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Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011

Oh, How We Hope It Ain't So

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It's hard to imagine a more disheartening story for the world of baseball. Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun, just named the National League's Most Valuable Player, failed a drug test in October and could be suspended for the first 50 games of the 2012 season. He denies using any performance-enhancing substance and will have an arbitration hearing in January, but no such hearing has ever overturned a positive test.

For the Brewers and their fans, the shocking news capped a whirlwind week in which the team acquired a new shortstop, retained one of its bullpen aces at great expense, and saw division rival St. Louis lose its biggest star, Albert Pujols, to free agency. Now the Brewers face the prospect of losing
their biggest star for almost a third of next season, and fans are trying to believe their hero when he says, "It ain't so."

Frank
: Wow, that was some blockbuster story ESPN broke Saturday night.

Artie
: You mean the network that sat on sexual-abuse information about the Syracuse assistant basketball coach for nine years but didn't sit on information about the supposedly confidential drug-testing process of Major League Baseball?

Frank
: I guess a newly crowned MVP has bigger news value.

Artie
: An MVP who could go to MIA for 50 games. It just makes no sense; there's never been any indication that Braun would think the risk is worth taking.

Frank
: From all accounts, he's always seemed like the real deal. Yeah, there's a swagger to him, but his long-term commitment to the Brewers and Milwaukee makes him pretty rare among the modern athletic millionaires. He genuinely wants to be the face of this franchise...

Artie
: And one of the faces of baseball nationally. And he already is!

Frank
: His representatives are emphatic about his complete innocence, saying the second test that he requested was negative. And one source from the Braun camp told the Journal Sentinel the substance detected in the first test was technically not a performance-enhancing drug.

Artie
: That suggests, I think, that it might have been a stimulant of some kind, ain'a?

Frank
: And that would suggest that perhaps Braun took a nutritional supplement he thought was safe, but wasn't. MLB has a list of supplements it finds safe, but sometimes a player will try something else.

Artie
: Braun's workout ethic is legendary, and no doubt his regimen includes nutritional stuff. But there's no outward sign that he's bulked up like some of the steroid users; you don't see it in his neck or head, like we did with Barry Bonds and Manny Ramirez.

Frank
: He did come to spring training this year talking about how he'd added muscle. And he's had the kind of little nagging injuries—a side strain in '09 and last spring, a calf and hamstring thing in July that kept him out of the All-Star Game—that could be a factor if he was taking something to help him keep working out and playing. Mark McGwire, when he admitted to steroid use, said it was simply to keep his body from breaking down.

Artie
: But it all goes back to Braun's being totally clean to this point. And I think he's just too smart to ever take that risk, or want to. Something's just not right about this positive test.

Frank
: Exactly what his reps are saying. And often an athlete will say he had no idea he was taking a banned substance; that's what Bonds and Gary Sheffield contended. But lack of knowledge doesn't necessarily spare you from a suspension.

Artie
: It's the arbitrator's call.

Frank
: We've seen instances in the Olympics, for instance, where a stimulant came from an over-the-counter cold medicine, but the hammer came down anyway. The athlete is held responsible for what goes into his body.

Artie
: But this was supposed to be confidential while the MLB review process was going on. How do we know there haven't been cases where a player asked for a second test and it absolved him, and so the case never hit the light of day?

Frank
: The Journal Sentinel reported Monday that in 12 cases that have gone to arbitration since the current testing began in 2004, no player has had a positive test overturned.

Artie
: So we better get used to the idea of Braun's absence, although if the substance turns out to be a stimulant, the ban might be only 25 games.

Frank
: However one feels about this case, it's indisputable that losing Braun for a chunk of 2012 would really hurt the Brewers.

Artie
: It would be so debilitating in so many ways. Not just in terms of run production, but in the team's image and maybe even in ticket sales.

Frank
: At this point I can't believe many Brewers fans think Braun is culpable. But if he's suspended, it's a good thing the Brewers shored up their lineup last week by adding Alex Gonzalez at shortstop and retaining Francisco Rodriguez as the setup man for closer John Axford.

Artie
: Those two things definitely help—Gonzalez is a big defensive upgrade from Yuniesky Betancourt, and no worse offensively. And keeping K-Rod—even if they didn't plan on his accepting arbitration—should keep them lights-out in the eighth and ninth innings.

Frank
: Of course, nothing is certain, on or off the field. But again, it just seems so incredible to think that Braun would try to beat the drug-testing system.

Artie
: The testing is so stringent, and random. But this makes you wonder who might be trying to skirt by.

Frank
: I know you've had your suspicions about one prominent player.

Artie
: Yeah, a certain now-former Cardinal who was also here in October. Hey, could MLB have gotten his sample and Braun's mixed up?

Touched By an Angel



Frank
: Speaking of that ex-Cardinal, before the Braun story broke I was going to ask if Mr. Pujols essentially handed the division crown to the Brewers by leaving St. Louis.

Artie
: It sure can't hurt to have Albert out of the division. You look at the Cardinals' pitching and Chris Carpenter, as good as he was this year, is getting old and has a history of injuries. Adam Wainwright is due back after missing all of this year, but who knows how effective he'll be? And their bullpen was good in October but definitely not good for long spells during the season.

Frank
: But on offense they still have Lance Berkman and Matt Holliday and David Freese, who was only the MVP of two postseason series.

Artie
: They'll move Berkman back to first base, which will help their outfield defense.

Frank
: The Cardinals are losing 37 homers and almost 100 RBI from last year, but the Brewers are losing 38 homers and 120 RBI, assuming Prince Fielder is gone.

Artie
: Those stats might land in Wrigley Field, but it'll take more than that to lift the Cubs into contention.

Frank
: Especially if the Brewers sign Aramis Ramirez away from the Cubs to play third base and take Prince's cleanup spot. But does K-Rod's return, presumably at an arbitration-inflated salary even higher than this year's $13.5 million, hamper them so much financially that they can't get Ramirez?

Artie
: I know paying K-Rod wasn't in the plan, but it ain't wasted money. Who'd be the eighth-inning guy otherwise? Kameron Loe again? Ouch!

Frank
: Ramirez won't come cheap, though.

Artie
: I think Mark Attanasio just has to open the wallet a little further. There's another division title, and more, within their reach!

Frank
: Even if Braun misses some time.

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