By: Joe Strupp
Steve Fainaru had been in Iraq only a short time when he had his first near-death scare. It was Sept. 27, 2004, and The Washington Post reporter was embedded with the First Cavalry Division in Baghdad. Fainaru found himself inside an armored Humvee among seven military vehicles idling in one of the area’s most dangerous insurgent hotbeds — the slum known as Sadr City. Suddenly, a roadside bomb exploded, killing four Iraqi National Guardsmen in a pickup just in front of Fainaru’s vehicle and wounding three Americans.
After the caravan returned to base, a still-shaken Fainaru quickly got on the phone to his brother, Mark, in California. “The aftermath was a blur,” Fainaru, 44, says today, recalling the event that still gives him chills. “I told him what happened. When it came to Iraq, he would always get very quiet and listen.”
Many other U.S. reporters in Iraq no doubt call siblings back home for consolation and support. But this case was a bit different, because the sibling on the other end was a reporter himself.
When Steve’s call came in, Mark Fainaru-Wada, 41, was in the middle of a different battle. With San Francisco Chronicle colleague Lance Williams, he had already produced several stories revealing that a number of track and field stars had been taking banned supplements through the local Bay Area Laboratories Cooperative (BALCO). Fainaru-Wada and Williams also had received their first letters from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, requesting their sources on the stories and threatening legal action. Eventually, those requests progressed to subpoenas and threats of jail once the pair revealed, using classified grand jury testimony, that superstar Barry Bonds and other baseball stars had taken performance-enhancing drugs.
“He had left a vague and clearly serious message,” Fainaru-Wada recalls about his brother’s phone call from Iraq that day. “I was envisioning the worst, that he is in the hospital and losing a limb. He’s usually never shook up.”
But for those who know the Fainarus, shared concern and support is nothing new. From childhood, the brothers have not only followed similar paths into newspapering — at one point they covered the same Major League Baseball playoff series for different papers — but also helped each other endure events as varied as parental divorce and ever-changing career paths.
“I worried a lot when Steve was in Iraq, and prayed a lot,” says the pair’s mother, Ellen Gilbert, who still lives in the Bay Area. She adds that the possibility of Mark going to jail creates new concerns: “I try to take things one day at a time.”
Along with the dangers and stress, the Fainarus have gotten their share of accolades. Last year, the Chronicle’s Fainaru-Wada and Williams took home the George K. Polk Award for their BALCO reporting, and received similar honors from the White House Correspondents Association and Associated Press Sports Editors. Their reporting on the steroids controversy led to the best-selling book “Game of Shadows.”
Steve Fainaru, meanwhile, received a Pulitzer Prize-finalist nod in April for his Iraq coverage, which the judges described as “powerful accounts of the deadly violence faced by ordinary American soldiers in Iraq as an insurgency intensified.”
“I think our relationship has helped us get through both of these stories,” Steve Fainaru says from his home in Berkeley, Calif., where he still works an international beat for the Post. “Both of these stories are the two biggest things that have helped us professionally — unique challenges. Mark helped me get through Iraq so much.”
Fainaru-Wada agrees, echoing his brother’s praise. “He did remarkable work under completely trying circumstances,” he says of his older brother. “BALCO is nothing compared to what all of these reporters in Iraq are doing.”
But BALCO remains the primary focus for Mark, who with Williams continues to fight federal subpoenas seeking the reporters’ sources. The sportswriters also face local fan backlash by Bonds supporters who contend their work has tainted his recent passing of Babe Ruth on the all-time home run list. Living north of San Francisco, Mark says having his brother in the East Bay has made the demands and legal threats easier to handle. At one point in 2004, Mark took his wife and children to Disneyland for several days to escape the fallout and potential threats of angry readers, as well as early concerns about a federal subpoena. “He was real worried about it,” Steve said of Mark, who is so protective of his children that he declines to reveal their names to E&P. “He worries a lot.”
Mark contends that the reality of possible jail time did not hit until last year when the string of source-related subpoenas were issued to Judith Miller and Matt Cooper, among others. “It became more of a real issue then,” he recalls. “I hadn’t really spent a lot of time thinking about it in a serious way. The reporting has been so consuming, we focused on that.”
But there has also been some brotherly competition since Steve relocated to the Bay Area in 2002 (with time out for his sojourn in Iraq).
