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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

RYAN BRAUN SAGA: PERFECTLY AWFUL

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Well, we were warned. Ryan Braun told us so last week: “As I have acknowledged in the past, I am not perfect.” But the last time he did that acknowledging he added, “I did not do this,” and “I would bet my life that this substance never entered my body at any point.”

So we were played for perfect suckers, and the Brewers superstar is a cheater and a liar. His 65-game suspension by Major League Baseball ends in September; the hard feelings won't pass so quickly.

 

Frank: In June I quoted someone supporting Braun by saying, “He's not that good an actor.” Now we know he is.

Artie: Drew Olson said the same thing on his radio show—Braun's performance in February 2012, after winning his appeal on the failed drug test, was the best acting job he's ever seen, better than any movie or play. He was just so convincing.

F: I thought so, even though in proclaiming his innocence Braun also slandered Dino Laurenzi Jr., the MLB testing collector, implying that the sample was sabotaged.

A: But Laurenzi calmly denied any improper conduct, and no evidence ever indicated he tainted the sample. And now Braun, in effect, admits the test was accurate.

F: It's one thing to have used a performance-enhancing drug, but to have been so adamant in denying it, contending he was a victim...

A: I think getting tested after that 2011 playoff game really caught him by surprise.

F: Several newly reported details back that up, and form a pretty plausible scenario for what happened in '11—assuming that's the first time Braun "juiced." The first of those details is a single word in a Tom Haudricourt story on July 22, just before the suspension came down.

A: And that word is...

F: Haudricourt reviewed the whole Braun vs. MLB saga, starting on Oct. 1, 2011, after the game with Arizona, when Laurenzi told Braun he'd been chosen for a drug test. The next sentence said, “Livid that he had been selected... Braun had no choice but to comply.” I'd never seen Braun's reaction described as “livid.”

A: Me neither. If he was angry, that tells me he had something to hide.

F: The next new details come from ESPN's “Outside the Lines.” It said Braun began dealing with Tony Bosch and the Biogenesis clinic in the summer of '11, and Bosch apparently supplied synthetic testosterone “troches”—gummy bear-like lozenges that go under the tongue. Absorbed that way, the drug apparently cycles through the system quickly.

A: OTL also said the troches came in two flavors, and I'm dying to know whether Braunie preferred mint or cherry.

F: Another key detail, though not new, is that Braun had a nagging calf injury that sidelined him for several games in July of '11, including the All-Star Game. We've heard guys like Mark McGwire and Andy Pettitte say they used PEDs to help get over injuries.

A: And if Braun was worried the calf could mess up his season...

F: And in a team context, he may have thought, “This is our year. We've got the pitching, Prince will be gone soon, so this is our window to go all the way.”

A: Laurenzi obtained the sample on a Saturday, and maybe Braun knew about this “chain of custody” thing where any sample was supposed to be shipped quickly. Maybe the idea that he'd be tested that day was the furthest thing from his mind.

F: He would already have been tested during spring training and the regular season.

A: But Laurenzi shows up and he knows he's busted. He'd probably used the stuff very recently.

F: You'd think so, to have a testosterone measure, called the "T/E ratio," of 20 to 1 when the threshold for suspicion is 4 to 1.

A: When I read that Braun's go-between with Bosch was a former U of Miami teammate, I could see this guy saying, “I know someone who can give you the stuff and no way can you be caught because it works so quickly.”

F: Sounds convincing—at least as convincing as Braun was. Now let's talk about how he's going to address his disgrace.

A: He says he can't talk yet because MLB is still investigating others.

F: Fine, but when the time comes... I like the way Mark Attanasio handled this; he made clear that he expects a lot of candor and contrition.

A: Next season he might demand that instead of a jersey Braun wear a hairshirt. With a scarlet “P” for PEDs.

F: Here's what I say: He better not give his mea culpas in an ESPN studio or one-on-one to Bob Costas. He better do it in this city and answer every question from the local media. Don't “big-time” Milwaukee and Wisconsin, because for 18 months the folks here were the only ones who believed him.

 

A LOUSY FIRST IMPRESSION

A: I know where Braun can come clean: On the Wisconsin Ave. bridge next to the statue of Gertie the Duck. And he can say, “See, I'm not ducking this anymore.”

F: He sure won't be able to duck the ridicule. He's going to be a national joke—and I saw a sign of that Sunday night, not far from Gertie's statue.

A: Do tell...

F: At the Steely Dan concert at the Riverside, one of the guys in the opening act addressed the audience: "Hey what are y'all going to do with Ryan Braun? What's wrong with that guy? We didn't take nothin' before we came out here."

