Major League Baseball, believing a glorious renaissance was finally erasing ugly remnants from the so-called steroid era, was jolted over the weekend when it was revealed that National League Most Valuable Player Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers tested positive for a banned substance.
Braun, who told USA TODAY he has never used performance-enhancing drugs, tested positive in October for elevated levels of testosterone, according to ESPN, which first reported the story, citing two sources familiar with Braun's case.
MLB has not acknowledged the positive test because it was supposed to be confidential while Braun appealed it.
Considered one of baseball's elite players and role models, and lauded by Commissioner Bud Selig, the Brewers left fielder was hoping to have the test result rejected, saying it was a false positive. Now Braun must go through an appeals process -- with a resolution not likely until January -- and if he loses, he will be suspended without pay for 50games to start the 2012 season.
If that's the case, it will mark an ugly return to baseball's not-so-distant past. From 1996 to 2007, MVP awards and vaunted home run records were claimed by bulked-up stars who later admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs or whose usage was documented through the news media or legal proceedings.
As the likes of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens and Alex Rodriguez saw their usage exposed, the sport fought back with tougher drug testing and after the 2005 season produced a program punitive enough to minimize the game's doping culture.
Five years later, Selig trumpeted an end of sorts to baseball's steroid era when McGwire admitted in January 2010 that he used performance-enhancing drugs during his 1998 battle with Sosa for baseball's single-season home run record.
Selig seemed to be correct. But if Braun's result is upheld, it will represent an immeasurable setback for the game.
"It just breaks my heart," Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson said. "You want to desperately follow the game, love it and root for players, and now you don't know who to believe."
Braun, who submitted a urine test during the first round of the playoffs against the Arizona Diamondbacks, did not test positive for a performance-enhancing drug or steroid, according to his attorney, David Cornwell. Yet Braun had an elevated ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone and showed synthetic testosterone, according to two people familiar with the test results. When informed of the results in October, Braun immediately submitted another urine test that was negative, according to people close to Braun who requested anonymity.
"This breathless coverage and death watch of Ryan Braun is reprehensible," Cornwell said. "If anybody says that he digested a performance-enhancing drug, they are wrong. We are prepared to go through the appeal process."
However, no player has won an appeal, according to MLB vice president Rob Manfred.
"I don't know what defense he's going to come up with, but it's an almost impossible mountain to climb," said Gary Wadler, associate professor of medicine at the Hofstra Medical School and longtime World Anti-Doping Agency official. "To have an abnormal (testosterone-epitestosterone) ratio, and it being synthetic, that's a double whammy."
'An MVP who everyone liked'
Braun, 28, is a mixture of Los Angeles and South Beach, but not merely for his laid-back demeanor. The Southern California native was an excellent student at the University of Miami, has a business mind that could play on Wall Street and boasts a rare combination of smarts, swagger and savvy.
In some quarters, he was considered the younger, hip-hop version of Derek Jeter, single, talented and the toast of Wisconsin -- just after his good friend, Aaron Rodgers, the Super Bowl-winning quarterback of the Green Bay Packers.
"That's why this is devastating for baseball," Hall of Famer Joe Morgan said. "This isn't just some player. This is an MVP who everyone liked. He was one of my favorite players.
"Maybe I shouldn't be surprised, but I was optimistic that things were good. Maybe I shouldn't be so naive. As long as there's that much money involved, so many multimillion(-dollar) contracts, how do you say it's not worth taking a chance?"
Braun, who is under contract through 2020 for $131.5 million, joins Manny Ramirez and Rafael Palmeiro as the game's biggest stars to fail a drug test. Palmeiro tested positive in 2005 and retired after the season. Ramirez was suspended for 50 games for violating MLB's drug policy and tested positive in April but retired instead of sitting out 100 games. He announced this month that he wanted to resume his career, and MLB and the players union have reached an agreement calling for him to miss the first 50 games of next season.
MLB's drug policy has been strengthened through the years, and the league and players union announced last month that its new collective bargaining agreement would include testing for human growth hormone, becoming the first North American professional league to do so. Furthermore, Selig has pointed to Braun as example of how the game has been cleaned up.
"We have the strongest (drug-testing) program today in American sports," Selig said at the news conference announcing the new labor deal. "One of the things that really gives me great pride."
Bonds, baseball's all-time home run leader and seven-time MVP, faces sentencing next week on a conviction of obstruction of justice for giving an evasive answer to a grand jury investigating the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) drug distribution ring. Clemens, a seven-time Cy Young Award winner, is scheduled for trial in April on charges he lied to a congressional committee in denying his use of performance-enhancing drugs.
Victor Conte, the founder of BALCO who was convicted of distributing performance-enhancing drugs to athletes, says baseball is still not clean despite an improved policy and that there are methods to prevent getting caught.
"I've been saying this all along (that) you can easily circumvent this huge loophole in the MLB drug-testing program," Conte said. "This is not drug testing. That's IQ testing. I know (Braun's) in denial and wants to fight this, but in my opinion, he likely will be found guilty of doping charges and suspended for 50games."
Associates find it hard to believe
Yet friends, teammates and business acquaintances close to Braun believe otherwise. There has to be a valid reason for the positive test result, they say. They refuse to believe he's guilty of even digesting too many aspirin.
"I would be completely shocked," said Omar Shaikh, owner of Ryan Braun's Graffito restaurant in Milwaukee. "I know Ryan really well, and he would never take steroids or a performance-enhancing drug. Never. He would never even consider it. I was drinking a five-hour energy drink with him in L.A., and he wouldn't even take that. So how would he take something like this?"
Braun will have his day in baseball's court, but the court of public opinion might prove just as challenging. There's even a campaign in Los Angeles to strip Braun of his MVP award and give it to runner-up Matt Kemp of the Dodgers. Dave Stewart, Kemp's agent, said they do not want Braun's MVP taken away.
"I think there has to be some repercussions," Morgan said. "It's a little different than in the past. It's not like (Jose) Canseco, and we find out five years later. It was obvious this was done during this year."
Jack O'Connell, treasurer-secretary of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, which hands out postseason awards, said the BBWAA wouldn't strip Braun of his award if he is suspended.
Says Jackson: "You hear rumors on a lot of guys, and this certainly puts doubt in your mind about the cleanliness we thought we had. It's fair to say you can't trust anybody, and I just hope for baseball's sake we don't start going down this path again. It's too painful."
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