Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 1, 2012

Good Guy Braun Reveals His Inner Bully

For those of us who sit in the stands, irrespective of the sport, hope is eternal and belief in our heroes is constant. That’s why we take it so hard when a player we have idolized turns out in one way or another to be far less than our imaginary ideal. That’s why the story of a young boy outside a Chicago courthouse begging Shoeless Joe Jackson to “say it ain’t so, Joe” after Jackson’s grand jury testimony in the Black Sox scandal has always been so believable, even though the outfielder always insisted the encounter never happened. So it was that a few days ago, to the dismay of many fans, the reigning National League MVP revealed an heretofore unseen side of his character. It was not a pretty sight.

Taken by the Milwaukee Brewers with the fifth overall pick in the 2005 major league draft, Braun has spent his entire career with the small market team where he has become, understandably, a fan favorite. He was the NL Rookie of the Year in 2007 when he set the record for slugging percentage by a rookie. He’s been voted onto the All-Star team each of the past four years. Last season he batted .332, second best in the league, while leading the NL in slugging percentage at .597 and extra base hits with 77. His .996 fielding percentage was tops in the majors for left fielders. Along with Prince Fielder, he led the Brewers to a franchise-best 96 wins and their first ever Central Division title. Milwaukee beat the Arizona Diamondbacks in a thrilling five-game Division Series, with the final game going into extra innings. The happy ride for Milwaukee fans finally came to an end in the NLCS, when the Brewers fell to the eventual World Series champion Cardinals in six games.

Early in 2011 Braun signed his second contract extension with Milwaukee, adding five more years to a seven-year deal he had inked in 2008. He is now committed to the team through 2020, and the team is committed to pay him more than $130 million between now and then. With Fielder leaving for Detroit and a big free agent payday this past offseason, Braun truly became the face of the franchise. In addition to his obvious playing skills, by all accounts he is intelligent and approachable, loved by the fans in Wisconsin and open to them in return.

All of which meant that those same fans were left reeling last December, when ESPN reported that Braun had failed a random drug test during the playoffs, testing positive for highly elevated levels of testosterone. Faced with a 50-game suspension, Milwaukee’s hero condemned the leaking of what was supposedly a confidential test result, proclaimed his innocence, and vowed to vigorously appeal. That appeal was heard in January by a three-member panel composed of one representative each from MLB and the players union, and a neutral arbitrator. Last week Braun became the first player to win an appeal when the panel voted 2-1 to overturn the suspension, with the majority deciding that sufficient questions had been raised about the manner in which Braun’s sample was handled.

Brewer’s fans greeted the news with unabashed joy, even though it amounted to winning on a technicality. Certainly the panel did not issue a finding that the test results themselves were wrong. But I think most of us would like to believe that they were. Braun is an emerging superstar in what we hope is the post-PEDS era. As he showed at a press conference at the Brewers training camp in Arizona, he’s an articulate guy who forcefully made the case that he had been wronged. “I will continue to take the high road,” Braun said at his press conference. Had he stopped there, we could have all gone back to preparing for Opening Day. While there would be those who would still have questions about Braun, he could easily answer those questions over time, because he will obviously continue to be tested over time. With no more positive drug tests, with the high likelihood that he will continue to put up big numbers both at the plate and in the field, with his good guy image and the support of a publicity machine that only those with $100 million contracts can buy, Ryan Braun’s bizarre testosterone level from last October 1st would quickly become a distant memory.

But he didn’t stop there. Having promised to take the high road Braun instead veered into the gutter, dragging one Dino Laurenzi Jr. with him. “There were a lot of things that we learned about the collector, about the collection process, about the way that the entire thing worked,” Braun said, “that made us very concerned and very suspicious about what could have actually happened.” Laurenzi was that collector. His job was to take Braun’s urine sample and, following protocols established as part of MLB’s drug testing program, ship it to the testing laboratory in Montreal. It’s a job he’s done hundreds of times since 2005. Having impugned the formerly unknown Laurenzi’s integrity, how many of the “lot of things” that he had learned about him did Braun reveal? Well, none actually. Given the clear implication that his sample might have been tampered with, had Braun raised that as an issue during his appeal? Well, no actually. Instead the good guy in left field revealed himself as just one more entitled millionaire, willing to cast blame anywhere in order to deflect it from himself. Ryan Braun may have every right to feel like a victim; ultimately only he will ever really know if that’s the case. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that it is.  But that doesn’t give him any right to make someone else one as well.  Doing so makes him no better than a schoolyard bully with a $100 million contract.

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