A: Braunie will be a staple on late-night TV—though maybe not as big a target as A-Rod, once he gets nailed. 

F: But back to Braun's biggest challenge. I don't know how much he's paying his PR people, but that first public statement was just terrible.

A: “I realize now that I have made some mistakes”—What a weak-ass way to admit to lying.

F: And two sentences later, he said, “This situation has taken a toll on me and my entire family...” Yeah, a toll that he caused! It's like some outside force was responsible for all this. And then this ridiculous sentence: “I wish to apologize to anyone I may have disappointed.”

A: "May have"? That is such stock drivel. If a college freshman in their first public relations survey course had written that, it would have been red-lined in a flash. It's just so old and tired.

F: And it implies that some folks might actually have no reason to be offended by his outright lying. No, it's not up for debate. His actions were offensive to anyone who tries to live honestly.

A: He's got to “raise his game” big-time whenever he reaches out to the public again.

 

SHOULD THE BREWERS DUMP HIM?

F: That Journal Sentinel editorial was certainly blunt and unambiguous. It began, “Ryan Braun has to go,” under the headline, “Attanasio should set example for rest of professional sports.” But aside from the question of who would take him in a trade at that price, would it be a wise move for the Brewers to make, just in a competitive sense?

A: It's hard to say. First of all, we need to see how he handles his “real” apology. If he really comes clean and shows he wants to make amends, then yeah, the guy deserves a second chance here. But if he continues to kind of stonewall things, and to have the franchise forever associated with that, then he should go. That would satisfy the holier-than-thou, pitchfork crowd. And there'd be takers.

F: But at the $130 million or so he's still owed?

A: You think the new super-rich Dodgers wouldn't take him, even at the price? Or the Yankees?

F: But that's what I'm getting at. It would be a big righteous splash for the Brewers to send Braun on his way, but would it really help the franchise on the field? No matter what the PEDs did for him, they weren't the only reason he was an outstanding ballplayer. What if the Cardinals picked him up? He could torment the Brewers in their own division.

A: Some other team would surely want him under the guise of “yeah, he's tainted, but this is a fresh start.”

F: Getting rid of him would be a very principled move but... You mentioned the “pitchfork crowd.” Some people are saying he should never be allowed back in baseball anywhere. It's almost like you can sin against the nation, you can sin against your family, you can sin against your neighbor, but if you've sinned against BASEBALL there's just no chance for redemption. It's like the game is some religion.

A: He didn't shoot anybody. I've seen some of the police footage from the night they stopped Yovani Gallardo for drunken driving, and his car was decidedly weaving. Now, that's a potentially life-threatening situation—his own and somebody else's. The general reaction was, “Well, it's his first offense,” and I agree with that. But still, it was a much more serious action in terms of the effect on other people.

F: It's overstated now but every time a celebrity or an actor or a politician misbehaves—Marv Albert, this ridiculous Anthony Weiner, whoever—the mantra is “Well, we're a forgiving people.”

A: And yes, we are, partly because of our short attention span.

F: But for instance Bill Clinton, who I think was just as big a liar as Braun, in a different context—but a context involving something a lot more important to the nation, namely the integrity of its leader—well, these days, to at least a large segment of the public Clinton is a bigger hero than ever.

A: Go back a little further to the Nixon gang. The PR they had was, “to the best of my recollection, I don't remember.”

F: Which is just a weaselly way of trying to give yourself an out.

A: And if all else fails, just deny, deny, deny. How about Rafael Palmeiro in front of the congressional committee, wagging his finger at them?

F: Or Clinton, measuring his words in a show of anger, denying that he had “sexual relations” with Monica Lewinsky.

A: But when has the denial strategy ever worked, long-term?

F: It didn't work for Nixon or any of his cronies; it didn't work for Oliver North; it didn't work for Clinton; it didn't work for Marion Jones or Lance Armstrong.

A: Maybe it works for some Hollywood types, just because people don't care that much about them. But it sure doesn't seem to work for politicians or athletes.

 

WHAT ABOUT HIS MVP AND STATS?

F: Some people are saying Braun should be stripped of his 2011 MVP award, although the Baseball Writers' Association of America says it won't happen. Your thoughts?

A: No, you can't start changing those things. It's water under the bridge. And once you start changing things, voiding things, where does it stop? Do you take down the Brewers' divisional pennant for that year because they had a tainted player?

