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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Love and Hate at the Ballpark

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The start of baseball season with every team tied for first place used to be the time when Milwaukee Brewers fans could put everything out of their minds other than their wildest World Series dreams.

Everything’s a lot more complicated these days.

Maybe that’s why the local media have spent a whole lot more time covering the most adorable stray dog in the world instead of even making a pretense of building up any hopes for the coming season.

That’s really too bad because once again, as has been true every year since he bought the team, owner Mark Attanasio is offering fans new reason to believe.

And we’re not talking about drawing upon his California connections and his screenwriter brother’s familiarity with Hollywood casting to fill the heart-warming, fan-pleasing role of Hank the Dog.

This year the Brewers spent more than $50 million to pick up free agent starting pitcher Matt Garza to join a rotation that at long last looks like a growing strength.

That rotation already includes a young potential superstar in Wily Peralta, who by the end of last season was regularly beginning to blow away major league hitters.

Couple strong pitching with the return of one of the best hitters in baseball to the Brewers lineup and you’ve got a real cause for celebration.

But, of course, the media can’t celebrate the return of that player because it’s Ryan Braun, suspended for 65 games last season after admitting to using a drug banned under the rules of Major League Baseball.

Braun publicly apologized for the violation and for an outrageous press conference during spring training in 2012 in which he brazenly lied, publicly betting his life that “this substance never entered my body at any point.”

Braun didn’t lose his life when that declaration turned out to be untrue, but he’s already paid an enormous price in lifelong damage to what was on track to become one of the great careers in baseball.

And the public humiliation and ritualized media torture is far from over three years after the offense. So far he’s had the good grace to say he realizes reporters are just doing their jobs.

But Braun knows there’s nothing he can say that would really put the case behind him. Only time can do that. Talking about it any further now just keeps the topic in the media spotlight. And who would believe him anyway?

All Braun can do is play at the same extremely high level he always has while being randomly drug tested within an inch of his life.  

That’s exactly what Braun’s done so far this year, ever since crushing a deep, two-run home run on the second pitch he saw in spring training.

 

Braun Should Play with a Vengeance

If Braun plays MVP baseball with a vengeance for his entire Brewers contract through 2020, it could be the best $130 million the team ever spent.

That doesn’t mean Braun won’t still face ugly taunts of “Cheater!” in every other ballpark. But his sheer talent will continue to be loudly appreciated at home except for the occasional highly witty, incoherent drunken bellow.

The best players in any sport always draw the stupidest chants. “Reggie sucks!” has never been yelled at a player named Reggie who sucks.

But for its own good, baseball really needs to overcome the overwhelming self-righteousness that pervades the sport these days.

There’s no question Major League Baseball had to end the so-called “steroid era” when owners increased baseball’s profits by millions by tolerating juiced-up behemoths destroying their own bodies to shatter the hard-won, decades-old home run records of Hank Aaron and Roger Maris.

But, frankly, there’s a perfectly logical place for drugs in baseball just as there is in all our lives. Zero-tolerance policies prohibit intelligent thought. What if Braun and other players were telling the truth when they said they risked using substances to recover from injuries?

No one really wants to watch artificially created super humans performing supernatural accomplishments. But everyone—every fan, owner and player—wants players to recover from injury as quickly as possible and return to doing what they’re paid millions of dollars to do.

Using safe medications to speed recovery from physical injury isn’t cheating. It’s health care.

But until such logic breaks out in baseball, there will always be those who enjoy feeling superior by hating some of the best players on the field. It seems to be especially delicious if those players are African American, Latino or, let’s say, some other minority.

But the opening of baseball season is a time to enjoy far more positive feelings. It’s a time to celebrate hope and the possibility of redemption.

Hank the Dog, the lovable stray rescued by the Brewers from the mean streets of Phoenix, won’t be the only potential redemption story on the field on Opening Day.