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Agent of Change
Mark Fainaru-Wada
June 19, 2006
League officials and politicians talk a good game, but an IRS investigator is doing the most to keep sports clean
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June 19, 2006

Agent Of Change

League officials and politicians talk a good game, but an IRS investigator is doing the most to keep sports clean

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On one jolting day last week, baseball went from hoping its steroid crisis was fading to confronting another season consumed by drug talk. This was after federal agents descended on the home of Diamondbacks pitcher Jason Grimsley, literally knocking down his door to begin what became a six-hour raid.

The shock of the raid was compounded by a court document made public that day: In a confession on April 19, Grimsley admitted to agents that he had used banned drugs throughout his career. He also said that after he tested dirty in baseball's first steroids program in 2003, he switched to human growth hormone. "Boatloads" of players use banned drugs, he said. He added that amphetamines were "like aspirin," saying he had seen clubhouses that dosed coffee with them and labeled the pot "leaded." The pitcher also named names, allegedly identifying at least half a dozen players as users of banned substances. ( Grimsley has since denied volunteering any player identities to agents; all names were redacted from the document.) He also named his drug dealer and a trainer who helped him make his connections.

So the era of performance-enhancing drugs wasn't over after all. When the news broke, Grimsley was released by Arizona and was more famous than he had ever been, and the baseball world was trying to figure out whom he had fingered. But the most intriguing player in the drama may be the IRS agent who led the raid, a 38-year-old former athlete and sports fan named Jeff Novitzky, who is living out so many people's fantasies by busting some of the biggest drug cheats in sports.

In the past four years Novitzky, a wiry, 6'7" Bay Area native with a shaved head, has cast a wide net. He led the September 2003 raids on BALCO and the home of Barry Bonds's trainer, Greg Anderson, and induced BALCO founder Victor Conte to confess to allegedly dealing steroids to Bonds and 26 other athletes. Conte denied making the statement, but the probe sparked the biggest doping scandal in U.S. history, ensnaring Bonds and Yankees star Jason Giambi, among many others.

In North Carolina, Novitzky reached former shot put champion C.J. Hunter, who told the agent about alleged drug use by his ex-wife, Olympic superstar Marion Jones, another BALCO client. ( Jones denied the charge.) The agent also tracked down Kimberly Bell, the former girlfriend to whom Bonds allegedly confided his use of steroids, and made her a federal witness.

In 2005 Novitzky served as a witness in two cases brought by the United States Anti-Doping Agency against track athletes caught up in the BALCO scandal. Last fall he led raids on the Champaign, Ill., laboratory and home of Patrick Arnold, the chemist who created BALCO's steroid known as "the clear" and later pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute steroids.

More recently Novitzky traveled to New York City to interview a woman thought to have insights into Bonds's alleged receipt of cash from memorabilia sales, according to a source familiar with the agent's activities. He also has been lining up witnesses for a grand jury probe aimed at determining if Bonds committed perjury when he testified in 2003 that he had never knowingly used banned drugs.

The IRS has been the lead agency in the probe because at its core, BALCO is a money laundering case. Novitzky can't discuss his work, but it's known that he shares fans' disgust with steroid users, and he is not afraid to get his hands dirty. Novitzky has trailed suspected drug dealers into the players' parking lot at the Giants' ballpark and gone through their garbage. As a result he is doing what baseball commissioner Bud Selig, the players' union and perhaps even quasi-independent investigator George Mitchell can't (or won't) do: He's forcing baseball to confront its Steroid Era.

Novitzky knows sports from the inside out. His father, Don, coached high school basketball for three decades. At Mills High in Millbrae, about two miles from where Conte would later do business, Novitzky starred in track and basketball: He cleared seven feet as a high jumper and made the All--Central Coast Section basketball team as a senior.

He earned a partial track scholarship to Arizona but returned to the Bay Area to play basketball, first at Skyline College, a J.C. with a strong program, and then at San Jose State. But because of knee problems, his career stats were unmemorable: two games, four points, two rebounds. His coach, Stan Morrison, recalls him as smart, clean-cut and driven, "a really mature guy [who] knew where he was going in life."

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