Ironically, it was Steve Fainaru, and not Mark, who was working at AT&T Park in San Francisco on May 28 when Bonds hit that historic 715th home run to pass Ruth (the Post had assigned him to cover the story). And before he went to Iraq in late 2004, Steve Fainaru was working the BALCO story for the Post at the same time as his brother.
“It sucked,” Fainaru-Wada admits about battling Steve on the story. “I was panicked every day that we were going to get the crap kicked out of us by my brother.” Steve Fainaru agrees, but says that Mark — who had been on the story for months before he jumped on it — was well ahead of him: “I was basically chasing my brother’s story. That was bizarre.” The brothers, who say they talk daily, had to be more careful in their conversations for awhile, out of fear of revealing any competitive information.
At one point in 2004, Steve went to interview a doctor who had been involved in the steroids scandal. “I got to his office and I thought I would have this guy totally alone,” Steve remembers. “He came out and said, ‘I was just on the phone with your brother.’ I thought it was ridiculous.” Eventually, when he stopped reporting on the ongoing Bonds story, Steve offered edits and comments from Iraq on the first draft of the book proposal that eventually led to Game of Shadows.
Three years after older brother Steve was born in Mountain View, Calif., just south of San Francisco, Mark came into the world after the family moved to Los Angeles. When their parents, Ellen and Bob, divorced several years later, the boys returned to the Bay Area and grew up in Marin County. “We’ve always been a family that is really interested in news,” says Ellen Gilbert. Musing on the impetus of their future careers, she adds, “Both of them were very involved in world events, and played a lot of sports.”
Mom recalls Steve Fainaru, circa fourth grade, leading an elementary school debate on the Vietnam War more than 30 years before he set out for Iraq. “He was always interested in what was going on in the world, a lot of debate,” she recalls. “We lived in a household in which asking questions is what you did.” Bob Fainaru remembers Mark as a youngster who was very resilient, a trait he believes has helped him in the often tricky world of anonymous sourcing.
While their mother, a speech pathologist, and their father, then a business manager, held little journalistic influence over them as youngsters, the boys’ grandfathers had intriguing writing careers. On their mother’s side was L. Wolf Gilbert, a former entertainment critic for the defunct New York Clipper and songwriter whose credits included the tune “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee.” Their paternal grandfather, Harry Fainaru, was a devout communist who wrote for a Romanian newspaper in Detroit. “I was really little, but I would hear about them,” Mark says of his grandfathers.
The brothers attended Redwood High School in Larkspur, Calif., a San Francisco suburb where they wrote for the school paper, The Redwood Bark. Covering sports was the key connection. Steve recalls, “He was a freshman when I was a senior. It seemed like we were different generations there, but we were into the same things.” They later attended two of the nation’s most prestigious journalism schools: Steve at the University of Missouri, and Mark at Northwestern University.
“I was always fascinated with news and newspapers were always around us,” Steve remembers, recalling the Los Angeles Times as a breakfast-table staple in his younger days. “As long as I can remember, I was into it.” Mark credits his brother with sparking his initial interest in news and sportswriting, adding, “I was the baby brother who followed in big brother’s footsteps.”
Of baseball and Baghdad
While they never worked at the same paper together, the Fainarus both began in sportswriting and quickly ascended to some top beats.
After graduating from college in 1984, Steve took an internship with the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News the following summer, which included some coverage of the San Francisco Giants and Oakland A’s. After a few months, he was hired full time. He moved on to The Hartford (Conn.) Courant in 1986 to cover the Boston Red Sox, a job that led him to the World Series that fall. “I was out of my league,” Steve recalls. “I was covering the Red Sox, and I was 24.” Steve also was a witness to one of the most memorable games ever when the New York Mets staged an extra-inning comeback in Game 6 that year that helped snatch the World Championship from the Sox. “I had already written my story that the Red Sox had won their first World Series since 1918, and then that play occurred,” he says about the legendary error by the Sox’s Bill Buckner.
After three years at the Courant, Steve jumped to The Boston Globe for more Red Sox beat reporting, with some time off in 1992 to pursue a master’s degree in international affairs at Columbia University. In 1993, he was named the Globe’s New York bureau chief, and two years later became their man in Mexico City, where he also covered Cuba and Haiti. A month-long trip that included several weeks in Rwanda and a week in Somalia forever altered his view of international coverage. “It was so challenging and intense, it really convinced me about the foreign experience,” Steve remembers. “It convinced me that this was something I could do, I had a passion for it that I never had covering the Red Sox.”
