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July 23, 2013

Overthinking It

Ryan Braun, Biogenesis, and Betrayal

by Ben Lindbergh

Baseball Prospectus has no house style on performance-enhancing drugs, the way we do about, say, punctuation (unspaced em-dash only, please). We haven’t taken an internal poll and decided to condone or condemn PEDs, and we don’t issue an official stance on steroids as part of the author orientation process. But a site devoted to the pursuit of objective knowledge about baseball tends to attract a group of authors who’ve independently developed similar feelings about certain subjects—from batting order to the sacrifice bunt—and so much of our coverage of baseball’s PED problem over the years has held true to a few first principles:

  1. An out-of-character statistical performance, or a muscular body, doesn’t constitute a smoking gun. Breakout seasons by players from Jose Bautista to Chris Davis have elsewhere spawned cookie-cutter “You have to ask the question” columns, in which Author X oh-so-reluctantly wonders whether Player Y is on something. But you don’t really have to ask the question, unless some real evidence arises.

  2. Even if PED use can be proven, its effects can be tough to pin down. “PED” is a term that applies to any number of substances whose performance-enhancing capabilities in baseball are unclear. If Melky Cabrera tests positive for PEDs in the midst of a career year, it doesn’t mean that the testosterone he took was responsible for the entirety of the difference between his seasonal stats and career averages. It could be he had a career year because he was 27, an age at which players often peak, or because he had a high BABIP made out of extra singles. Have PEDs helped some users become better at baseball? Sure, that seems safe to say. But have they helped all users, or helped all users to an equal extent? We can speculate, but beyond pointing out that PEDs don’t make every player who takes them a superstar, we can’t draw conclusions without leaving our commitment to objective knowledge about baseball behind.

  3. Baseball players are people, and people—given sufficient incentive—sometimes do dishonest things. We all learn this lesson the hard way, either by reflecting on our own actions or by observing the actions of others, long before we find out that a baseball player failed a PED test, possibly even after proclaiming his own innocence. And while we’d all like to protect our children from life’s little unpleasantries, they’ll learn the same lesson themselves on the playground, or in the classroom, or when someone screws them over to get a bigger dorm room in their sophomore-year housing selection process (not that I’m still bitter about that).

At various points, BP’s wait-and-see, innocent-until-there’s-some-actual-evidence stance on steroids has led to its authors being labeled PED apologists. I prefer to think of those of us who’ve heard that refrain as PED pragmatists. It’s not that we want to see some players enjoy an unfair advantage over others, or to escape punishment for breaking baseball’s rules. It’s that we accept that baseball has never been completely clean or aboveboard, and that human nature—here in the uncivilized 21st century, at least—demands that it must be so.

That said: no one likes being lied to. And so many of us, like many of you and many of his teammates, aren’t big fans of Ryan Braun right now.

In light of Braun’s Monday suspension, his performance in the press conference he gave last February, after winning an appeal of a 2011 positive test on chain-of-custody grounds, serves as a more effective indictment of his character than any spittle-flecked, one-sentence-per-paragraph column could. Braun portrayed himself as an innocent victim, a “wrong man” right out of Hitchcock who was fingered for a crime he didn’t commit. He toyed with our emotions and our sympathies, describing how he’d been “attacked” and had his name “dragged through the mud.” He told us that he’d conducted himself “with honor, with integrity, with class, with dignity, and with professionalism,” and that he’d “put the best interests of the game ahead of the best interests of myself.” He cited “the morals, the values, the virtues” that made it impossible for him to have taken what the test said he took. He implied that the man who collected his test sample, Dino Laurenzi, Jr., had at best been bad at his job and at worst had done something to tamper with the test results.

And less than a year and a half later, presumably faced with evidence of involvement with the Biogenesis clinic that one of Jon Heyman’s sources described as “receipts, checks, the whole nine yards,” he accepted a 65-game suspension rather than appeal and insist on his innocence again.

Braun doesn’t deserve a pardon from the public. Feel free to burn your Braun jersey, or boycott the Brewers when he returns in 2014, or oppose his eventual Hall of Fame candidacy if you think the Hall is something more than a museum or a place to put plaques about players with good statistics.

But we don’t need another round of articles full of faux—or even real—rage about how a professional athlete killed Santa Claus. We know more about Ryan Braun than we did before this suspension, but we don’t know more about human nature. And most of us can’t say with certainty whether—if faced with the same pressures and incentives that Braun was—we would have done what he did in pursuit of a $100 million extension, or owned up to it afterward if we felt that we had a good chance to get away with it. Let those among us who haven’t broken a rule or lied about something to get ahead or save their skins cast the first accusatory column.

