Since its earliest days, baseball has been a sport where the credo is “if you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’.” Now while this used to be a good-natured game of let’s see what I can get away with on the field, where pitchers tried to do whatever they could to the ball to make it dive away from a bat and hitters themselves had their own unique ploys for reaching base that may have escaped the watchful eye of the umpire, all of that changed with the steroid era. As pitchers and hitters alike tried to gain a competitive edge through the use of performance enhancing drugs, the record books were forever tainted by numbers that were not only ill-gotten, but downright impossible without the help of everything from anabolic steroids to human growth hormone to synthetic testosterone. Baseball has finally tried to clean up its act over the last few years, and some of its most prominent stars will forever be linked to the use of PEDs. This includes its all-time home run king, Barry Bonds, one of its greatest pitchers, Roger Clemens, and a host of other stars including Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Raphael Palmeiro, Manny Ramirez, and Alex Rodriguez, just to name a few.
With the findings of the Mitchell Report and baseball’s new steroid testing apparatus, the game has finally made an earnest, though not nearly earnest enough, attempt to track down PED abusers. Long suspensions await anyone who is caught using PEDs and random drug screenings have become a part of every player’s life, whether it is during the season or in their months each year away from the game. For me, baseball’s steroid era has been tough. That’s because it incriminated so many of the stars that I watched as a young man and because it means that no matter what, the guys that I grew up watching in amazement will never be given the same level of adulation and praise that players from the past receive. Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson et al. will always be lionized in ways that modern players will never see and it pains me that many of the players of what I consider my generation that actually were clean (Ken Griffey Jr. being the prime example) will always be lumped in with the guys who cheated. For every Junior Griffey, there are tens if not twenties if not hundreds of Jose Cansecoes, and because of that fact, I am unabashedly disappointed.
It is why I think that long suspensions and random testing are necessary for baseball’s future, and why no matter who they might catch in the act of cheating, the public must know about it, plain and simple. It is with this notion in mind that I have been poring over the details swirling around the positive drug test of reigning National League Most Valuable Player Ryan Braun. Braun is a lean, athletic slugger for the Milwaukee Brewers, who doesn’t seem to have the physique or the personality to be involved with performance enhancers. However, a few months back, after he narrowly beat out the Dodgers’ Matt Kemp for the MVP award, ESPN reported that Braun’s urine was found to contain absurdly high levels of synthetic testosterone after a sample was collected from him following a playoff game on October 1. Under baseball’s drug-testing policy, that means a 50-game suspension. When the results of Braun’s urine analysis were leaked to ESPN (see what I did there?), he had just been given his league’s MVP award and as a result gave the sport as a whole a black eye that it doesn’t need now or ever again. It’s the kind of revelation that makes me sick to my stomach, but it’s got nothing on what happened next...
Immediately after Braun tested positive and the suspension was levied, rumors started to swirl about what was really going on. There was talk that there was a logical, albeit embarrassing reason that Braun's urine contained such high levels of testosterone and he appealed the suspension with the help of baseball’s players’ association. For many fans, especially those that call Milwaukee home, Braun was given the benefit of the doubt. This is America after all, right? You’re innocent until proven guilty in the good ol’ U.S. of A, right?
Wrong. Braun wasn’t found guilty in a court of law, he was drug-tested by his employer and he failed that test. He was suspended from work under their drug policy and while he is allowed an appeal, for other fans, myself included, whether or not he won that appeal was not going to change a goddamn thing. No player in any major sport has ever won an appeal when it comes to a positive drug test and for me, even if Braun were able to somehow prove mitigating circumstances were behind it all, it wouldn’t matter. He tested positive, plain and simple. Any subsequent tests or the profession of his innocence or support from former or current players in any sport wasn’t going to change my mind. Braun is a PED user as far as I’m concerned. He’s on my list of cheaters, and there is no getting off of that list, no matter what some arbitration panel decides months after the fact.
Well as it turns out, Braun did win his appeal last week. Because the urine sample that he gave wasn’t shipped directly to the testing laboratory but instead sat in a collector’s home for two days, he was exonerated via arbitration by a 2-1 vote. His suspension was lifted, and he claimed that the truth won out. Well I ain’t buying it, not for one second. The lifting of his suspension was carried out due to a technicality that means nothing to me, and should have meant nothing to the panel that decided to uphold his appeal. Just because that little cup of urine sat in some guy’s house instead of a FedEx facility for two days doesn’t mean that the test wasn’t accurate, positive, and proved that Braun is a cheater. I’m not sure how exactly he thinks that he really won here, because I will never look at his ability on the field or his numbers the same way, and I know I’m not alone. Yeah, you get to play those 50 games that the league tried to take away from you Ryan, but you’ll play them and the rest of the games in your career under a cloud of suspicion and with a trepidation attached to your achievements that you will never, ever escape.
