Saturday, December 10, 2011

Our Best and Brightest - Thoughts on Ryan Braun's positive PED test

"I would never do it because if I took steroids, I would hit 60 or 70 home runs." - Ryan Braun

Ryan Braun hit .332, with a .994 OPS. He had 187 hits, 77 of which were for extra bases. His 33 homers, 111 RBI and 109 runs scored were amongst the majors' best. As if that weren't enough, he stole 33 bases and was the best player on one of the best teams this year. His charisma, leadership and enthusiasm for the game made him one of baseball's most popular young players. Personally, he is one of my favorite major leaguers, with his cartoonishly gigantic windmill swing and the teeth-grinding effort he gives on every single play. He didn't hit 60 home runs this year, but if you watched this guy for a single week's worth of games, you'd think he was capable of it. He was that good.

Today, it was revealed by ESPN that Ryan Braun had tested positive for performance enhancing drugs. The investigation was triggered by a spike in testoterone, which automatically led into further examinations of Ryan's pee pee. After the lab had run a gamut of tests, they found that Braun had a large deal of synthetic testoterone in his body, which obviously would not appear there by any organic means. With any positive PED test, Major League Baseball administers a mandatory 50 game suspension for first time offenders. The only reason why the sports news headlines do not read "Braun suspended for 50 games" yet is that the punishment and jurisdiction of the commissioner's office isn't official yet; Braun and his representatives have appealed the PED test result. No player has yet successfully won such an appeal.

“… The best thing he can do is come out, admit to everything and be completely honest. The situation will die a lot faster if he tells the whole truth.” - Braun, on Alex Rodriguez's steroid use

Apparently, Braun had taken the test during the postseason just two months ago, with him being informed of the end result in late October, presumably after the Brewers were eliminated from the playoffs. In that time, Braun was elected the National League's Most Valuable Player for the 2011 season, accepting the award in November and giving dozens of subsequent interviews knowing that the metaphorical hammer was going to fall in it's Hebrew namesake. Despite a dominant (and perhaps statistically superior) season from the Dodgers' center fielder Matt Kemp, Braun won the award largely based on his team's standings and playoff berth. At the time, I implored for the award to go to Kemp because I thought that his contributions were much more noteworthy towards a completely unimpressive Dodgers squad, as opposed to Braun, who was surrounded with All-Star hitters and the lack of negative energy that surrounded the Los Angeles franchise in 2011.

Obviously, if Braun loses his appeal (which, as history shows, he will) and whatever public statement he makes doesn't hold water, then the award that Kemp didn't receive will be his - not physically, but in the hearts and minds of everyone that understands the greatest game. I won't waste my time campaigning for an award that should have already been Kemp's to lose; even the suggestion (let alone conviction) that Braun used anything except for 4am workouts and 2 hour batting cage sessions to bolster his achievements is enough to sully his reputation. The damage has been done, and Kemp will joylessly reap its rewards.

As much damage as the NBA did to its brand this week, and the dreary cloud of concussions that reign over the perhaps too-excessive physicality of football and hockey, performance enhancing drugs will continue to damage the legitimacy of baseball until the sport becomes too antiquated for people to care about it. Ryan Braun is one of the best and brightest young stars in the sport today. He plays with an energy that seems largely absent from his peers, but wouldn't be mistaken for thuggery or arrogance. He channels himself in a way that only seems to exude positivity, with a game suited to best promote baseball and a face that Bud Selig could throw on billboards and internet banner ads. As a young, good looking JEWISH athlete playing in the Good Land of Milwaukee, the only way he would be a better poster boy for the league would be if he were a young, good looking JEWISH black athlete playing in the Good Land of Milwaukee.

For the previous two years, I've heard Peter Gammons, Buster Olney and Ken Rosenthal talk about how since we've gotten past the steroid age in the 90's, the sport can move past the black mark on baseball and into a new era. Bud Selig crowed about how much tougher testing is these days and that nary a player could get past the rigorous hurdles that the league had put in place to curb cheating. One of the newest provisions in the collective bargaining agreement just settled upon by the Major League owners and the player's union was now blood testing for Human Growth Hormone (a performance enhancer that is undetectable by pee pee testing), the first of the four major North American professional leagues to induce such stringent measures towards their players. While guys like Manny Ramirez (a prominent slugger during the height of the "steroid era") continued to violate the rules, the new generation of players had thus far remained relatively free of guilt - until today.

Anyone that reads this blog would think that this would make me elated - "Oh, now Matt Kemp is the de facto MVP! Will MLB strip Braun of the award? Will you be right about Kemp's MVP year?".

None of this makes me happy. Much like Derek Jeter and Ken Griffey of the generation before him, I viewed Braun as one of the best and brightest of this era. I had him elevated so high in my mind as a player pure of intention and body. Along with Matty Franchise, Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez and Robinson Cano, Braun is one of my guys. He is my age, playing at the height of his powers, winning MVPs and having the spotlight shine brightest on him. Though he plays for the Brewers, I really did feel a connection with a skinny kid from LA who had risen to be one of the best baseball players in the world. It's not enough that he is a devastating hitter - it's the manner in which I describe everything that leads up to his devastating hitting, and how he carries himself afterwards. As much love as Matt Kemp is about to be showered with, I will not feel good about this.

This result is terrible for everyone, even to the most loyal of Matt Kemp fans. It seems to me that the next 10 years of baseball will be just the same as the last 20. I think it'll take me a while to come to grips with it. But that's baseball. This is truly what baseball is now.

1 comment:

  1. "that's baseball."

    are 50-game suspensions even a good deterrent? braun's last 2 deals total $145 million. clearly it was worth it to cheat, even if his name and his numbers are asterisked forever. if MLB really wants to not just "get tough" like selig postures but actually curb steroid use, there should be some sort of clawback mechanism. if you got your contract while cheating, the team can cut the value of the contract by as much as 75%. something like that may really make players think twice about shooting up.