Despite what some have suggested, Braun doesn’t owe us an in-person apology more specific than the “I have made some mistakes” and “I wish to apologize to anyone I may have disappointed” in his statement. You could argue that regardless of any obligation, a public apology might be in Braun’s best interest, but even that seems like a stretch, since nothing he could say would restore his reputation now. Apologies aren’t worth the pixels they’re printed on unless they’re sincere and accompanied by behavioral change, and we have little reason to believe that any apology Braun could offer would be anything but insincere, except in the sense that he doubtless does wish that he hadn’t been caught. An apology would only provide another opportunity to bash Braun for failing to apologize earlier.

When the first report that he and other players might face suspensions surfaced last month, Braun made a cryptic, technically true comment that hinted at his innocence without outright reaffirming it: “The truth has not changed.” That’s essentially how I feel about the state of PED use in baseball in the wake of Braun’s suspension. One thing we know—that players will seek to exploit any extralegal edge, whether it’s a corked bat, a scuffed or spit-covered ball, amphetamines, or testosterone (of both the synthetic and monkey-made varieties)—hasn’t changed. And another thing we know—that Major League Baseball, belatedly or not, is doing its best to stop the exploitation of those extralegal edges from eroding fan confidence in a relatively clean competition—hasn’t changed, either.

***

  • Way back in January, when we were still wondering how to pronounce "Biogenesis," Sam Miller and I took to Effectively Wild to discuss what seemed at the time to be the prevailing reaction to the revelations: that baseball needed to impose harsher penalties for PED users. I argued that the fact that we knew about the Biogenesis story at all was a sign that baseball was cracking down, and that its efforts were working. This morning, Ken Rosenthal wrote the same thing about Braun's suspension, and he's right. Braun's PED use isn't the story anyone would want all over the headlines as the second half starts. But his suspension isn't a setback. It's a success.

  • As others have pointed out, by accepting a suspension without pay for the 65 games remaining on Milwaukee’s schedule this season, Braun precludes the possibility of serving an even longer suspension for the same offense next season. He also saves himself some cash, even over a suspension of equal or shorter length, since he’ll be making $2 million more in 2014.

  • One wonders whether the Brewers being out of contention (and Braun being a bit banged up) made his decision to serve the suspension now any easier. Several other players linked to Biogenesis—Alex Rodriguez, Nelson Cruz, Bartolo Colon, and Jhonny Peralta, among others—play for teams whose playoff hopes would take a hit if they were removed from the roster.

  • If Rodriguez is one of the next players to be suspended, his 2009 TV interview and press conference comments, in which he blamed his 2001-2003 steroid use on youth, immaturity, and not knowing any better, won’t play much better than Braun’s denials. If you deny your usage—with or without a finger wag—and subsequently get busted, or use again after admitting and expressing remorse about a previous transgression, there’s no playing your way back into most fans’ good graces.

  • In light of this uncontested suspension, complaints about an MLB “witch hunt” with respect to Braun sound a little silly. The problem with witch hunts is that if your search is successful, it means that you’ve found a false positive. That’s not the case here. MLB may have gone to great—and perhaps unseemly—lengths to bring Braun to justice (so to speak), but they got their man, and Braun’s capitulation seems to suggest that Anthony Bosch was a more credible source than many reports suggested. It would be nice if MLB could simply trust the process in place and not work outside the system, now that players are routinely tested. But since players have found ways to skirt the system, the league has to do the same if it wants to discourage other stars from paying for banned substances from future shady anti-aging clinics.

  • On the day that Braun’s suspension went into effect, the LA Times reported that the NFL and the NFL Players Association are once again talking about testing for human growth hormone, as they have been for the past two years. MLB and the MLBPA agreed to in-season HGH tests in January. Research about HGH’s performance-enhancing powers for pro athletes isn’t conclusive, but give baseball credit for checking off as many PED-testing boxes as possible. Maybe it’s not the best look for baseball writers when we use another revelation about baseball juicing to whine about why football, despite all the big bodies and debilitating injuries, gets a PED pass. But the sport isn’t subjected to the same scrutiny, which definitely seems like a double standard.

  • Kudos to the Players Union, too, for not pushing Braun to fight the suspension. Last week, Union head Michael Weiner said, "I can tell you, if we have a case where there really is overwhelming evidence that a player committed a violation of the program our fight is going to be that they make a deal. We’re not interested in having players with overwhelming evidence that they violated the (drug) program out there. Most of the players aren’t interested in that. We’d like to have a clean program." Braun's suspension seems to back up his statement. You can't claim that the Union is more interested in protecting its members from punishment than it is in making sure its members are clean.

  • If you’re sick of Biogenesis, brace yourself for even messier stories on the horizon. It’s already difficult to draw a philosophical line between banned PEDs and now-routine procedures like PRP or LASIK, to say nothing of non-prescription painkillers or surgeries that work better than ever before. Wait until the real science fiction stuff—genetically modified athletes and Base Wars-style cyborgs—works its way into baseball. Making distinctions between banned and permitted procedures isn’t going to get any easier.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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