December 12, 2011
Prospectus Hit and Run
Braun Banned for PEDs [Version 9]
This story was initially published around 8:30 PM ET on Saturday night and has since been revised several times as new information has emerged. Please scroll down to see updates.
The baseball world was rocked on Saturday with an ESPN "Outside the Lines" report that Ryan Braun tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug during the playoffs. Braun was initially found to have an elevated testosterone level, and a subsequent test (presumably via the "B" sample" taken from the same specimen) revealed that the testosterone was synthetic. The actual identity of the substance hasn't been revealed.
Braun is disputing the result, which was not announced by Major League Baseball because the appeal process had not been completed; instead, information on what is designed to be a confidential process was leaked to veteran steroid beat reporters T.J. Quinn and Mark Fainaru-Wada, either by someone involved in the testing process or inside the commissioner's office. According to the report, immediately upon being informed of the positive, Braun requested a retest. That second test, says a source close to the case, was not positive. But what ESPN's story doesn't say is whether that second test was a test of the "B" sample — another portion of the original sample taken at the same time, a common drug testing protocol — that turned up negative, or whether it was a new sample, collected at a later date, that was tested.* This is such a critical piece of information that I'm surprised at the lack of clarity on the parts of these well-versed reporters and their editors; via the Twitter accounts of Quinn and Fainaru-Wada I have requested a clarification.
Braun's camp has expressed some optimism that their appeal may carry the day. A spokesman from Creative Artists Agency, which represents Braun, has issued a statement:
While it is believed that no positive test finding has been overturned in the short history of MLB's drug testing program, it is more accurate to say that no positive test finding that has been made public has been overturned. The possibility exists that there have been situations where players were exonerated via the appeals process — due to false positives or other anomalies — without news of the original positive becoming public. If the finding is upheld, Braun will face a 50-game suspension, severely denting the chances of a Brewers squad already scrambling to replace the likely loss of Prince Fielder to free agency. The appeals process could take several weeks.
It's bad enough that a well-liked star is getting hit with a PED suspension, but what makes this one particularly awkward is that just weeks ago, Braun was named the winner of the National League Most Valuable Player award. He enjoyed a fabulous season, hitting .332/.397/.597 with 33 homers for the Brewers while helping them to their second playoff appearance in the past four seasons and their first division title since 1982. His .340 True Average ranked second in the league behind Matt Kemp's .350, his 6.4 WARP fourth behind Kemp (8.9), Joey Votto (7.0), and Clayton Kershaw (6.5). There's no precedent in baseball for an awards vote being overturned, and nothing in the language of the league's policy on the matter; note that the award is given by the Baseball Writers Association of America, not MLB. Given the soapbox derby that the subject often generates in the mainstream media, it's not a surprise to see at least some faction move to do so, but remember that nobody asked Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, Alex Rodriguez, or Roger Clemens to give back awards won when they were allegedly using PEDs. BBWAA secretary/treasurer Jack O'Connell, who administrates the awards confirms that there are no plans to move for a re-vote. ""The voters used the infomation they had at the time of the election. I don't see how we can change that," he told the L.A. Times.
Braun's positive test is just the third among major leaguers in 2011, following Manny Ramirez's positive test back in April and Eliezer Alfonso's in September; ironically, both were second offenses resulting in 100-game suspensions, suggesting that the gap between those who get it and those who don't is widening. Ramirez's positive test forced the slugger into retirement; he has just successfully applied for reinstatement, along with an agreement to reduce the ban to 50 games once he signs, given that he sat out all of last season. His previous positive, in May 2009, ranks as a better parallel to Braun's in that it was the first time MLB's testing program caught a star at the top of his game, and also one in which an initial test of elevated testosterone levels empowered MLB to to take a closer look.
