Major league baseball finally scored when it suspended Milwaukee star Ryan Braun Monday for the rest of the Brewers’ season, 65 games, for violating the joint drug prevention program that is part of the collective bargaining agreement with the union. Two things were remarkable about it:
After more than a year of denials, Braun finally admitted to “mistakes.” And the union accepted the outcome without a public fight.
What will really make it a watershed event is, upon his return, whether MLB continues to allow Braun, National League’s Most Valuable Player in 2011, to be rewarded with mega-contracts, such as what happened with the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez and Toronto’s Melky Cabrera after they admitted using PEDs.
Braun had been doing the full Lance Armstrong when it came to lying about his reported involvement with a closed South Florida wellness clinic that allegedly distributed steroids, synthetic testosterone and human growth hormone.
For more than a year, MLB has been investigating the Biogenesis clinic, whose records include names of at least 20 players, including the Mariners’ Jesus Montero, the one-time starting catcher demoted recently to AAA Tacoma and playing first base.
Making the high-profile Braun, 29, who played college ball at the University of Miami, the first casualty of the investigation without a fight, suggests that MLB has its case in order. Braun was under scrutiny since December 2011, when he tested positive for an abnormally high level of synthetic testosterone. He appealed, and became the first major leaguer to have a positive test overturned when an arbitrator ruled there was a chain-of-custody violation. Braun said at the time, “I have nothing to hide.”
Braun Monday released a statement through MLB:
“As I have acknowledged in the past, I am not perfect. I realize now that I have made some mistakes. I am willing to accept the consequences of those actions. This situation has taken a toll on me and my entire family, and it is has been a distraction to my teammates and the Brewers organization.
“I am very grateful for the support I have received from players, ownership and the fans in Milwaukee and around the country. Finally, I wish to apologize to anyone I may have disappointed — all of the baseball fans especially those in Milwaukee, the great Brewers organization, and my teammates. I am glad to have this matter behind me once and for all, and I cannot wait to get back to the game I love.”
MLB released its own statement from executive VP Rob Manfred: “We commend Ryan Braun for taking responsibility for his past actions. We all agree that it is in the best interests of the game to resolve this matter. When Ryan returns, we look forward to him making positive contributions to Major League Baseball, both on and off the field.”
The most important statement came from union chief Michael Weiner: “I am deeply gratified to see Ryan taking this bold step. It vindicates the rights of all players under the Joint Drug Program. It is good for the game that Ryan will return soon to continue his great work on and off the field.”
While no one disclosed the nature of the violations, the details became secondary to Weiner’s point that the punishment “vindicates all the players.” An increasingly vocal majority of players who have not taken PEDs finally have persuaded the union to represent their interests over the violators.
Baseball’s vigorous pursuit of this case, including paying for documents from the Biogenesis perpetrator, Tony Bosch and other ethically dubious tactics, came about not because of any fan or media outrage, or any great moral epiphany experienced by Commissioner Bud Selig. It’s happening because union members were sick and tired of losing roster spots and millions of dollars to players they knew, or suspected, to be abusers of PEDs.
Given the widespread use of steroids by non-athletes in high schools, as well as soldiers, police, construction workers and bouncers, there is no widespread disdain of the practice in an American culture awash in pharmaceutical enhancement. And if the adulation heaped by San Franciscans upon Barry Bonds during his ‘roid-tainted (sorry, “flaxseed oil”) home-run spree is any indication, most baseball fans don’t care, either, as long as he’s “our guy.”
Sure, there are plenty of medical professionals, coaches, parents and reformed trainers wagging fingers at PEDs, but they don’t amount to much more than scolds easily dismissed by athletes who see millions of dollars more readily obtainable with tactics they believe will be unobserved.
Well, they, or their results, were observed by the people who were most negatively influenced by them — their teammates and fellow union members.
“Given the rewards — particularly in pro baseball, where the money is so big — you have to have severe penalties that sufficiently protect the clean athletes,” Travis Tygart, chief executive of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency told the Los Angeles Times last month. “And it is frustrating for clean athletes when a guy does get caught, sits out 50 games, but then comes back and signs a huge multimillion contract that another athlete rightly deserved because they were playing within the rules.”
That’s what so annoys many players about Rodriguez and Cabrera. If top-shelf veterans know that the worst case is a 50-game suspension and a little embarrassment that will be rewarded by another big contract post-suspension, there is no real disincentive.
Braun is not likely to be the best example for that, because he’s locked up through 2020 in a contract that still has $133 million owed on it. He will forfeit about $3 million of the $8.5 million he is owed this year. The Brewers cannot void his contract because of the violation.
But Braun is the first MVP to be busted under the joint drug program — and in Selig’s hometown, no less. So it’s plain that MLB’s isn’t particularly worried about sacred cows — or fights with the union. Among the others, it remains to be seen about penalties as well as contractual consequences in their futures.
“There’s been a lot of talk about what could happen next as far as the guidelines and punishments and penalties for failure to adhere to the standards and testing,” Houston catcher Jason Castro, the Astros’ union rep, told the LA Times. “Obviously there’s a want (among) the majority of the guys in the game to keep baseball clean. Players are getting very involved. And it’s a good thing to see because it’s our careers and it’s our game and we want a level playing field.”
So baseball fans should expect a long, hot summer of disclosures and suspensions as a result of the Biogenesis investigation. Feel free to yawn if you like; just know it’s the players themselves who have ordered the housecleaning. They don’t care that you don’t care.