Commentary

Ryan Braun is MVP, no matter what

If his appeal is denied, Brewers slugger shouldn't be stripped of his award

Originally Published: December 12, 2011
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

I keep thinking back to the last day of September. I keep thinking back to the day I finally cast a National League MVP vote I'd spent way too many hours agonizing about.

I cast that vote for Ryan Braun. It was one of the hardest MVP decisions I've ever made.

Let's just say it hasn't gotten any easier in the last 48 hours or so.

You think I haven't been second-guessing that vote for the last couple of days, since the moment I learned Saturday night what ESPN was reporting about Braun's positive October drug test? Of course I have. Who wouldn't?

What we have here is as big an award mess as this sport has ever gotten itself into. And as Jose Canseco would be happy to tell you, that's saying something, friends.

[+] EnlargeRyan Braun
Jerry Lai/US PresswireRyan Braun had a great season, but it wasn't much different from his others.

To get news this ugly about a newly elected MVP before they've even officially handed him his trophy? Yikes. Doesn't get much more embarrassing than that -- no matter how Braun's appeal turns out.

But now that we've got all that out of the way, I'm here to tell you what we can't do:

We can't spray-paint Ryan Braun's name off the list of MVP award winners. We can't rip his nameplate off the trophy.

And we definitely can't -- and shouldn't -- hold a whole new MVP election if his appeal gets denied and he's sent away to serve 50 games of detention.

I say that as a guy who is trying hard not to rush to judgment in this case. I've read every word written by the two great reporters who broke this story, T.J. Quinn and Mark Fainaru-Wada. I've paid just as close attention to the vociferous denials coming from Braun and his camp.

I don't see how Braun talks his way out of this, based on the nearly ironclad stipulation in the drug-testing agreement that says a player can't wriggle out of a positive test by claiming he didn't "intentionally" take the wrong substance. But luckily for Braun, it doesn't matter how anybody on the outside sees his case.

He just has to sell his story to his friendly neighborhood baseball arbitrator, Shyam Das. So I'm just like everybody else. I'm anxiously waiting for Shyam Das to clear all this up for me -- and for the rest of civilization.

If Das upholds this positive test, it figures to taint Ryan Braun's award forever. But it shouldn't be an excuse to produce a not-so-special election sequel -- MVP Story 2. And here's why:

There's no precedent

Never in the history of baseball's award voting has any player had an award revoked. Didn't happen to Alex Rodriguez or Canseco or Ken Caminiti when they admitted to using PEDs after winning their awards. Shouldn't happen now.

Elsewhere on this site, the always eloquent Doug Glanville contends otherwise. One of his arguments is that just because we've never done it before isn't a reason we shouldn't do the right thing now. But in my view, it isn't that simple.

If we overturn Braun's election, does that mean we're going to wipe out all future elections of players who get linked to any sort of PEDs? It should, right?

[+] EnlargeAlex Rodriguez
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezAlex Rodriguez admitted that he took PEDs during his 2003 AL MVP season in Texas.

Or is there going to be a statute of limitations? Would we need to learn of that link within 90 days? How about 120? Before the following Opening Day? Within a calendar year?

Seems impossible to establish any fair cutoff date, doesn't it? If the intent is to keep "cheaters" from winning awards, then everybody ought to be fair game, no matter when he won his award or when we found out about it. Correct?

So if we're going to hold a new 2011 NL MVP election, how can we not do a revote on that 2003 AL MVP award that A-Rod won -- considering that he's admitted he used steroids on the way to winning it?

But wait. Go back and take a look at that 2003 vote sometime. A-Rod was one of 10 players who got a first-place vote that year. Five of them have since gotten tangled up in some level of PED suspicion: Manny Ramirez, Miguel Tejada, Jason Giambi, David Ortiz and Nomar Garciaparra. So what would we do about those guys? How could we hold a fair and rational re-election all these years later?

That doesn't really matter much now, I suppose. But I bring that up because it's a reminder the information or speculation about those men didn't all erupt at exactly the same time. It never does in these cases.

