PHOENIX — Ryan Braun is everything a Major League Baseball star is supposed to be, above and beyond that career .933 OPS. He’s good-looking and articulate, fan-friendly and media-savvy, with impressive bat speed and a flair for the dramatic. Little Leaguers emulate his swing, and mothers would like their daughters to date him for reasons apart from the $130 million he’s owed through 2020.
Braun has a leg up toward the Hall of Fame, but at the moment he’s dealing with a severe catchphrase problem. Barry Bonds will forever be linked to “flaxseed oil,” and Roger Clemens famously observed that Andy Pettitte “misremembered” things from a conversation about steroids.
I truly believe in my heart and I would bet my life that this substance never entered my body at any point.
— Ryan Braun
Comparatively speaking, Braun resides in the junior league of alleged drug violators, with a much better chance to reclaim his reputation. But first, he needs to shake his label as poster boy for baseball’s “chain of custody” issues.
A day after an arbitration panel overturned his 50-game suspension for a failed drug test, Braun arrived at Milwaukee Brewers camp to hugs and handshakes from teammates, the manager and coaching staff. He addressed his teammates in the clubhouse, and at precisely 11 a.m. MT, he walked onto the field on a gloriously sun-splashed day at Maryvale Baseball Park and went public. The Ryan Braun Vindication and Exoneration Tour was officially underway.
Braun, dressed in jeans and a blue pullover sweater, stated his case during a riveting, 25-minute news conference that was half personal statement, half question-and-answer session. He characterized himself as the victim of a process gone awry, insinuated that a tester might have tampered with his urine sample and repeatedly maintained his innocence. It was a stack of Bibles-caliber declaration of innocence.
“I truly believe in my heart and I would bet my life that this substance never entered my body at any point,” Braun said.
In some ways, the Major League Baseball Players Association couldn’t have picked a better spokesman for the potential minefields involved in drug testing. Braun skillfully and diligently recounted events after his failed test the afternoon of Saturday, Oct. 1 at Miller Park in Milwaukee. He sounded downright lawyerly with three uses of the word “contemporaneous” and at one point listed how many local FedEx outlets could have accommodated his urine sample so that it didn’t have to sit in a collector’s refrigerator for two days before it was shipped off to the testing lab in Montreal.
Braun spoke forcefully and assertively, only occasionally glancing down at prepared notes. There was a hint of choppy breathing in his voice, interspersed with gusts of wind whipping past the microphone. The accompanying sound track made him appear a bit nervous and extremely emotional.
And why wouldn’t he be? Braun won the National League MVP Award in November but couldn’t celebrate the achievement because of the public scrutiny he endured once ESPN reported that he had tested positive for elevated levels of testosterone. The barrage of negative publicity took an inevitable toll on Braun’s emotions and his carefully crafted public image.
“I have always taken tremendous pride in my image and my reputation in being a role model and handling myself the right way and doing things the right way,” Braun said. “And all of that has been called into question by this situation. When you know you’re innocent of something, it’s extremely difficult to have to prove it when you’re in a process where you’re 100 percent guilty until proven innocent.
“Without a doubt, this was the biggest challenge I’ve ever faced in my life. Everywhere I went, people wanted to know what was going on. Everybody was asking questions. That’s not going to go away overnight. I recognize that. But the goal for me is to be able to move on with my teammates and be able to enjoy baseball again.”
Braun’s professional integrity wasn’t the only thing called into question. A persistent rumor has made the rounds on the Internet that he failed his drug test because of medication he was taking to combat a case of herpes. Braun even chose to drag that rumor out into the sunlight, maintaining that, “I’ve never had a personal medical issue, and I’ve never had an STD.”
It remains to be seen how the general public will view Braun from here. If you belief in the goodness of human nature and the possibility that bad drug tests happen to good people, you’ll cheer for Braun and hope he puts this episode behind him and maintains his MVP form. If you’re cynical about famous athletes and are convinced they’ll do anything to gain an edge and squirm out of tight situations, you’ll believe that he “lawyered up” and worked the system to his advantage.
Braun appears to have the wholehearted support of his Milwaukee teammates. Outfielder Corey Hart was among several players to question the integrity of the drug testing process Friday. And Zack Greinke, Randy Wolf, Yovani Gallardo and a half-dozen other Brewers sat in the first two rows behind the dugout to offer their support during Braun’s news conference. He seemed genuinely touched by their presence.
But it might be a different story in other clubhouses. One prominent agent told ESPN.com that he has spoken to several players who were angry that Braun escaped punishment because of a “technicality.” Big leaguers have engaged in some serious internal debate and done plenty of soul-searching through the years while embracing drug testing, and some of Braun’s peers can only wonder what would have happened to them in a similar situation.
Major League Baseball was clearly in a difficult spot. On one hand, the commissioner’s office is trying to uphold the integrity of the testing process for the benefit of the general public and players who have submitted to urine tests in recent years and are giving blood for HGH testing this spring.
On the other hand, the news that MLB “vehemently disagrees” with the arbitration panel’s ruling on Braun has put one of the game’s brightest stars in a compromised position. His acquittal is going to be accompanied by a fair share of eye-rolling.
Even Braun seemed conflicted at times Friday. He referred to the system as “fatally flawed” in his case, then celebrated his vindication because “at the end of the day, the truth prevailed.” He said he respects MLB’s objections, but lamented the “PR battle” being waged against him. Braun also left open the possibility of legal action down the road.
Regardless of what happens off the field, challenges await. Milwaukee fans have been supportive of Braun during his ordeal, but fans in other cities are bound to yell things that are less than complimentary. Braun had time to consider the possibility when he was lifting weights and taking swings in the batting cage over the past couple months.
“There are lot of haters — a lot of people who doubted me and lot of people who continue to doubt me,” he said. “That’s added motivation for me. To say I’m excited to get started would be a significant understatement.”
When you know you’re innocent of something, it’s extremely difficult to have to prove it when you’re in a process where you’re 100 percent guilty until proven innocent.
— Ryan Braun
The same applies to Braun’s Milwaukee teammates, who are feeling a lot better about the team’s prospects now that his 50-game suspension isn’t tacked on to Prince Fielder‘s recent departure for Detroit. Several oddsmakers upgraded the Brewers’ chances of winning the World Series immediately after Braun won his grievance.
The people close to Braun have little doubt that he’ll block out the distractions and the “haters” and be the same .300, 30-homer, 100-RBI force that Milwaukee fans have come to expect.
“I think he’ll be fine,” manager Ron Roenicke said. “He understands what it’s going to be like. This guy gets it. He’s got great common sense. His character was in question this winter, and I don’t think his character will be in question again.”
If only the business of image restoration were that simple. As jubilant as Roenicke must have felt to see his best player walk through the clubhouse door Friday, the tail-end of that comment sounds a lot like wishful thinking.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter @jcrasnick.
Crasnick: Braun goes public
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