After marrying in 1997, Steve returned to New York, while also taking time to write a book about Cuban-born pitcher Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, then with the Yankees. “I think ‘Game of Shadows’ sold more in a day than my book did in total,” Steve laughs.
In 1999, he joined the Washington Post as a sports investigative reporter and wrote stories on such topics as baseball labor practices in Latin America and the life of scouts and agents. “He has the combination of being really tough and really open about what is going on,” says Post Managing Editor Phil Bennett, who previously edited Steve at the Globe. “There is a real tough, sympathetic eye that he applies to all of his time in Iraq.”
After 9/11, Steve’s focus shifted to the news side, first in New York, and then in California when he moved to the Bay Area in 2002. His Iraq adventure began in 2004. “There were a lot of different reasons that I wanted to do it,” he says of his choice to be embedded. “It is such an enormous story. I wanted to be part of it.” Still, when the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004, the first in 86 years, Steve Fainaru found himself in front of a television set in one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces — converted to a U.S. Military Central Command site — at 4 a.m. to watch the game. “I was all alone in this one room, people were oblivious to it,” he says. “It was like watching a game on Mars.
“I walked outside when it was over and it was daylight; I half expected people to be high-fiving and cheering, but it was just another day. I just felt disconnected.”
Building their reputations
Brother Mark, who graduated from Northwestern in 1989, also had a quick rise up the sports ladder.
After beginning his career covering University of Tennessee women’s basketball for the Knoxville News-Sentinel, he went to the Los Angeles Daily News as the Angels beat writer in 1990. Soon, Mark moved back to the Bay Area as a regional reporter for The National, a short-lived, high-profile sports daily. When the Oakland A’s played in the World Series that year, Mark was in the press box covering it. “It was amazing, I was covering the World Series three years out of college,” he said, noting the age similarity to his brother’s first such adventure. Steve and Mark found themselves side by side in the press box that year at the A’s/Red Sox American League Championship Series. “I remember it was the ultimate, covering a story together,” Mark says.
When the National folded in 1991, Mark sought a career change, returning briefly to his old high school to teach English. But the shift didn’t last long, as Mark missed writing. After a sportswriting stint at the Santa Rosa (Calif.) Press-Democrat and some freelancing, he relocated to Washington, D.C., for Scripps-Howard News Service. After marrying his wife, Nicole, in 1996 — and joining her last name, Wada, to his — Mark returned to the Bay Area and became a sportswriter for SFGate.com. That led to a job with the San Francisco Examiner in 1997. He also did some off-season sports investigative projects, such as one on college sports gambling. “That exposed me a lot to documents and it was clear that was what I wanted to do,” Mark recalls about the investigative realm. “There was so much room in sports to do that, and it was not being done.”
When the San Francisco papers’ staffs merged in 2000, Mark became a Chronicle sports-project reporter. “I am always impressed at how seriously he takes things and applies professional skills to them,” says Chronicle Editor Phil Bronstein. “But there are also moments of great levity.”
Bronstein declined to elaborate, but said during some moments of tedious discussions with attorneys about the BALCO stories, Mark has been known to break the tension. “His humor is very wry, and it often comes in the middle of serious conversations,” the editor says. “It helps to have that.”
In the fall of 2003, after the first BALCO raid, Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams teamed up on the steroid story that has dominated their lives ever since. They actually were beaten on the story of the first BALCO raid, which was conducted by the IRS, Mark remembers, but then “within a couple of weeks, we got an e-mail tip that it involved steroids.”
As the story unfolded and more legal pressure mounted over sourcing demands in those early BALCO days, Bronstein recalls Mark took such threats seriously, but never considered holding back on the story. “We talked about the grand jury testimony and what the consequences might be,” Bronstein says. “There was never a moment of hesitation.”
Blood on blood
Those friendly with both brothers say their reaching out to each other in times of need, be it career counseling for Mark or post-combat support for Steve, is nothing new. “They are as much friends as they are brothers,” says Kevin Huhn, deputy sports editor at The Rocky Mountain News in Denver, who has known them for a long time. “There is a sibling rivalry, but a healthy rivalry.”
