No defending Braun, but mixed messages from union members abound

Tuesday July 23rd, 2013

Some may be angry now, but history shows his fellow players will welcome Ryan Braun back to baseball.
Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

Let's get the easy part out of the way: There's no way to defend Ryan Braun. By accepting a rest-of-2013 suspension from MLB at a cost of more than $3 million, Braun effectively pleaded guilty to charges that he violated the Joint Drug Agreement. Braun, who offered a full-throated denial of sports-drug use and argued an ultimately successful appeal of a failed drug test in 2012, put the lie to his claims of innocence by succumbing to MLB without an appeal to an arbitrator or a court of law.

Circumstance may have made concession attractive. Braun has been injured on and off during what is a lost season for the Brewers, and by taking a suspension now he minimizes any risk to Milwaukee's future success, but it is a concession nonetheless. Braun violated the JDA and lied to a lot of people in doing so, and he's going to get the Rafael Palmeiro treatment for a while.

That is, to me, the least interesting part of the story. It's dog-bites-man. Athletes lie, they use, they deny and they get caught. We have seen this cycle before, we will see it again, and that Braun represents a particularly odious spin through the cycle doesn't necessarily make it more interesting. If that angle is your particular investment in this story, I encourage you to indulge in it, and ask only that you pack a healthy lunch before marching into the abyss.

There are a great many people expressing anger about the fact that Braun lied. I don't understand that. We're lied to all the time, even in the narrow area of baseball. We're lied to about money, usually, and those lies don't engender nearly the depth and breadth of anger we saw yesterday, even though the cost to people is much greater. We're lied to about baseball, about economics, about labor. We're often lied to about things that are provably wrong. Some people have been lying to us since Ryan Braun was in grade school. If lying is the great offense that it's being positioned as today, then the course of the last 20 years of baseball should have been much different. Braun's lying is a red herring.

That's not really my point. This is a multi-faceted story that can't possibly be covered in a single story. In my newsletter, I recently laid out the argument that the Biogenesis investigation is the latest tactic in the decade-long execution of the first successful anti-MLBPA strategy that MLB owners have ever had. By elevating the issue of sports drugs and positioning the players, as a group, as untrustworthy, owners have been able to make substantial gains in each of the last three CBA negotiations, largely by keeping the players divided and defensive.

I stand by that argument, but it is also not my point. No, my point today is about a dichotomy that I cannot resolve.

In the era of testing and punishments, dozens of players have been charged with violating the JDA and sentenced to a suspension. With rare exceptions, those players, having been caught cheating, have been welcomed back by the industry and their peers without any protest. They've gone on to make All-Star teams, to sign multi-year contracts, to be at the bottom of celebratory dogpiles while being cheered by thousands of fans. They've been acquired in trade. They've started memes embraced by the entirety of a fan base. One signed a guaranteed contract while under suspension. That guy was suspended twice and came back to pitch in the playoffs in the same year of his second suspension, earning a World Series ring. Even this year, players who a year ago were violators are embraced, mobbed and celebrated not just as part of their team but as part of their community. Players and executives, whatever their words, have made clear by their actions that being caught using sports drugs doesn't make you a pariah within the game.

While all that is going on, the union formerly known as the MLBPA is offering an at-best-tepid defense for the players being pursued in the Biogenesis investigation. This investigation has involved a dedicated unit within MLB pressuring a drug dealer and a newspaper for information, and when that failed, filing a meritless lawsuit to extort information from the drug dealer. When the dealer couldn't sell his information to players, he flipped and, with an agreement that he would be compensated for his efforts, began to work with MLB.

I'll wait while you take that shower.

Not only has the former union failed to provide a strenuous defense for the players being investigated, it announced that it would not be doing so. At no point has the union or any players pointed out how diseased the process by which MLB came into possession of its information is. At no point has the union questioned the double-jeopardy nature of this investigation, which invalidates every passed drug test of the players involved -- and by extension, the entire prove-your-innocence program. At no point has the union acted as if it has any interest in protecting its members against a witch hunt. It's one thing to be uncomfortable with the accused players' actions, but by standing aside, the union has implicitly approved a reprehensible process. If the union feels it has no interest in protecting drug users, it certainly has one in protecting anyone from being railroaded.

What I don't understand is how all of the above can be true at the same time. How can the players not protest the post-suspension careers of Ryan Franklin and Michael Morse and Rafael Betancourt and Guillermo Mota and Carlos Ruiz and the rest of the violators? How can they welcome them back into the fold, get beat by them, lose jobs to them, lose money to them, lose postseason berths, lose World Series shares to them? How is it that in 10 years of being told about a culture change -- one that is arguably evident in the union's passivity on this issue -- we've never seen a player say he doesn't want to play with one of these guys. I don't mean in the abstract. I mean no player has said that he won't sign a contract with a team because it employs a cheater. No player has said that he would like to see his team release the teammate caught using.

There's all this concern trolling about the clean players, the ones "most hurt" by the cheaters' supposed advantage, but when Marlon Byrd signs with the Mets, where is Kirk Nieuwenhuis' outrage? If the players want a clean game, shouldn't Bartolo Colon's job belong to Sonny Gray? Isn't Anthony Gose getting screwed by Melky Cabrera? When Ryan Braun goes to spring training, who speaks for Logan Schafer?

No one does.

Broadcaster Brian Kenny used the word "outrage" Monday night (and I admit I'm pulling it slightly out of context here). I don't see it. I see anonymous quotes. I see generalized statements. I see, more than anything, a desire to not have to deal with this any longer. Outrage? Outrage is action. Outrage is putting your feelings on the subject out there because you believe you're right and that's more important than the potential effects on your career.

There's no outrage here. I can cite two examples in 10 years; one is Nick Hundley snapping about Yasmani Grandal, and the other is the Giants shunning Melky Cabrera. The first is, frankly, a fair objection if you believe that sports drugs enhance performance. The second is complicated by the exact same team welcoming back Mota, a player coming off his second suspension, at the exact same time. Whatever the differences, it's hard to see the 2012 Giants as a case of clear rejection of players caught by the testing program.

We'll certainly get all kinds of reaction now from players ganging up on Braun, but following the mob is easy. Most sports-drugs coverage is following the mob. Hell, most sports coverage is. I want to know when the applied outrage shows up away from the mob, in advance of it.

These two tracks cannot be harmonized. Bartolo Colon walked off the field Sunday surrounded by smiling, happy teammates. The union to which those players belong cut loose Ryan Braun on Monday in the face of an investigation that reads like a late-period Moonlighting episode, one led by Agnes and Herbert on a shooting day when Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd were locked in their trailers pissed at one another. With each milestone we pass the relationship between MLB and sports drugs becomes, like my favorite show in high school, devoid of consistency, stripped of coherence, and increasingly, inexorably sad.

For more from Joe Sheehan, read his newsletter or follow him on Twitter.

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