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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Braun’s No Monster

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Ryan Braun is not a monster—neither the sort who lurches across the blood-splashed screens of slasher flicks nor some grotesquely pumped-up Incredible Hulk launching home runs from Miller Park into distant suburbs.

Braun is not only an incredibly talented athlete, but—until the other day—one who was considered an unusually intelligent and personable one that we all felt fortunate to have in Milwaukee.

That’s why it was so unbelievable when Braun also turned out to be a brazen public liar who arrogantly jeopardized his brilliant baseball career by breaking rules even when he knew he was being closely monitored.

The worst part about Braun’s lying was that he was so good at it.

But let’s put that aside for just a moment. The anti-Braun hysteria has reached such a hateful pitch so quickly that someone should try to restore a little sanity, and I’ve never backed away from unpopular causes.

The biggest names responsible for baseball’s zero-tolerance drug testing, of course, are Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.

They’re the ones most associated with baseball’s so-called “steroid era,” when juiced-up behemoths were filling ballparks (and owners’ pockets) by shattering decades-old home run records, including Roger Maris’s single-season record and Hank Aaron’s all-time record.

Baseball looked the other way while players destroyed their long-term health with dangerous, muscle-growth substances for short-term glory and financial gain. 

Just to be clear, even though some commentators have loosely tossed around the term “steroids” in recent days, that’s not what Braun tacitly acknowledges using.

But why would any legitimate superstar such as Braun risk the reputation-shattering condemnation he’s experiencing now by taking anything at all, knowing baseball is on a rapacious, anti-drug vendetta to make up for its past sins?

Well, possibly, to play baseball. Nothing damages player or team success and fan enjoyment like injuries. Witness the Brewers’ current black hole of a season.

And that’s where baseball’s extreme “zero tolerance” policy doesn’t entirely make sense.

Think about this. In any other profession, if there were a safe drug to take to recover quickly from an injury that prevented you from doing your job, taking it wouldn’t be considered a crime. That would be called health care.

We don’t want artificial enhancements creating superhumans performing superhuman feats. But everyone wants players to recover from injuries so they can do what we pay them millions to do—play baseball.

But there are strong forces in society that make enormous profits by creating hysteria over any drug use, no matter the reason. And it’s not all laudable.

Sports drug testing is just a growing sideline. The drug testing industrial complex makes most of its billions by convincing employers to allow it to control who gets employed in this country. Drug testing also has become strongly intertwined with education, housing and incarceration in America.

Before anything was ever proven, two supposedly confidential baseball drug investigations had already destroyed Braun’s reputation by freely splashing his name throughout the media.

There’s also a striking racial element to baseball’s current investigation hiding in plain sight. Braun was the sole white player whose name was leaked to the media along with those of 19 Latino players.

 

An Incredibly Gifted Athlete

None of that excuses the sheer audacity of the lies Braun told publicly: “If I had done this, intentionally or unintentionally, I’d be the first one to step up and say, ‘I did it.’ By no means am I perfect, but if I’ve ever made any mistakes in my life I’ve taken responsibility for my actions. I truly believe in my heart and I would bet my life that this substance never entered my body at any point.”

It’s no secret many of the best professional athletes are personally arrogant. It’s practically a job requirement.

Managers talk about the need for baseball players to develop confidence to break out of batting slumps or become winning pitchers. But they never worry about that with their very best players who have been treated like gods all their lives.

Braun was great with the media at putting all that confidence out there and still coming off as a really decent guy. That’s show business.

The performance that mattered most, though, was on the field. Despite the vitriol you’ve been reading lately, we all saw an incredibly gifted athlete.

Don’t believe anyone who claims to be able to tell you some portion of Braun’s exciting baseball skills was fraudulent.  

When Braun returns after an already wasted season, there’s no reason to think we’ll be “stuck” with anyone other than an outstanding baseball player for a long time to come.

It’s going to be different. We don’t usually find out our sports heroes aren’t always nice people until decades later.

But believing in redemption is more positive and more powerful than hate. It feels better, too.

Braun’s no monster. He’s just a human being.