F: That's one reason Kirk Gibson and the Diamondbacks are especially angry. They lost a hard-fought five-game series during which Braun went 9 for 18 with five runs scored and four driven in.

A: But still, how can you say that the Brewers would not have won even without Braun?

F: Bob Ryan said on one of the ESPN shows that stripping an MVP award or batting title would be one thing, but wins and losses are still the most important stats in baseball, “and that's the bell that can't be un-rung.” So the Giants still have to be the 2001 NL champions even though Barry Bonds was on the team. And the Brewers still have to be the 2011 NL Central champs.

A: And if you start rewriting the record book, how far back would you go? What about Bonds, McGwire and Sosa? They got out of it all pretty scar-free. Yeah, they'll probably never make the Hall of Fame, but at the time there wasn't the venom that we're seeing now.

F: Part of that may be that the testing program is in place now. And in Braun's particular case, his performance in denying everything was so convincing—hand over heart, looking everyone right in the eyes...

A: Including his pal and former staunch defender Aaron Rodgers...

F: And so it just bothers people that much more. Anyone who believed him and defended him feels like they've been taken for a fool.

A: Including, and maybe especially, Rodgers, who said, “I trusted him. That's the thing that probably hurts the most.”

 

WILL WISCONSIN FORGIVE HIM?

F; We're supposedly this friendly, warm heartland state that's always willing to grant a second chance.

A: But forgiving Braun will depend a lot on how, and perhaps how often, and to whom, he says his mea culpas. Just how he comes across.

F: Although how he came across was what fooled many of us in the first place.

A: But things change. Brett Favre certainly was no favorite for a few years...

F: And he was trying to commit the ultimate sin—beating the Packers!

A: But the pendulum seems to be swinging back the other way.

F: And you could say that Braun's PED use in 2011...

A: Assuming that's when he began...

F: Wasn't just for personal gain but with the team in mind too. As we said, it sure looked like 2011 was going to be their big opportunity. And with that calf thing, he probably was really worried that he might not be a part of it—or that his absence might ruin things.

A: And we see that the window closed mighty quickly. They lost those last two games to the Cardinals and boom! And who knows how long it will take for another window to pop up? Just ask a Pirates fan. Anyway, forgiveness depends on how he portrays himself.

F: It's one thing if a guy is pretty unlikeable in the first place, like Lance Armstrong or Bonds. But Braun certainly has seemed pretty likable to Brewers fans.

A: But I've also read in some national columns about how he comes off as pretty full of himself.

F: Well, he's always had a swagger. The kind of thing where, if he's on your team it's confidence or showmanship, and if he's NOT on your team it's cockiness or arrogance.

A: He's always aware that everyone's looking at him, and he's always wanted everyone to look at him.

F: But which also played into one or our original reactions to his failed test. Namely, that because he wanted to be the face of this franchise and one of the all-time greats, he had so much to lose that he couldn't possibly take the risk. He was too smart for that.

A: Well, he had to be convinced, and maybe two things did it: 1. That nagging injury was a genuine problem, and 2. His Miami pal said there was no freakin' way he'd get caught.

 

MIGHT HE HAVE ESCAPED?

F: My old Marquette roommate, a career sportswriter, says Braun might have skated through all this if A-Rod had paid Tony Bosch whatever “hush money” Bosch demanded. Then Bosch would never have stopped stonewalling MLB instead of ratting on his clients.

A: But MLB was pretty determined to get to the bottom of Biogenesis.

F: By the way, did you see that a former Biogenesis employee, Porter Fischer, told “Outside the Lines” he took $5,000 from MLB for some clinic records but turned down $125,000 to turn over other documents?

A: But he said the documents eventually were “stolen from his car.” Nothing else, and not the car? Isn't that a little odd? I wonder if A-Rod had somebody steal that stuff.

F: Is it so crazy to think that MLB would hire somebody to lift them?

A: You can't rule them out either. And I think I know who they might have hired. “Is this Mr. Rose? Pete, we have a little job for you, and if you get it done there might be a little reinstatement in it for you...”

 

IT ISN'T JUST BASEBALL

F: Fischer also told “Outside the Lines” that about a dozen athletes from other sports, including the NBA, got stuff from Biogenesis.

A: What? The NBA? How could that be? Those guys from the Heat surely had no idea Bosch existed, right? They only live right there in Miami.

F: You sound a little skeptical.

A: Thank God the NBA is clean as a whistle. The Heat never even heard of Bosch. Besides, their cheating is just on the court, all the flopping or grabbing a guy's shorts on the way to the basket.

