Commentary

Ryan Braun case won't be MLB's last

Glass half-full: Baseball testing works. Glass half-empty: Baseball still isn't drug-free.

Originally Published: December 13, 2011
By Mark Kreidler | Specvial to ESPN.com

Wait: Was that just one of Bud Selig's finest moments, or one of his worst?

On the one hand, you'd have to say, even grudgingly, that Major League Baseball has entered some wholly new realm in its drug-testing program when the system takes down one of its own Most Valuable Players. It suggests a test that is working.

On the other hand ... well, MLB just watched one of its MVPs take a massive header, with word leaked nationally of that fact. Not typically your best day at the office.

[+] EnlargeBud Selig
Patrick McDermott/Getty ImagesWas the 2011 salary of baseball commissioner Bud Selig higher than that of Miami Heat superstar LeBron James?

On yet another hand, Selig, the commissioner of this lucrative little enterprise, has insisted for years that his sport's testing program was not only real and functional but capable of making the major catch. Last weekend's ESPN report on Ryan Braun's test results would appear to bear out the claim. It landed a big fish.

And on a fourth hand, Braun's exposure as a cheat, assuming it holds up through appeal, very clearly and emphatically puts the lie to one of Selig's other primary claims: that his sport has cleaned up its performance-enhancing substance issue.

So which is it? Answer: Stop right here. Whatever else is happening, the Braun case suggests very loudly that the sport may be no closer than it ever was to being drug-free. Baseball may be past the days when Jose Canseco could write an outrageous book one year and have most of its worst elemental claims proved true the next; but when it comes to making deca-millions, ballplayers will still go to whatever lengths are necessary -- and Selig's industry is by no means out of the woods.

Yes, such sweeping conclusions assume a bit. They assume Braun will not become the first player in MLB history to successfully appeal a positive drug test. They assume the initial reports will be born out. They certainly assume the claim by Braun's camp of a second, negative test is significantly compromised by the fact that it was not the same urine sample, not taken at the same time. It is after-the-fact testing.

Under the drug policy, intent is irrelevant here. It does not matter if Braun took PEDs because he felt like it, if he unwittingly bought some over-the-counter product that was loaded with them, if he mistakenly drank from a colleague's Big Gulp cup -- none of those particulars have anything to do with the main finding. The test is the test.

[+] EnlargeBraun
AP Photo/Jeffrey PhelpsIf the positive test is affirmed, it doesn't matter how the PED found its way into Ryan Braun's system. He won't have much to smile about.

And unfortunately for Selig, the result is the result. Braun's agency and its professional spin-meisters may ultimately produce a compelling body of suggestion, explanation and dilution when it comes to how Braun's testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio got so horribly out of whack, but that won't change the numbers. Unless the test itself is proved to be a massive fraud, Braun's numbers are going to go in the book.

This finally is Bud Selig's legacy problem. Selig staked much of the last several years of his commissionership on being able to pronounce his sport on the road to "clean," to create a memory that put miles of distance between Rafael Palmeiro, who famously wagged a finger at Congress, and, say, Albert Pujols, who went on the cover of Sports Illustrated to tell fans they could believe in him.

Signing up for the Pujols story felt better. But as for the sport in general, "drug-free" is a conceit that bumps up against inconvenient truths. Regardless of the ultimate disposition in the Braun case, the notion that baseball players suddenly got religion on the subject of PEDs is, was and always will be a fantasy. If anything, the dedicated core of cheaters -- not all, mind you, or even most, but a core -- has long since moved on to less detectable substances. In the game of cat and mouse, the drug detectives freely acknowledge they're usually a step or two behind.

Now a league MVP tests positive, and some from the Selig side of the aisle would like to jump up and say, "You see? The system works." And that is true, so far as it goes. Trouble is, the Braun story exposes a larger, much darker truth. You haven't seen the last of the epic cheaters in baseball. There are just too many millions of reasons to believe otherwise.

Mark Kreidler is a longtime contributor to ESPN.com. His book, "The Voodoo Wave," is in international release. His work, "Six Good Innings," was named a Top 10 Sports Book by Booklist. Reach him at mark@markkreidler.com.

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