In the late afternoon of Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011, shortly after the cheering stopped at Miller Park in Milwaukee, where the Brewers had beaten the Diamondbacks in the opening game of the NLDS, a specimen collector from a drug-testing agency asked Ryan Braun to produce a urine sample. Braun, the Milwaukee leftfielder who had three hits that day and would be named National League MVP the next month, complied. Then, as Major League Baseball testing guidelines require, Braun watched the agent split the specimen into two samples, cap the two bottles, seal them with tamper-resistant tape marked with an individual I.D. number, place the samples in a plastic bag, seal the bag, place it in a plastic box and seal the box. Finally Braun printed and signed his name as the "donor" on the standard Drug Testing Custody and Control Form.
This is an article from the March 5, 2012 issue
Two days later, the specimens were shipped to a World Anti-Doping Agency--certified testing lab in Montreal. The lab chief, according to MLB sources, confirmed that the specimens had arrived with all three seals intact.
What happened in the in-between—between Saturday and Monday, between Milwaukee and Montreal and, most important for Braun, in that sliver of space between the law and the letter of the law—sent baseball down a new rabbit hole of steroid arcana. What is supposed to be the black-and-white, positive-or-negative world of drug testing dissolved into a murky, unsatisfying gray for all parties—with the possible exception of Braun's lawyers, who triumphed on a procedural technicality.
The Montreal lab found elevated levels of synthetic testosterone in Braun's specimens, a doping offense that carries a 50-game suspension. Braun appealed, becoming the 13th player to appeal a violation of MLB's drug policy. Last Thursday he became the first to win his appeal. Arbitrator Shyam Das cast the tiebreaking vote on a three-person panel that also included executives from the players' union and MLB.
The next day, under brilliant sunshine at the Brewers' training complex in Maryvale, Ariz., Braun proclaimed, "I guess the simple truth is I'm innocent. I've maintained my innocence from Day One, and ultimately I was proven to be innocent."
Well, not quite—not in this rabbit hole. Baseball was so convinced of Braun's guilt as a steroid cheat that it took the unusual step last Thursday, through a statement by executive vice president Rob Manfred, of announcing that it "vehemently disagrees with" Das's decision. A day later, after Braun had claimed that baseball's testing system was "fatally flawed," Manfred fired another shot. This time he stated that at no point in the appeal did Braun or the union suggest that the specimens had been tampered with.
Nor did Braun offer an explanation for the positive samples. The next day, with a club representative running interference for him, the player who had described himself earlier as "an open book" requested reporters not to ask him about the case.
Gary Wadler, past chairman of WADA's prohibited list committee, says Braun won his appeal "on procedural grounds" in which Das found a "variation, not a violation.
"I strongly disagree with anybody who claims there was a problem with the science. The science strongly suggests the arbitrator's decision was probably ill-advised. To be fair, [Braun] did have his day. Certainly the innocent athlete should feel secure that there is a process to state your case."
The most important turn in the Braun case was the one the specimen collector, Dino Laurenzi Jr., made after leaving Miller Park: toward his home in Pleasant Prairie, Wis., and not toward one of the five nearby FedEx drop locations that, according to Braun, remained open on that Saturday evening. According to a section of the Joint Drug Agreement (JDA) between the owners and players, "Absent unusual circumstances, the specimens should be sent by FedEx to the Laboratory on the same day they are collected."
Laurenzi, whom Manfred described as an "experienced" collector, testified at the appeal hearing that he did not know of an open FedEx location at the time and that under similar circumstances collectors frequently retained temporary custody of specimens, according to a source. In fact, the source said, Laurenzi's employer, California-based Comprehensive Drug Testing, provides instructions for collectors on how to store specimens on such occasions.
The JDA, while stating that specimens "should" be sent on the day of collection, provides collectors with instructions "if the specimen is not immediately" shipped. In that case the collector "shall ensure that it is appropriately safeguarded during temporary storage" by making certain to "keep the chain of custody intact" and to "store the samples in a cool and secure location." Laurenzi drove home with the specimen—still triple-sealed—and placed it on a counter in an office area of his finished basement.
Baseball has been drug-testing major league players since 2003. The science of drug testing has become so specific and reliable that questioning procedures offers a defendant more daylight than challenging the science. When Laurenzi took the samples home, Braun's team had its opening. The science no longer mattered in the appeal. At the lectern in Maryvale, however, Braun expanded his defense. He insinuated, without providing specifics, that his sample was compromised while it was with Laurenzi—who was identified in media reports later in the day—during the "44-hour period" between collection and shipment.
Braun's specimen tested at more than five times the allowable ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone, hormones that normally range in near equal amounts. The ratio was noticeably high for baseball, but not so elevated for other sports. Could the storage in Laurenzi's basement have compromised the sample's integrity? "If anything the numbers would have gone lower, not higher," Wadler says. Moreover, Christiane Ayotte, the director of the Montreal lab, testified she saw no signs of tampering when the lab received the specimens, according to a source.
When Braun was asked if he believed the sample was tampered with, the man who spoke with emotion about having his reputation sullied raised ethical questions about Laurenzi, though not by name. "There are a lot of different things that could have possibly happened," Braun said. "There were a lot of things that we heard about the collection process, the collector and some other people involved in the process that have certainly been concerning to us."
Manfred, firing back, said the collector "acted in a professional and appropriate manner" and handled the specimens "consistent with instructions issued by our jointly retained collection agency."
Suddenly an entirely new appeal process had broken out, with both sides fighting for public understanding. Braun played to sentiment, oozing sincerity. Baseball played to science. The net effect was jarring—the winner of an appeal at a loss to explain his positive test, and baseball taking on a heretofore model ballplayer.
At this stage with Bud, it's all about legacy," says one owner, referring to commissioner Bud Selig, who has worked hard to erase the blight of the Steroid Era with a tough and progressive PED policy. While Selig can boast of putting enough teeth in the program to take on an MVP during the postseason—the NHL, for example, doesn't test during the playoffs—that same program allowed Braun to slip through a crack that now will be sealed. Baseball and the players will come up with more specific procedures and language regarding specimen transportation.
The Braun imbroglio wasn't a broadside hit to baseball's drug-testing program so much as a reminder that the JDA is a living document, a script in perpetual rewrite. If you needed more evidence of the serial nature of trying to deal with PEDs in baseball, you need not have looked very far from Maryvale. All around camps in Arizona and Florida, collectors were drawing blood samples from players to test for human growth hormone, making baseball the first North American professional team sport to test for HGH. (Though players are tested upon arrival at spring training and then not at all during the season.) And 15 miles from where Braun stood, two-time drug offender Manny Ramirez reported to the A's camp in Phoenix. Ramirez will serve a 50-game suspension this year, a ban cut from its original 100 games after baseball essentially considered his retirement last season as time served.
Ramirez showed up proclaiming himself to be a new man, having found God and rededicated himself to his family. To mark his rebirth, Ramirez eschewed his familiar uniform number 99 and asked for number 1. "Because everything starts with one," he said.
On Saturday, Braun still wore his familiar number 8 as he returned to the ball field. But like Ramirez, he too was starting anew. He may have been cheered that day by the Brewers' faithful, but Braun knew his unprecedented victory caused him collateral damage. Das's decision put an end to a five-month ordeal, but it did not immediately restore his reputation. "It is," Braun said, "the first step."