Commentary

Why Matt Kemp's voice matters

Ultimately, players have to lead the push to thoroughly clean up the game

Updated: July 24, 2013, 10:05 PM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

It was both quietly charming and predictably disheartening that Matt Kemp's first instinct was to deflect when the inevitable question about whether he thought Ryan Braun should be stripped of the 2011 National League MVP award was asked Tuesday.

Kemp knew the question was coming the second he sat down to face the media. Braun had beaten him out for the award in 2011 -- despite Kemp's season for the ages in which he led the NL in home runs (39) and RBIs (126) and finished third in batting average (.324) -- but was suspended Monday for using performance-enhancing drugs.

The question was a no-brainer. Yet it took Kemp a moment to decide if he was ready to answer it. The impulse to deflect such questions and uphold the fraternal ballplayers' code of silence on such matters is a strong one.

On the one hand, Braun has already tarnished his reputation and is serving his punishment, making piling on feel a bit excessive. On the other, Kemp has always believed he did enough that season to win the award outright, so to be handed an MVP trophy after it was stripped from another player would be unsatisfying and insulting.

"Talking about things like this is very, very touchy," Kemp told reporters in Toronto on Tuesday. "It's weird. Me, I don't like to talk about this stuff, but I feel like I have to a little bit."

And so he did. Cautiously at first, saying he felt the award "should be" stripped from Braun, "but that's not for me to decide."

[+] EnlargeKemp
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsMatt Kemp felt at the time that his 2011 season was MVP-worthy.

He smiled uncomfortably as he spoke. A nervous laugh belied his emotions. This was not his mess; he shouldn't have to be wading into it. Yet deep down, he seemed to recognize he shouldn't stay silent.

Far too many people, including the players, have stayed silent on the issue of PEDs for far too long, and it's a large reason why baseball hasn't been able to purge itself of this ugly problem.

Finally, that seems to be changing. As soon as news of Braun's suspension broke Monday, the line of pundits ready to castigate him was long and eager to sound off.

Braun was the perfect villain, indignant and arrogant in defending himself following his first failed test in 2011.

Ultimately, though, Braun is just another guy. A big guy, but still just a guy nonetheless. He's not Lance Armstrong. He doesn't represent anything meaningful to anyone outside of baseball. He's just a great young player whose name will be added to the list of those who let people down by cheating with PEDs and then lying about it.

Criticizing him is, finally, just an exercise.

In fact, it wasn't until Kemp spoke Tuesday that it felt like something actually might come from all this. Something substantial and lasting. Something that has absolutely nothing to do with whether Braun should be stripped of the 2011 MVP award.

[+] EnlargeRyan Braun
Norm Hall/Getty ImagesKemp reflected on Ryan Braun's explanation: "I don't think anybody likes to be lied to."

Yes, in the short term, that might make everybody feel a little bit better and satisfy the collective hunger for justice.

But ultimately, it's just one award in a series of awards and records that have been tarnished during the steroid era. What would righting this one wrong do for all the other hallowed ground that has been compromised by drug cheats?

Giving Kemp the MVP award wouldn't give Roger Maris back his single-season home run record or restore Hank Aaron's career home runs record. There are already far too many asterisks. You either remove all of them or none of them.

What Kemp's stand, tentative as it began, did though, what his public criticism of Braun started, could ultimately be more important. He is not the first player to break the code of silence, but he is the most important to do so. If baseball is ever going to be cleaned up, once and for all, that process must start from within.

The players must police themselves. It's how sports like cycling, track and field and swimming, which all have gone through similar ugliness, started to turn the corner.

The drug cheats will always be three steps ahead of the drug testers. And there will never be strong enough penalties to deter everyone. The only lasting chance the sport has is for the players to take matters into their own hands and start speaking up.

"I'm disappointed," Kemp said. "I talked to Braun before any of this happened. We had conversations, and I considered him a friend. I don't think anybody likes to be lied to, and I feel like a lot of people have felt betrayed. That's not just me; that's the whole Brewers organization, a lot of his teammates. I think a lot of people feel that way."

The more Kemp talked, the more emboldened he grew.

"You respect guys who come out and say what they feel," Kemp said, referring to teammate Skip Schumaker's biting criticism of Braun on Monday. "Because that's what you respect, the truth."

Schumaker said, among other things, that Braun should get a lifetime ban from baseball for his actions; the 65-game suspension, which will cost him the rest of this season and more than $3 million in salary, is not nearly enough.

Yes, Braun's reputation will be forever tarnished, but his career will pick right back up next year and he'll be in line to collect the $117 million remaining on his contract.

The same thing happened when the Toronto Blue Jays gave Melky Cabrera a two-year, $16 million contract this winter, just months after he was suspended 50 games for a positive drug test while with the San Francisco Giants.

The hypocrisy is evident. The punishment is far too easy to come back from.

The players seem to see it now. They can't help but see it. Speaking up might make them uncomfortable, might run counter to the game's long-held codes.

But silence is worse.

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