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Wednesday, July 24, 2013
2011 NL MVP belongs to Ryan Braun

By Jerry Crasnick
ESPN.com

Matt Kemp has every right to feel slighted. With 39 home runs, 115 runs scored, 353 total bases, 40 steals, a Gold Glove and 8.1 wins above replacement, he assembled an exceedingly strong case for the 2011 National League Most Valuable Player award. You can make the argument that Kemp was the best and most valuable player in the league even if Ryan Braun's biggest sin consisted of loading up on ginseng, wheat grass and heaping bowls of kale.

But this notion that Major League Baseball should assemble a SWAT team to go into Braun's house, seize his MVP trophy and give it to Kemp lands somewhere between far-fetched and absurd on the whole righteous-indignation spectrum.

I understand that people want to rewrite history to appease their sense of right and wrong, even if our take on history inevitably changes with context and time. For years, the legitimacy of Roger Maris' home run record was called into question (even though his 61 homers were never accompanied by an asterisk) because he needed an expanded schedule to break Babe Ruth's mark. More than a half-century later, Maris is regarded by many baseball gatekeepers as the legitimate home run king because Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa all took a fraudulent route to passing him.

Of course, the challenge of drawing distinctions and parsing numbers is more difficult than ever now that performance-enhancing drugs have entered the equation. We can assume that Braun did something in violation of MLB's drug-testing agreement or he wouldn't have accepted a 65-game suspension. The problem is that it's impossible to quantify the impact of PED use on a player's performance.

Ryan Braun
Ryan Braun won the 2011 NL MVP with 20 first-place votes and 388 points; Matt Kemp finished second with 10 first-place votes and 332 points.

Did Braun's PED use pad his home run total by four, eight or 23 during the 2011 season? How much banned substance was in his system when he went off against Arizona in the NL Division Series? Was his urine sample moderately tainted or polluted to Cuyahoga River-catching-on-fire proportions? Can we even measure what impact the difference might have made on his numbers?

The other problem with magically rewriting history: It presumes that we know everything there is to know about every player in baseball and how level or tilted the playing field might be. I believe that Kemp is a clean player because I have no reason to think otherwise. But do we know absolutely, positively, 100 percent for sure? I'm happy to give Chris Davis and Jose Bautista the benefit of the doubt and assume that they're clean players too. But that hasn't prevented bloggers, tweeters and assorted media members from questioning their character simply because they experienced a sudden surge in their home run totals in recent years.

When does the argument transcend individual players and start applying to teams? The San Francisco Giants won a title in 2012 thanks in part to a major contribution from Melky Cabrera, who hit .346 in 113 games and won the All-Star Game MVP award to help the National League gain home-field advantage in the World Series. Should commissioner Bud Selig step in and retroactively give the World Series trophy to the Detroit Tigers?

How far back do you go with this stuff, and where do you draw the line between a full-blown moral transgression and every athlete's quest to gain that all-important "edge"? If a substance is legal -- like androstenedione -- and suddenly becomes prohibited under the drug-testing agreement, does that justify taking an award from a player who might have used it? John Milner once testified that he took "red juice," a form of liquid amphetamine, from Willie Mays' locker when they were teammates in New York in the early 1970s.

Amphetamines weren't banned by baseball at the time, but they are now. It's ridiculous to think that MLB would go back and revisit Mays' 1965 MVP award in San Francisco. But did Milner's revelation devalue his achievement to a degree? I haven't seen a lot of people advance that argument through the years.

It's human nature for some baseball players and athletes in general to try to skirt the rules in ways that don't entail putting a foreign substance in their bodies. Do we strip Gaylord Perry of his 1972 Cy Young Award because he confirmed in his 1974 autobiography that he had cheated by doctoring the ball? Or does that simply fall under the category of gamesmanship?

NFL award voters addressed the Braun-Kemp debate in a similar context several years ago. When Houston linebacker Brian Cushing was busted for a positive drug test after winning the 2009 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award, the writers took a do-over and gave him the award a second time -- albeit with 18 first-place votes instead of 39. Maybe the solution is to have writers go back and retroactively hold revotes on every major award that may have been tainted since the dawn of time. I'll consider bringing up this topic at the next Baseball Writers' Association of America meeting in October.

Kemp is entitled to his opinion, and his exceptional performance in 2011 should be extolled to an even greater level in the face of Braun's transgressions. Dodgers fans and Kemp's teammates have every right to look back on Braun's MVP title, stamp it with a giant asterisk and believe in their hearts and minds that Kemp was the rightful recipient. But in the absence of a better plan or a foolproof system, that will have to suffice.