating in the perjury charges against Bonds in November 2007.
The SNAC pre-competition packets are taken shortly before ballgames and purportedly help energy and focus.
Two years later, however, BALCO is barely relevant in debates over PEDs. Steroids accusations against top-echelon players Roger Clemens(notes), Alex Rodriguez(notes), Sammy Sosa(notes) and Manny Ramirez(notes) have nothing to do with Conte. Former Mets clubhouse attendant Kirk Radomski is the latest drug-dealing villain, with the tell-all book to prove it. The case against Bonds is on hold as prosecutors desperately try to assemble enough evidence to merit a trial.
So it stands to reason the Rangers aren't making it personal this time. Rather than address Conte or his products when asked about Byrd's supplement regimen, general manager Jon Daniels said in an email, "Our club only supplies and recommends NSF Sport certified products, and all other products are discouraged."
NSF is an international public health and safety company that has worked with MLB for several years to provide a list of dietary supplements that has gone through a rigorous certification program. Certification is expensive, however, and a company such as SNAC could spend upward of $100,000 to have all of its products placed on the approved list for MLB. Only 53 products by 15 companies are currently "Certified for Sport" by NSF, making them eligible for MLB teams to provide them in their training facilities. SNAC isn't on the list and Byrd said he has not asked MLB to approve the products he's taking.
"It's strictly marketing, and I don't believe the majority of players in baseball or football follow that list," Conte said. "Is it really providing the athletes with a complete list of effective products? I don't think so."
SNAC products, Conte said, are manufactured in facilities that have passed Good Manufacturing Practices audits. He said no athlete using a SNAC product has tested positive for a banned substance, and that he has to be especially vigilant because a positive test linked to one of his products could ruin him, given his background.
Conte felt mostly vindicated by the BALCO investigation, serving a paltry four months in federal prison in 2005 after 40 of 42 charges against him were dropped. He once reveled in the notoriety, then grew weary of it along with everyone else. Now he says he just wants to help athletes reach their potential through the use of legal supplements.
"Where I drew the parallel between my legal products and anabolic steroids is that both are really about recovery, accelerating healing and tissue repair," he said. "What these products do, similar to what steroids do, is enable an athlete to recover quicker to do a deeper training load.
"You're not going to get the type of benefit you would from anabolic steroids from any over-the-counter supplement. But can you get 25 percent of that effect with sophisticated nutritional support programs? Yes, you can."
Conte expresses regret at going down "the slippery slope" of selling illegal drugs. He continues to work with athletes, the world-class sprinter Chambers perhaps being the most prominent. Conte acknowledges that Byrd is the only baseball player purchasing his products.
"I don't know if people are blackballing him," Byrd said. "I don't know how they will look at me. I'm not worried about it. I don't care. Everybody who ever tested positive can get a second chance but he can't? That doesn't make sense to me."
Byrd remembers rising from unimaginable depths himself. He lost his scholarship to Georgia Tech in 1996 after suffering an infection of the tibialis anterior muscle so severe doctors nearly amputated his right leg and told him he'd never play baseball again. His weight ballooned to 315 pounds during his two-year rehabilitation, but eventually he enrolled at Georgia Perimeter Junior College and regained his swing and his speed. The Philadelphia Phillies picked him in the 10th round of the 1999 draft.
"I went through a point in my life where I got a second chance," he said. "Why not Victor Conte?"
Conte is delighted by Byrd's support. The two men met in person for the first time last Saturday when the Rangers were in San Francisco for an interleague series against the Giants. They grabbed a table in a hotel coffee shop and chatted for more than an hour.
Byrd had recently run out of Vitalize. Conte brought him some.
"It's crazy," Byrd said. "Without it, I was dragging a little more than usual."
Byrd's daily regimen normally doesn't waver. He takes Aerobitine before batting practice, then again shortly before the game along with two or three Vitalize pills. He takes ZMA when he returns to his hotel room for the night.
An hour before games, Byrd also takes a special formula Conte calls a pre-competition packet that includes six capsules, two powders and a sublingual dosage of the cell fuel adenosine triphosphate (ATP) obtained from a lab in the Ukraine.
"Sticking with the plan takes a conscious effort," Byrd said. "That's why a lot of guys don't want to do it. They'd rather just eat a protein bar. When I do everything right, take everything at the exact times I'm supposed to, I have more energy and focus. It's there."
Byrd insists that's all he's seeking – a subtle bounce in his step and increased concentration. Despite his stocky 6-foot, 245-pound frame, he's hit only 44 home runs in his career. He had 10 each of the last two seasons – his best in the majors – and has four this year while playing nearly every day because Josh Hamilton(notes) is out with an injury. Byrd, who batted over .300 in 2003 and 2007, is hitting .283.
"I know what I am, and I'm not a home-run hitter," he said. "This isn't about bulking up and hitting bombs."
Not so long ago, Conte's products were aimed at enabling a player to do precisely that. He created The Cream and The Clear, previously undetectable steroids that Bonds and others purportedly took. But nothing in the current SNAC catalogue will turn a slap hitter into a slugger.
"In 2002 when I came up to the big leagues, every guy coming out of the bullpen was throwing 96 mph," Byrd said. "I had to completely change my game. I was overmatched.
"But the next year was the first year of testing and everybody's skill level came back to mine. I feel like the game has come back down a level."
Byrd now feels like he's the one with the edge, courtesy of Conte.
"It's nice to have a plan," Byrd said. "I don't have to search anymore. No more trial and error. I wanted to walk down the right path."
Who would have imagined that for a ballplayer in 2009, the path led to Victor Conte?