Aside from a hideous clothing line, the 28-year-old Braun is a likeable player who symbolizes the Brewers' renaissance; back in April, with Fielder poised to make his last lap around the league in Milwaukee colors, Braun signed a contract extension that will keep him in town through the 2020 season. He has been cited by Bud Selig as an example of what's right with the game. One hopes that there's some reasonable explanation that will explain the positive result away so that we can forget this ever happened. The odds on that may appear longer than those of Fielder reupping, and the damage to the public perception of Braun won't easily be undone even if the result is rolled back.
Still, as the news cycle has continued to roll, it's shed light on a situation about which the public should have some doubts, because word of Braun's positive broke before the appeals process could be completed. If the tests were indeed contradictory, one would have hoped that a process that is supposed to be confidential remains confidential until the league and the labs get to the bottom of this. That's not the case, however, and while it's important not to rush to judgment about whether Braun is guilty, either way this appears to be a very dark day for baseball.
Update (1): It's worth noting a pair of tweets from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's Tom Haudricourt. First, "Braun cannot give his side of the story because he is not allowed to talk during appeal process," and second, "Just spoke to someone familiar with the details of Braun's test and was assured he will be found innocent. If so, horrible this leaked out." As bad as this looks right now, there does appear to be a glimmer of hope that this is all going to go away.
*Update (2): The ESPN article has been revised, but the wording is still frustratingly vague:
Huh? If the test was indeed taken from a new sample, then the interval at which it was collected would be an issue; different drugs stay in the system for different lengths of time, and even if it was collected just "a couple of weeks later," as Haudricourt's blog entry suggests, that could compromise the appeal. Also troubling is the use of the phrase "tested by Braun's camp," which suggests the introduction of bias into the proceedings, since all testing is supposed to be done by an independent third party, not someone with a vested interest in sides or camps. You'd think reporters who have been covering this stuff for the better part of the decade would be able to produce more precision, but they have not, and it only raises more questions about what's already a very curious case.
Update (3): This story won't sit still. Haudricort reports that a source from the Braun camp says that it's not a PED for which Braun tested positive:
Fox's Ken Rosenthal tweets that has a story pending with words to the same effect, that the positive test was for a prohibited substance, not a PED. In a follow-up, Rosenthal tweets, "What he did triggered violation of #MLB steroid-testing policy. Source says substance was prohibited, but not PED." I'm not an expert enough to speculate as to what substance that might be, but it's worth remembering that in 2009, Ramirez's positive test was for human chorionic gonadotropin, a female fertility drug that steroid users often take in order to kick-start testosterone production following a cycle. Furthermore, it's important to note that the Joint Drug Agreement (PDF here) defines "Prohibited Substances" in three classes: "Drugs of Abuse," "Performance Enhancing Substances," and "Stimulants."
Update (4): Rosenthal's story corroborates Haudricourt's:
The source described the test result as highly unusual, “never seen in the history of (baseball’s) drug-prevention program.”
Update (5): As I said above, the assertion that no positive test finding has been overturned is inaccurate; there have apparently been cases overturned before the result of the initial positive was publicly reported. Various reporters hinted as such on Saturday night; as Haudricourt pointed out, "No player is known to have had positive drug test overturned on appeal but details would not be released in that event." A source with knowledge of MLB's testing program corroborates the existence of overturned cases, Kevin Goldstein has talked to people in front offices who corroborate that, and at least one player does as well. On Saturday night, Jimmy Rollins tweeted, "[N]ever been overturned is "technically" correct. I know of a case that no one will hear about."
This story just gets weirder and weirder.
Update (6): The weirdness continues. The New York Daily News's Teri Thomson reports that the level of Braun's testosterone in the first test was "insanely high, the highest ever for anyone who has ever taken a test, twice the level of the highest test ever taken," according to a source familiar with the case. That ratio is one of the "highly unusual circumstances" to which Braun's handlers have referred. The same source also says that there were chain of custody issues involving the test, which was sent to the World Anti-Doping Agency laboratory in Montreal to undergo carbon isotope ratio (CIR) or isotope ratio mass spectrometry (IRMS) testing. Those tests revealed that the levels were caused by exogenous or synthetic testosterone. The report includes this rather cryptic statement from the source: