PHOENIX — In a parallel universe, Friday would have been the day Ryan Braun transitioned from a triumphant offseason, validated by a most valuable player award, to another standard, optimism-filled spring. Under different circumstances — ones that didn’t involve ugly leaks, rampant speculation and a fierce battle to save his reputation — Braun would have walked into the Milwaukee Brewers’ spring training clubhouse, hugged some teammates, answered a few “how was your winter?” questions and launched the Brewers’ defense of their 2011 National League Central title.
Instead, the standard reporting day for the Brewers’ position players produced the most extraordinary spectacle at the well-traveled intersection of baseball and performance-enhancing drugs since the infamous March 2005 congressional hearing:
Shortly after 11 a.m., Braun, as well-coiffed and polished as any of the talking heads who soon began lobbying questions at him, strode to a podium set up in foul territory on the Maryvale Baseball Park field, pulled out some notes, and set about poking giant holes in baseball’s drug-testing program.
“I am the victim of a process that completely broke down and failed,” Braun said, “. . . The program, in the way that it was applied to me, was absolutely fatally flawed.”
For baseball, it is both a blessing and a curse that fate chose Braun as the first player in history to successfully challenge a positive test for performance-enhancing drugs. He is not only one of the sport’s best players, a 28-year-old package of power and speed nicknamed the “Hebrew Hammer,” but also one of its most articulate and telegenic. It is not hyperbole to say there isn’t a player in baseball who could have delivered a more impassioned and convincing performance — even accounting for the legal and PR advice he was surely given beforehand — under such dire circumstances.
“I've tried to handle the situation with honor, with integrity, with class, with dignity and with professionalism,” he said, “because that’s who I am and that’s how I’ve always lived my life. . . . By no means am I perfect. But if I've ever made mistakes in my life, I've taken responsibility for my actions.
“I truly believe in my heart and would bet my life that the substance never entered my body at any point. . . . I did not do this.”
But even at the end of the remarkable 24-minute news conference, less than a day after the news came that Braun’s appeal of his 50-game suspension had been upheld, it was impossible to know whether Braun was, as he said, a victim — of either sloppy chain-of-custody procedures or straight-up sabotage — or a very good liar who took illegal synthetic testosterone last fall and beat the charges on a technicality.
“We won,” he said, “because the truth is on my side.”
Braun, citing the standard “ongoing legal matter” stance, did not provide many details of his “clean” defense, or any concrete explanations as to how his testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio on the urine test in question registered at a level (reportedly 20-to-1) that was three times higher than any other sample in the history of baseball’s testing program.
He did, however, outline some of the chain-of-custody issues that formed the backbone of his appeal: How the sample collector (whose identity has not been revealed) failed to ship the sample in a timely fashion, despite there being “18 or 19” open FedEx locations in the vicinity on the night in question (last Oct. 1, a Saturday). How the same collector waited until 1:30 p.m. the following Monday to ship the samples, rather than at 7:30 a.m. when FedEx opened.
“I honestly don’t know what happened to [the sample] in that 44-hour period,” Braun said.
Braun also, cryptically, spoke of “a lot of things we learned” about the collector and the collection process that “made us very concerned and suspicious about what could have actually happened.
“We spoke to biochemists and scientists, asked them how difficult would it be to tamper with somebody’s sample,” Braun said. “Their response was that, if they were motivated, it would be extremely easy.”
Rob Manfred, MLB’s executive vice president for labor relations, took exception to some of Braun’s comments, saying the sport’s testing program is “not ‘fatally flawed’,” and pointing out that Braun’s defense never contended the sample had been tampered with.
Manfred also defending the collector’s actions, saying they were consistent with the instructions given, but he acknowledged the arbitrator found those instructions to be “not consistent with certain language” in the MLB testing program. Manfred also said “changes will be made promptly” to clarify those instructions.
While noting he did not wish to make false accusations, Braun implied he is considering legal action against both the collector and those whom he believes leaked the confidential results of the drug test to ESPN.
“Everything I’ve worked for my entire life was called into question,” he said. “. . . I lived through a nightmare every day for the last four months.”
After Thursday’s announcement that the suspension had been overturned, MLB issued a release saying it “vehemently disagreed” with the arbitrator’s ruling. When Braun was asked about that reaction, he said only that is was “a little sad disappointing that this has become a PR battle.”
As Braun spoke, about a dozen of his Brewers teammates, along with Manager Ron Roenicke, sat in the stands in support. Just before stepping in front of the cameras, Braun addressed his teammates in a players-only meeting in the clubhouse. Until Thursday, the Brewers had spent the past four months unsure if they would have their best player for roughly the first third of the season.
“It’s a flawed system,” veteran outfielder Corey Hart said. “Instead of blaming people for what happened, [management has] to take responsibility. The system is not as good as we thought it was. It’s very discouraging. Ryan’s offseason was ruined because of it, and MLB’s reaction made it worse.”
Braun acknowledged the long, difficult task he has in regaining his reputation, saying, “I’m not dumb enough to pretend this is going away.”
“One of my biggest regrets having gone through this situation is that I can never get that time of my life back,” he said. “It should have been an amazing time in my life. My team had an incredible season last year — finished two wins short of the World Series. I had a great year individually. I should have been able to enjoy the offseason, and I didn't.”