December 12, 2011
Braun, a Hometown View
It's not a hard thing to admit: I'm sick and tired of talking about steroids (and PEDs) in baseball - and have been for a while. When it was announced in 2009 that Alex Rodriguez's name was on the (completely "anonymous" and presumably destroyed) "list of 104" from the 2003 testing, I couldn't bring myself to parrot the same old arguments every other baseball fan has had over the last ten years. Instead, I looked for a simpler, more joyful take on the sport - and found it in Snoopy's race with Hank Aaron for the home run crown.
A few months later, when it was Manny Ramirez who was in the news - this time for an actual failed test - I went to the same well. In 2011, when Manny decided to retire rather than serve out a 100-game suspension for a similar positive test, I ignored the present and, instead, looked back at his great career. I follow baseball to enjoy it, to revel in the feats of those who play the world's greatest game. I don't follow baseball to drag myself down with hypotheticals and other impossible comparisons to an ideal that never existed (or to dwell in the sanctimony of those who do). I don't care about steroids or PEDs - the union and the owners have decided to handle the issue of PEDs with random drug testing and strong punishments, so why should I care anything beyond that? - but I do care about the exploits of a homering hound. That's just who I am.
I freely admit to having felt differently in the past. When Barry Bonds was making a mockery of the record books (you know, the same way Tiger Woods made a mockery of Pebble Beach in 2000 - by being miles better than anyone else) while being allegedly tied to steroids, I hated him for it. His attitude, his baseball-sized elbow brace, his utter dominance - I would rail against his cheating with the best of them. But years of maturing, of thinking on the era as a whole, of getting away from my initial revulsion to the man on the field, has put those feelings to rest. Bonds was better than everyone else - and quite possibly the greatest player of all-time - because he had eagle eyes, a lightning bat, and a whole cadre of pitchers unwilling to challenge either. Steroids certainly played a part, but it is impossible - I repeat, impossible - for any of us to know to what extent. It's why I usually let steroids and PEDs talk float away into the wind.
But I don't exactly have that luxury today. The Ryan Braun news that broke late Saturday night and all day Sunday - that Braun tested positive for something on MLB's banned list and that he is in the middle of fervently challenging the findings - was a blow to the gut and left me in stunned silence for most of the night. As a Brewers fan living in Milwaukee, I cheered Braun's MVP award loudly, despite recognizing Matt Kemp's superior season. He's not the perfect ballplayer - his defense leads much to be desired and he likely doesn't have the power to ever lead the league in home runs - but he is clearly one of the best in the league and he's embraced this town like few before him. I couldn't wait to enjoy Braun's time as the reigning National League MVP.
What do I do now? If the test results are upheld, how can any Brewers fan enjoy Braun's reign? Even if one can get over it personally, there's no way a fan of any other team would let him enjoy it. Will we cheer him when he returns to leftfield, or will we always feel betrayed, unsure of his true talent, unsure if his ten-year contract is justified? Will we even be allowed to see him accept his MVP trophy on Opening Day?
And what if Braun's appeal goes through and he is exonerated of all charges? I know Milwaukee will accept that, but will those other fanbases? The trial-by-public-opinion went through pretty quickly on Twitter over the weekend, and Braun was clearly found "guilty". Will a successful appeal be enough to reverse and negate that opinion, or will he be forever stained with the steroid mark no matter what? And how many will perceive any attempt at a rational discussion of the possibility of innocence as nothing but a biased view of a hometown fan?
I'm hoping beyond hope that the protestations out of Braun's camp are true and will prove him innocent, but I find it hard to believe that will pass. The 2012 season is looming. I was looking forward to it like few seasons before, but now I'm dreading it. Did I say I hate talking about steroids and PEDs? Well right now, I just hate steroids and PEDs, period.