F: Now you sound downright dubious.

 

LOOKING TOWARD LARGER ISSUES

A: So fine, MLB has proved its point and nailed a bunch of guys. But I say they've got to take a larger look at the whole PED thing.

F: How so?

A: I read a reader’s comment to some column recently that anabolic steroids first were developed around 1960. And according to this reader, who's to say that some baseball players weren't using these things even back then? Look at Roger Maris, who had that big spike in homers when he hit 61 but never came close to it again. He had health problems during his big year, like his hair falling out, supposedly from the pressure. And he died young, at 51, from cancer. Doesn't this sound like some of the stuff we associate with steroids?

F: We know that NFL players were certainly using steroids as early as the '70s. Guys like Mike Webster of the Steelers, Lyle Alzado...

A: And Oak Creek's own John Matuszak, who graduated from high school the same year I did, 1968.

F: So steroids were known decades before the so-called “steroid era” in baseball, which most people place in the 10 or so years starting in the mid-'90s.

A: It's not that far a stretch to think guys experimented with it in the '60s.

F: And as much as Bud Selig doesn't like to hear it, there was a time when steroids were at the very least tolerated by all sides of the baseball world.

A: In the late 1990s, after the strike that killed the '94 World Series, it sure served MLB's purposes to stay quiet while all these guys were slugging homers all over the place. And now this PED crusade serves baseball's purposes. But I say let's get this all over with and take a real hard, long look at PEDs.

F: With what questions in mind?

A: Why are some of these things illegal? Any medical thing has possible side effects—just look at the sheet we get with our blood-pressure prescriptions. There should be talk with the medical community, the scientific community, and really nail down what are the benefits these substances have. If there's proven to be all benefit and minimal side effects, why are they banned?

F: Steroids, for instance, are prescribed for certain medical conditions.

A: If it helps a guy heal faster, isn't that good for the game? You want to see your stars in there; isn't that good for the game? Why should their seasons or careers be cut short?

F: There'll always be a personal risk of side effects, but would the proper attitude be, “OK, you make your pact with the devil if you want.”

A: But there might be some things that have virtually no side effects, or ones that can be minimized with modern science. So then what would be the reason to ban them?

F: Well, there seem to be a lot more “clean” players speaking out against the PED users. From their viewpoint, they want a level playing field because they're competing to stay in the game. For every user there supposedly is a clean player who's denied a job.

A: I know it's tough on the players who don't take anything. What do they have to do to prove they're clean? There's only one guy who's figured out a way to prove it. His name is Rickie Weeks. Cruising into this week at, let's see... .214 with 10 homers and 22 RBIs in 313 at-bats. No sir, no one's gonna accuse him of cheating.

 

THE ILLUSION OF CONSISTENCY

A: Another argument against PEDs is that they taint or cheapen the records of the game. But which records? From the '30s or '40s, when the current PEDs were unknown? OK, fine, but other parts of the game have changed since then.

F: Just about every part.

A: You want to honor the old records? OK, then next summer everyone has to play nothing but day games, wearing wool uniforms...

F: Traveling by train...

A: And using gloves that look like oven mitts. Carlos Gomez won't make as many catches at the wall because he won't have that big modern glove, and there'll be more hits because infielders can't reach those grounders...

F: There's nothing wrong with revering the past, but somehow there's this assumption that baseball is in this other plane of reality, some pure atmosphere that nothing else exists in. Except that baseball has never existed like that either. Players have always tried to get competitive advantages in all sorts of ways.

A: Getting back to changes, how about having the pitcher's mound raised back from 10 inches high to 15, where it was before the 1968 “Year of the Pitcher” caused them to lower it?

F: A higher mound should benefit pitchers because they get more leverage and downward trajectory, which makes it harder for a hitter to “square up.”

A: Maybe today's pitchers who have 4.20 ERAs likely would get down into the 3's, and those third and fourth starters might look a lot better. And I wouldn't be surprised if physically, a higher mound might take less of a toll on elbows and shoulders.

F: That's the first time I've really thought about that, but it sounds pretty plausible.

A: We hear the talk all the time about how pitchers were “warriors” back in the day, throwing so many more pitches and innings.

F: Hell, we've said that ourselves.

A: But I wouldn't be surprised if the height of the mound was a big reason why they could do that. It would be interesting to talk to a kinesiology guy or an orthopedic guy about that.

 

Frank Clines covered sports for The Milwaukee Journal and the Journal Sentinel. Art Kumbalek has worn a hairshirt. The Braun discussion continues at expressmilwaukee.com