<
>

Ryan Braun: Why cheer a cheater?

On Opening Day in Milwaukee, Ryan Braun returned from last season's 65-game suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs and received a loud standing ovation from the hometown crowd. On Tuesday night, a fan ran onto the field to try to high-five him. For those two games, Braun earned roughly $124,000 of a contract that guarantees him at least $117 million in pay.

So ... that'll really teach him not to do it again, huh?

At spring training, when Braun addressed the media about his use of PEDs, he said he made a "mistake." That's not accurate. Braun did not make a "mistake." He cheated.

I've been more lenient than most on this subject when it comes to players such as Mark McGwire or Barry Bonds (who received a smattering of jeers at his Opening Day appearance in Pittsburgh). That's because when players of that era used or were accused of using, baseball had no hard and fast rules in place regarding PEDs. (It's not cheating if it isn't against the rules.) Milwaukee's welcoming response for Braun angers me, though, because he was caught after PEDs were firmly and officially banned, not just frowned upon. And he'd already narrowly averted a previous ban because of a technicality.

If we -- media, fans, players, the league and teams -- truly want to rid the game of PEDs, then we must thoroughly punish players when they are caught breaking the rules. That means in addition to serving suspensions, players who are caught should not be placed on a team's postseason roster, as the Tigers did with Jhonny Peralta last October.

Baseball addressed this last week by toughening the punishments for PED cheats, including banning them from playing in the postseason in a year in which they are suspended. Which is good, but we also should not then reward them with four-year, $52 million new contracts, as the Cardinals did with Peralta over the winter.

And we should not welcome them back by standing and applauding their return.

As long as players know that even if they're suspended, they still will receive multimillion-dollar contracts and the adoration of their hometown fans, what is the incentive not to cheat?

Last week's changes to MLB's drug rules increased the initial suspension from 50 to 80 games and a second from 100 to 162 games. And that's fine. But it still doesn't address the larger problem: A suspension really accomplishes little beyond giving a player a couple of months off during the summer.

I don't believe first-time offenders should be banned for life, but I want them to truly get the message that PED use is not tolerated. Here's how to send it:

• Get caught cheating, and not only are you suspended without pay (as is currently the case), but your current contract should be voided.

• When you return from the suspension, you also should lose whatever negotiating leverage you've accrued. You should not reach free agency until at least one full year after you otherwise would be eligible.

• So that your team, which might have looked the other way at rumors of your PED use, does not benefit, it should not retain rights to your service beyond when it normally would. If that time frame expires before you are eligible for free agency, you should go into a "cheaters' draft" in which each team, in reverse order of record, can pick you or not. Teams could choose only one cheat per winter. Hopefully, there never would be occasion for a second round of the cheaters' draft.

As for the fan response? Fans are always happy to boo a returning PED cheat with an opposing team. (Just wait until those fun-loving Fenway fans get their crack at Braun this weekend.) But fans also will boo an opponent who wins the Triple Crown and donates his salary to Habitat for Humanity. It's how they regard their own team's players that is at issue.

Obviously, fans can't be forced to behave a certain way or instructed not to cheer. But there are rules that could be enacted so that a returning cheat doesn't feel as welcome as Braun and others have.

No walk-up or entrance music for his at-bat or relief appearance. In fact, no introduction whatsoever. For at least one season, the player should have to take his position to official silence on the home team's part. Let that silence be a reminder that he cheated. If the fans still want to cheer him, so be it. But teams shouldn't encourage an environment for applause.

I would include a Hall of Fame ban, but any player who tests positive for PEDs isn't going to get 75 percent of the BBWAA vote anyway.

Sure, there are flaws in these suggested measures. For one thing, there would need to be some ways to prevent teams from manipulating the rules just to get out of an expensive contract. But that and other issues could be ironed out. At least it's a starting point for getting serious.

I'm all for giving a player a second chance after he makes "mistakes." But to really discourage the use of PEDs, players also must know that when they come back, all will not be forgotten, all will not be forgiven, and life in baseball will not be the same.