Why I believe Ryan Braun is innocent

The more I learn about the performance-enhancing drug case of Milwaukee Brewer star Ryan Braun, the more I think Major League Baseball is covering its behind. Like Braun, however, the league will not escape additional scrutiny in the coming weeks, and neither will a certain sports network that first broke the story.

Braun, who avoided a 50-game suspension because the evidence of a positive drug test was mishandled, has been raked over the coals for several months, even though it should be a confidential process. Despite the favorable ruling, Braun still has a great deal of work to do before his reputation is restored, especially outside of Wisconsin.

The news of Braun’s exoneration has been a boon to business at Miller Park. Two days after the news broke, the Brewers reported the largest day of single-game ticket sales in club history. The more important point here is that a man’s reputation unnecessarily has been dragged through the mud, and certain organizations are refusing to acknowledge the egg on their faces.

(Full disclosure: I am a Brewer fan who is married to the biggest Ryan Braun devotee on the planet, but I’m not simply writing this column for the sake of marital harmony. That is but a minor motivation, I assure you.)

On April 6, when the Brewers open the 2012 season against the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals, Braun is likely to receive several standing ovations from a fan base that has renewed hope of another pennant run, despite the loss of Prince Fielder. While I don’t pretend to believe that home field love will, in itself, be restorative for Braun, fair-minded people should consider several choice tidbits that have emerged in recent days.

Initial reaction to the ruling was that Braun, who is coming off an MVP season, has escaped suspension based on a technicality due to problems with the chain of custody of his urine sample. Braun’s defense team, led by attorneys David Cornwell and Christopher Lyons, was able to replicate the conditions that his urine sample was exposed to in the 44 hours between when the sample was collected, and when it was finally shipped to a Montreal testing facility via Fed Ex.

This news comes from sportswriter Will Carroll, author of The Juice: The Real Story of Baseball's Drug Problems, and a contributor to SI.com. Carroll specializes in the coverage of medical issues, including injuries and performance-enhancing drugs. He’s no starry-eyed jock sycophant, and he’s somewhat skeptical about how clean baseball really is, even after several years of drug testing. His most recent reporting work on this case, which can be downloaded on Amazon.com for $1, should carry more weight than most of the sporting press, which appears perfectly willing to continue its character assassination of Braun.

Barring extenuating circumstances, which did not exist in Braun’s case, the urine samples are supposed to be shipped via Fed Ex immediately after they are collected. Braun’s defense team was able to prove that the collector’s breach of protocol is not just a technicality, but significant from the standpoint of science. In short, the failure to follow the chain of custody caused a failure in the integrity of the sample.

Hence the high testosterone levels in Braun’s Oct. 1 sample, if indeed it was Braun’s sample, which is the other telling detail that has emerged, courtesy of Will Carroll, since the ruling was announced. Braun’s defense team reportedly offered to provide DNA from Braun so that it could be checked against the DNA from the urine sample in question, but MLB refused. A positive match would not necessarily have proved Braun’s guilt, but a non-match certainly would have proved his innocence.

It should be noted that this request to check for a DNA match can still be granted, but based on what I’ve read and seen, I doubt MLB has the guts.

And while this is not evidence, Braun’s sterling performance in 2011 is not dramatically different from his play of previous years. He did not win the MVP with a record-setting 60 or 70 home run season like Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire, two PED cheaters. Braun had passed every previous drug test – all random – that he’s taken in both the major and minor leagues, and his body looks pretty much the same as it did when he broke into the majors. Clearly, he has not made himself into a Frankenstein with the aid of PEDs.

Rocky reaction

Braun is the only Major League player to have successfully appealed a positive drug test, but he has paid a stiff price. He has lost out on millions in endorsements that an MVP award normally would bring, and he’s likely to be greeted with a chorus of boos wherever he goes on the road. Fans of the division rival Cardinals, Chicago Cubs, and Cincinnati Reds, in particular, might not delve deeply enough into the details of this case to give him fair treatment. That would be particularly appalling for Cardinal fans that still admire Mr. McGwire, an admitted steroid user who now serves as the team’s hitting coach, and Cub fans that swooned for Mr. Sosa.

That’s certainly the case for some (not all) reporters on ESPN, the cable sports network that some Brewer fans now refer to as the Eastern Seaboard Propaganda Network. It was ESPN that broke the story about Braun’s positive test, possibly from a source in the lab that handled a follow-up test Braun sought after testing positive. I’m not ripping ESPN for breaking the story – that’s what news organizations do – but apparently some of their correspondents haven’t see Mr. Carroll’s reportage on this, so I’m happy to spread the word just to give them a more balanced perspective.

How wonderful of ESPN to break the story, but it's worth noting that the network is getting its head handed to it when reporting how the case against Braun fell apart. Bravo, ESPN.

One challenge Braun has in rehabilitating himself is that so many past baseball cheaters lied about their use of PEDs, including in testimony before Congress, only to be busted later. Understandably, the public’s skepticism is through the roof, so it will be hard for Braun to break through that. In reality, it was going to take a situation like this before people began to evaluate each situation on its individual merits, which is one reason Braun, in a rather remarkable press conference last Friday, repeatedly used the phrase “in my case” to illustrate that something was amiss here.

The one mistake he made in that press conference was to suggest that his sample could have been tampered with, not simply mishandled. Braun has no evidence of that, so he should have kept any suspicions to himself. Then again, if my good name had been unfairly trashed for several months, I’d be tempted to lash out, too.

MLB’s first choice of words, that it “vehemently disagreed” with the arbitrator’s ruling, was unfortunate, but it since has tempered its response. Since drug testing is important and necessary for the integrity of the sport, baseball should learn something every business knows – adherence to process is important, especially when a professional and personal reputation is at stake.

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