BY Art Thiel 08:06PM 07/22/2013

Thiel: Braun suspension first of many in PED fight

Booted from the Brewers for the rest of the season, Braun, the NL MVP in 2011, becomes first of at least 20 players to be suspended in an investigation other players wanted.

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.


  • dinglenuts

    I guess the percentage of clean players finally reached critical mass.

    Good to see. The players were the only ones who are going to have any influence to reduce PED use. Owners don’t care as long as the money rolls in (and their interests may be contrary to the players’), and a lot of fans don’t care because, hey, chicks dig the long ball.

    For years, players were loathe to call out other players by name for their blatant cheating. That may finally be changing.

    • art thiel

      Things will really change when players refuse to play on teams with known cheaters.

  • Not a big deal to me. Cheating to gain an edge in baseball goes as far back as the game’s beginnings. Players usually cheat because they want to do better…that’s why these are called “performance ENHANCING drugs.” Besides, how many of Bruan’s offensive stats came at the expense of pitchers who likewise were using PEDs? If Barry Bonds struck out and homered in two appearances against Roger Clemens, what do you do? Break out the Ford Frick Memorial Asterisk for both players?

    I have a lot more emnity for the likes of Hal Chase or Chick Gandil (who intentionally LOST games for personal financial gain) than Whitey Ford or Gaylord Perry (who should have “PhD” behind their names for the way they doctored baseballs). Why aren’t they kicked out of Cooperstown for cheating to win?

    Who needs to read Hawthorne’s “Scarlet Letter” when we’ve got the modern-day version of Roger Dimmesdale in Bud Selig, who personally benefitted as commissioner from baseball’s increase in popularity in no small part from what players were doing what he’s now suspending Braun for?

    • art thiel

      From corked bats to scratched baseballs to altered batter’s boxes (thank you, Mariners manager Maury Wills), we all are aware that rules are made to be broken. The difference with PEDs is the threat of long-term health damage with abuse. I know the clinical evidence of damage is minimal, largely because trials on humans are impossible and the rest of the data is anecdotal and uncontrolled.

      Yes, the people who overload — cops, soldiers, athletes — are adults making decisions they see in their best interests. But most cultures draw lines on what is considered aberrant. The call, in this case, is up to society and its subsets like MLB. Owners and players have drawn a belated, wavy line at PEDs that is weak on punishment.

      Some cultures cut off hands for stealing. Which would take all the fun out of the running game in baseball.

      • You know, Art, I’m going to retract much of what i said yesterday. No, I haven’t decided to get upset about PED use in baseball, but these ARE banned substances that could shorten the user’s life. Rick Honeycutt’s thumb tack kind of pales in comparison.

        These guys are adults who bear long-term responsiblity for what they do with (or to) their bodies, but I worry about all the football players in high school who use PEDs to improve their own performance and I can’t explain that away as “boys will be boys” in good conscience.

        On your latter point, Slick Watts never would’ve made it playing hoops in Iran under the mullahs, either. His outside shooting was problematic enough as it was.

  • Will

    Most high caliber athletes (of any sport) have access to a wide range of specialties – things most rare to average people. There’s specialized coaches, complex training protocols (for specific muscles and tendons), constant blood workups, physical therapists, diet specialists, vitamins and nutriments specific to individual’s need, the latest in sport’s medicine repairs, on-call shrinks and gurus and on-call everything else from today’s vast cornucopia of stuff.

    Athletes are like one-of-a-kind racing Ferrari (complete with dozens of managers and mechanics) and they’re are treated better than royalty as long as they can compete.

    It’s a blurry line separating all the deluxe treatments and the so-called performance enhancing drugs. And it will remain blurry until there’s reliable scientific evidence delineating the value of each.

    A side effect: PEDs have provided the sports media with additional soapboxes and megaphones – they too are benefiting from steroids and other drug cocktails.

    • art thiel

      Fair points, Will, about sophisticated treatments/medications/supplements creating edges that may be superior to PEDs. You missed the biggest advancement: Gene doping.

      But that’s another column, certainly welcome because as you know, there’s not enough going on in sports these days to write about.

  • jafabian

    I think MLB is taking the wrong approach with players. Instead of saying that they can’t do PED’s because the game needs to be fair and there’s the integrity of the sport (really, in this day and age its about the money) they need to put the fear of God in them. Say how in the long run PED’s could drastically affect their health, longevity and possibly pass those kind of issues to their future children as well. There will always be those who think they’re above reproach but make those issues related to their own health and that might change.

  • whidbeytom

    Why can’t the Brewers go to court and have the contract voided based on fraud? The contract was based on Braun’s previous performance. But his performance was biased by the use of banned substances.