Huhn shared a house with Steve Fainaru for several years when the two worked at the Mercury News, and later worked with Mark in Knoxville when he became sports editor there. He recalled an incident in 1988 when Steve came to Knoxville to visit and the three were at Huhn’s house. “Steve got a call that the Red Sox had fired their manager, John McNamara,” Huhn recalls. Steve consulted with Mark about how to cover the story from Knoxville, and “He worked on it from my house after they had some conversation.”
The brothers admit much of their closeness also comes from enduring their parents’ divorce at a young age. “I don’t see how it couldn’t,” says Steve, who is going through his own separation. Mark agrees. “He probably felt like he needed to be a bigger brother in a bigger way,” Mark says. “I think he felt like he had to take care of me, and he still does.”
But their brotherhood extends to regular activities as well, from skiing to athletics. Chronicle sportswriter Bruce Jenkins recalls them playing together on a Chronicle baseball team that regularly challenged the Giants’ front office staff. “At one point, I had Steve in left field and Mark in center,” Jenkins says. “But I think that one reason we haven’t been asked back is that Mark became this great figure that brought [the Giants] down” in the Bonds steroid case.
He also recalls Mark’s wedding years ago and Steve’s toast that teased the couple on their new hyphenated name. “He got up and said, it could have been worse,” Jenkins recalls. “He could have been named ‘Whatta-Fainaru.'”
Jenkins credits both Steve and Mark with taking on their latest challenges with the proper approaches: professionalism, patience, and a lack of ego. “You wouldn’t know which one of them had been to Iraq and which one changed the face of sports,” he says, noting a decided lack of fierce competition that might spark one to beat the other bloody on rival stories.
Price of the truth
The high point of the year for Ellen Gilbert might have been the week in March when both Mark and Steve saw true validation for their work. In a span of a few days, she says, the Sports Illustrated excerpts of “Game of Shadows” came out and Steve was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. That prompted her to treat her two sons and their families to dinner at a Sausalito seafood house to celebrate.
Their father, Bob, says he wants to see Mark’s legal battle go to the U.S. Supreme Court, and have his son come out on top. “It would be bigger than the book itself,” says the senior Fainaru.
For Steve and Mark, life goes on — sometimes hectic, sometimes routine. At the end of May, Chronicle lawyers filed a motion to quash the subpoenas served on Mark and Lance Williams, with supporting affidavits from the likes of former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent and Watergate legend Carl Bernstein. The threat of jail remains a real worry for Mark, but he says his brother “has been good about keeping me calm.” Steve has tried to keep his brother loose by joking that jail time would be good for sales of the book. While some of the initial negative feedback has died down, Mark says the e-mails “have been pretty damn nasty. We still get ones that say they hope we go to jail.”
Steve, meanwhile, has found new reactions to his last name, blaming it squarely on his brother’s local fame. “Mark’s career is completely transformed, he is kind of famous,” Steve says, noting that he gets recognized whenever he uses a credit card. “People ask me if I am related to him, it happens all the time.”
He has no plans yet to return to Iraq, but says it cannot be counted out sometime in the future. “I would go back, but I don’t think I would go back the same way I did before, it is exhausting,” he says. “But the work is so rewarding.”
Despite all the issues swirling about their work, the brothers say they can still enjoy normal family gatherings such as a recent Memorial Day barbecue with their children and father at Mark’s house — even if some reporting inevitably gets squeezed in between. “Steve dropped off his son, then had to work for a while,” says Mark, “but made it back for burgers and dogs.”
Their father notes that when they are all together, his sons still manage to end up in a private conversation somewhere, often about work or family, or both. “They usually go off by themselves and talk,” he says. “There is a lot of respect there.”
In recent weeks, Mark and Williams have been consumed by the subpoena fallout and meetings with lawyers. But he says the investigative duo is not stopping. “There is still plenty of stuff going on with BALCO,” Mark says, adding that the subpoena fight “is going to play out for a long time, it could take a year.”
“I don’t think our lives will be the same again,” says Steve. His brother will now be linked with larger-than-life Barry Bonds for years, and “Iraq completely changed me the way it changes anyone who goes there,” he adds. “You come back with a new appreciation for what is meaningful in your life — and you also feel like you can handle anything as a journalist.”