So suppose we hold a new 2011 MVP election and then find out -- even 10 years from now -- that whomever we elect, whether it's Matt Kemp or Lance Berkman or any other guy who seems squeaky clean right now, has some sort of taint of his own? Do we then vote again? Or is this a one-time-only event, like Oprah's farewell show?

The point is, once you start, it seems as if it would get impossible to stop. So why go down that road? You're only asking for trouble -- and never-ending trouble, to boot.

Braun didn't test positive during the season

Here's another point we can't ignore. According to ESPN's report, Braun's positive test came during the postseason. So there is no proof -- zero -- that he was using any banned substance during the regular season, on the way to winning this award.

That won't matter to some people, obviously. But remember, this is a regular-season award. Period. So if a positive test that comes after the regular season is enough to trigger a revote, then it's time to ask:

Would there also be a statute of limitations on when an award winner would need to test positive to crank up the new-election mechanisms?

If a guy wins an award and then tests positive in the offseason, would that be enough to redo the election? How about during the following spring training? Or any time in the following calendar year?

The assumption by the masses would be the same, right? If he was using then, how naive would we have to be to assume he wasn't using before? Seems like a logical enough argument.

But if we're going to adopt that standard, shouldn't that mean that any positive test by any player ever should void an earlier election, no matter how many weeks, months or years later it occurs? And if so, is that enough? How about if a player writes a book someday and accuses a fellow player of using PEDs? Or what if we just strongly suspect a player of PED use, even if it's years after he won his award?

Who wants to answer these questions? Who wants to make these rules? Not me. That's for sure.

How do we know Braun 'cheated' his way to an MVP?

Finally, here's the essence of this argument:

We have no idea what Ryan Braun did or didn't do on the way to his MVP award. We have no idea what he took, why he took it, when he took it or how it affected the season he had -- if at all. Some of this might get cleared up at some point. Then again, it's possible that once we hear all the explanations, we'll just be more confused.

So here are some facts to consider: The MVP had a tremendous year, obviously, or he wouldn't have won this award. But it's not as if we're talking about a guy who came out of nowhere to have an MVP season.

Basically, Ryan Braun just did what he's been doing pretty much his entire career. He just happened to do it in the context of a season where his team finished in first place -- for the first time in nearly three decades.

Other than his batting average and on-base percentage, his numbers this year were pretty much routine Ryan Braun numbers. Don't believe me? Take a look.

Beyond those departments, his average home run distance actually went down, according to ESPN Home Run Tracker, from 408.2 feet to 407.3. And while his slugging percentage and OPS were both up over the previous year, neither was a career high.

So we're not talking about Barry Bonds' 2001 MVP season, when a fellow who had averaged 33 homers a year -- for a decade and a half -- suddenly exploded for 73, at age 36. This was a 28-year-old star having a typically great year, in his prime.

Which means that anyone concluding that the 2011 MVP couldn't possibly have done what he did without "cheating" is making way too convenient an assumption.

None of this is intended to exonerate the guy. Please understand that. If the arbitrator doesn't let Ryan Braun off the hook, it will be his fault that he put a substance in his body that triggered his positive test, even if it was unintentional.

If that's the case, he deserves to serve his time. But please don't ask us to vote again on an award he won based on everything we knew at the time we voted. Please.

You know, it's only a trophy. If we're going to take that away from him, we might as well strip the Brewers of their division title, too. For that matter, shouldn't we also go back and let the Diamondbacks play the Cardinals in the National League Championship Series? At least we know Braun tested positive during the series that eliminated the D-backs from the great Octoberfest.

But it's funny how everybody agrees that replaying the postseason from that point would be impractical. Yet we're all hung up on who won an award -- and redoing the election that made it possible? Seems kind of mixed up to me.

I believe in mulligans -- on the golf course. But in baseball? I believe that what happened, happened. And trying to make it un-happen is more trouble than it's worth, even if it taints an MVP award, and the man who won it, for the rest of time.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in a new paperback edition, in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

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Senior Writer, ESPN.com