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Braun reports, comes out swinging

PHOENIX -- No, he did not raise his arms and roar, Beast Mode-style, when he emerged from the dugout and stepped onto the field and into the late-morning sunshine. Under a cloudless, impossibly blue sky, Ryan Braun walked down the first-base line, saluted his teammates in the stands, and took the podium.

It would have surprised no one if Braun had read robotically from a terse statement and took no questions from the 30 reporters in attendance. But on Friday morning at the Brewers' spring training camp, a day after the stunning news that his 50-game PED suspension had been overturned, the reigning NL MVP faced the cameras and came out swinging with a 25-minute press conference that was an impassioned and forceful performance. "Obama, Romney, or Santorum would be in trouble if he went up against them," said Brewers pitcher Randy Wolf, who sat in uniform in the stands with a dozen of his teammates. "Ryan's an amazing speaker."

Dressed in jeans and a blue sweater, Braun rarely looked down at the handwritten notes in front of him as he cast himself as the victim, with his father, Joe, and his girlfriend, Larisa Fraser, in the stands looking on. "I would bet my life that the substance never entered my body at any point," he said.

Braun addressed the rumors that he'd tested positive because he was being treated for an STD. "There's never been a personal medical issue, I've never had an STD," he said. "Many of the stories that were erroneously reported by the initial network [ESPN] continue to live on."

Braun raised questions about the two-day gap between the time his urine sample was collected -- after an Oct. 1 playoff game -- and when it was shipped to a Montreal lab two days later. "There were at least five FedEx locations within five miles of the stadium that were open until 9 p.m.," he said, "and an additional FedEx location that was open for 24 hours."

Braun looked and sounded convincing -- he nailed it. And yet, even now, there is no way of knowing whether he's a victim of a badly mishandled sample or a PED user getting off the hook on a technicality. There remain more questions than answers to this story. We still don't know what caused the 20-1 testosterone ratio. We still don't know for sure what Braun did or didn't take. We still don't know why exactly arbiter Shyam Das ruled the way he did, and we'll never know, unless his formal decision is released.

About all we know is this: Braun will be in the lineup when the Brewers face the Cardinals on Opening Day in Milwaukee. "This is a good day," outfielder Corey Hart said.

Yes, it was a good day for the defending NL Central champs, who are suddenly back in the hunt in a division that now looks like it will be a white-knuckle race between the Cardinals, Reds and Brewers. It was a good day for Brewers GM Doug Melvin, who admitted that he "gambled" that Braun would win his appeal and made no offseason moves of note to bolster a lineup that lost Prince Fielder and faced the possibility of being without Braun for nearly a third of the season.

"We're a lot better now," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "That's about all it comes down to."

But it was not a good day for Major League Baseball, whose drug-testing system, which Braun called "fatally flawed," has taken a serious hit. There's been grumbling that players around baseball are angry because Braun got off on a technicality. Not surprisingly, though, Brewers players were quick to raise doubts about the system. Wolf suggested that Braun "may not be the only one" who's been wrongly accused of PED use. Braun even hinted that he's considering legal action, presumably against the collector and the people he believes leaked the confidential results of the drug test to ESPN in December.

In the next few weeks and months, there will be calls for changes in the drug-testing system and the chain of custody and collection procedures. There will be conspiracy theories (Braun is the biggest star on the team commissioner Bud Selig once owned). And there will be boos with the cheers, in ballparks around the country, all spring and summer long, for a player whose reputation will never be the same.

The vindication tour has just begun. The story isn't over. Braun, who says he'll be more motivated than ever on the baseball field, knows that. "I'm not dumb enough to pretend that this is going away," he said.

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