::By Frank Clines and Art Kumbalek
On the baseball field the meaning is obvious. Now that Ryan Braun has won his appeal of a positive drug-test finding and avoided a 50-game suspension, the Brewers are absolute favorites to repeat as National League Central champions.
But, otherwise, Braun’s legal victory has only multiplied the questions. Who disclosed the test result during a supposedly confidential process? What produced the huge ratio of testosterone in the urine sample? What, if anything, happened to the sample in the two days it took to ship it to the testing lab? If the sample was tampered with, how and why and by who?
More information will come out, from the test collector, the deciding arbitrator and others. But will there ever be a conclusion acceptable to most people? More likely, some will always consider Braun the victim of incompetence or a botched conspiracy; others will always see him as the beneficiary of a “not guilty but not innocent” technicality; and many will always wonder what to believe in a never-ending “A said, B said” saga.
Frank: I know you weren’t able to see Braun’s press conference Friday. I thought he looked and sounded convincing—articulate and generally calm, presenting objective evidence but also making the emotional case that with so much at stake in his career he would never take the risk of using performance-enhancing drugs.
Artie: I thought the same when I saw clips. Frank: Bob Costas found Braun “more credible, more convincing than anyone in a similar situation that I’ve ever seen.” Of course, we’ve seen other declarations of innocence— angry and emphatic like Rafael Palmeiro, quiet and repeated like Marion Jones—that turned out to be lies.
Artie: But Braun provided a lot of evidence, both in defending himself and charging that the collection process was screwy.
Frank: I liked the way he addressed some things directly. We’d seen all the Internet rumors that he was taking something for a sexually transmitted disease, but he said, “It’s never been a personal medical issue. I’ve never had an STD.” He also said the Brewers’ own records show he never gained a pound, improved his speed or strength numbers or changed the number and duration of his workouts—things that presumably would be enhanced by steroid use.
Artie: And he specified that he’d passed 25 previous tests in his career, including three last season before the one on Oct. 1. And he had other tests when he signed his contract extension.
Frank: We and others had been saying, here’s a guy who really wants to be one of the all-time greats and would have too much to lose by “using.” As Braun said, “I’m 27 years old, I’m just entering my prime, I have a contract guaranteed for nine more years… This is my livelihood, this is my integrity… it’s everything I’ve ever worked for in my life being called into question.”
Artie: He’s just too smart a guy to take that chance.
Frank: Still, I was troubled by things that weren’t said Friday. The reporters failed to ask Braun if there was anything he might have been taking—like nutritional supplements—that might have impacted his test. And Braun didn’t address that subject. Also, he didn’t talk about something we’d heard long ago—that his side had him take a retest that was clean. And he didn’t address a subject that arose after the ruling—an additional DNA test that his side reportedly offered to determine whether the sample that got to the lab in Montreal was truly Braun’s. There are varied reports about who suggested a DNA test and who declined, and when.
Artie: Maybe that’ll be cleared up when the arbitrator, Shyam Das, releases his report.
Frank: Braun’s best argument was that if players are held to a strict standard of compliance in the testing program—in which unintentional errors are not necessarily a defense—Major League Baseball should meet the same standard in handling the samples.
Artie: It sounded like MLB’s collector was like Marty Feldman trying to round up the brain in Young Frankenstein. Or maybe he decided to take the sample home, then stopped at a bar and was showing it off, like, “Hey, you know whose stuff this is?”
Frank: As we speak we haven’t heard from the collector, identified as Dino Laurenzi Jr., but MLB says he has extensive training and experience. Still, he seems to have not done the same research on Milwaukee-area FedEx offices and hours that Braun’s team did. The sample was taken in the afternoon, after the Brewers’ playoff opener against Arizona, but there was plenty of time in the morning to determine whether it could be shipped that day.
Artie: So this guy had the sample 44 hours longer than he should have, or needed to have. MLB says he wasn’t technically violating the rules, but Mr. Das apparently disagreed. So why did MLB have to make a big show that it “vehemently” objected to the ruling? That arrogant sense of infallibility that we see so often in the NCAA and the World Anti-Doping Agency, getting all high and mighty—it’s just ridiculous.
Frank: Maybe this was the first time such a set of circumstances happened. But why should it be out of the realm of possibility that MLB’s people might make errors? And MLB later said it would make some clarifications in shipping procedures.
Artie: One person we didn’t hear from was Commissioner Bud. When it comes to controversy, his first reaction is to stay silent and head for the hills.
Frank: Braun was careful not to suggest what might have happened to his sample after he gave it, or why it might have happened.
Artie: He doesn’t have to. If, like he said, the player is “guilty until proven innocent” with a failed drug test, why shouldn’t the same apply with screwed-up handling of a sample?
Frank: But the strategy didn’t sit well with everyone. Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News wrote this: “Ryan Braun made it clear... that he wants everybody and anybody to be on trial except him.” To Lupica, it looks as though Braun “is aggressively trying to make Laurenzi into a suspect.”
Artie: Well, isn’t that what a defense team does: try to raise reasonable doubt by shifting the focus?
Frank: If this were a criminal trial and I were a juror, I’d have reasonable doubt at this point. But there’s also reasonable doubt about why Laurenzi or anyone else would want to spike Braun’s sample. What’s more, according to ESPN both MLB and the Montreal lab say the sample remained sealed from the time Braun gave it until it was analyzed. And MLB says that during the arbitration process Braun’s side never contended that the sample had been tainted.
Artie: So what? It’s a chain of custody thing, and if one link is broken the whole thing should be invalid and you need to test him again.
Frank: Braun used the word “innocent” a lot. He certainly has that right, and lots of people believe him—partly because they desperately want to, partly because he’s been persuasive. But at this point, and maybe forever, he is simply “not guilty.”
Artie: There sure are more questions than answers. So let’s make sure we hear everything from everyone who was involved in this.
Frank: And even then there may be mysteries about what happened from Oct. 1-3. But I think two things will be clear, assuming Braun continues to be a top-notch player. First, who will continue to believe him? Fans of the team he plays for.
Artie: And who’ll doubt him? Fans of the teams he beats.