The craziest part of Braun’s reversal of fortune for me is that he never said that the test was inaccurate or tampered with. All he and his lawyers argued is that the collector who took his sample passed two FedEx facilities, both of which were closed for business on the Saturday night in question, and took Braun’s sample home with him. The only difference in outcome that occurred because Braun’s sample didn’t get dropped off at a FedEx office was that instead of sitting in a box on a loading dock until Monday morning, it sat in some guy’s basement. This did nothing concerning the sample’s viability and amounts to the sort of technicality that makes prosecuting attorneys toss and turn for months on end in criminal court. But again, this isn’t a court of law we’re talking about. We’re talking about a company’s drug-testing policy, and when it comes to that, the collector acted in accordance with the letter of the rules. So not only did the collector act properly and his actions have nothing to do with the high level of testosterone found in Braun’s urine, but Braun never questioned the validity of the test in the first place. He was granted his athletic freedom on a technicality that I’m still not convinced was valid, but it was a technicality nonetheless.
What that means for me, as I said before, is that Ryan Braun is a cheater. Not only that, but he is a cheater who gamed the system and will face no punishment after he obviously broke the rules and had something pumping through his veins other than tobacco juice and Wheaties when he put up the numbers that led the Brewers to a playoff birth and himself to an MVP award. There are players who have tested positive and admitted to their crimes, like Mark McGwire and Alex Rodriguez, those who are clearly guilty and maintain their innocence like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens (don’t get me started on the Rocket), and now a new category of cheaters like Ryan Braun, who are guilty but get off on a technicality that maintains their eligibility to play. In that three-tier cheaters’ gallery, I’m not sure who I like least. Clemens has been so adamant in his innocence in the face of guilt that he was called before a grand jury for lying to congress, but I might actually have to give his hard-headed and asinine insistence more respect than that of Braun, who basically said, “yep, I tested positive, but I’m going to play anyways.” The fact that he has the gall to say that the truth set him free is a whole ‘nother level of “you gotta be kidding me” and I am simply appalled that folks in the media and fellow athletes have stood by this guy considering the facts and innuendo that continue to slowly leak out of this story.
The Braun saga reached nauseating levels last Friday, when after his suspension was lifted, he held a press conference at the Brewers' spring training facility. Framed in sunlight and showing off his all-American good looks, Braun shakily started to explain himself at first, then with growing confidence, proceeded to blame others for his plight and maintain a blustery confidence in his innocence. I have had metaphorical and literal fingers wagged in my face (ahem, Raphael Palmeiro) as a television viewer by players in similar situations, who I not only didn’t believe, but were later found to be guilty of using PEDs. Braun levied attacks at the collector of his sample, Dino Lauenzi Jr., and said "I honestly don't know what happened to it [his sample] for that 44-hour period. There are a lot of different things that could have possibly happened. There are a lot of things that we heard about the collection process, the collector and some other people involved in the process that have been concerning to us. But as I've dealt with the situation, I know what it's like to be wrongly accused of something, so for me to wrongly accuse somebody wouldn't help."
Well how about you wrongly accusing the collector of mishandling your sample, and accusing Major League Baseball of not doing their due diligence during the process of its testing? Sounds to me like the pot is calling the kettle a dark, ebon shade of black here, but Mr. Braun was not finished. He continued, "This is my livelihood. This is my integrity. This is my character. This is everything I have ever worked for in my life being called into question. We need to make sure we get it right. If you're going to be in a position where you're 100 percent guilty until innocent, you can't mess up." Well guess what Ryan? The collector didn’t make you have three times the normal level of testosterone in your urine, and he certainly didn’t make it the synthetic variety. While Braun was well spoken and seemed to aver his innocence with aplomb, I don’t buy it for one second. As the Associated Press reported during the follow-up to Braun’s statements, Major League Baseball isn’t buying it either. MLB executive vice president Rob Manfred told the AP, "Our program is not 'fatally flawed’. Changes will be made promptly to clarify the instructions provided to collectors regarding when samples should be delivered to FedEx based on the arbitrator's decision. Neither Mr. Braun nor the MLBPA contended in the grievance that his sample had been tampered with or produced any evidence of tampering."
And that last sentence of Mr. Manfred’s quote is really what all of this is about at the end of the day. Braun is not contending that the sample was tampered with, and if you read collector Dino Laurenzi Jr.’s statement in response to the attacks that Braun threw at him, there is no reason to believe that is the case anyway. Laurenzi did exactly what he was supposed to do, and along with Major League Baseball, is now being vilified by Braun and his attorneys for doing everything that they were supposed to do. For all of the theatricality of Braun’s statement to the press and his maintenance of his innocence, the question that still remains (and the one that should be put to Braun post haste) is this: “Why was synthetic testosterone found in your urine?” That’s all that this huge media blowout and constant game of back and forth between Braun, the League, and Laurenzi Jr. boils down to. If you’re so sure that the truth has set you free Ryan, why was this substance in your body? Until that question is answered by Braun, I will never look on him as anything but yet another in the long line of cheaters that professional sports continues to add to. The problem is, Braun knows the answer to that question, we know the answer to that question, and baseball knows the answer to that question. I just want to hear it from Braun, plain and simple.