- Tim Keown, ESPN Senior Writer
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FACED WTH QUESTIONS he'd rather not answer, Ryan Braun responds to any and all matters regarding his tricky relationship with performance-enhancing drugs with one word: Irrelevant. The questions might change, but the answer doesn't. Irrelevant. It's the purest and quickest way to dismiss a question and destroy a conversation. There is no rebuttal, no follow-up that will stand up to the savage power of the word. Open-ended questions? Dismissed. Yes/no questions? Shattered. Irrelevant. Four syllables of pure, unadulterated defiance. Semantically, it is nothing short of genius.
For two days at Citi Field, Braun has been serenaded by a few out-of-tune New Yorkers attempting -- without much luck -- to summon a full-throated chant of "Ster-roids" whenever he steps to the plate. Their sick-cow yelping and a few isolated taunts seem to be the extent of the vitriol, proof, perhaps, that Braun's irrelevant is as accurate as it is aggressive.
He stands now in the nearly empty visitors' clubhouse. How would he characterize the reaction he's gotten in ballparks around the country since a mediator overturned his 50-game suspension for failing a drug test? Irrelevant. Has it been about the same all season? Irrelevant.
Each answer is delivered before the question is complete, his eyes locked on yours, the glare as dare. With each question, he stands a little taller, his chin rising.
The conceit is startling. Less than three weeks after Braun was named National League Most Valuable Player last November, his positive test was reported. In fact, he had tested so spectacularly positive for synthetic testosterone that scientists claimed they'd never seen such high ratios (20:1!). And then, because it was discovered that the sample collector, a physical therapist from Kenosha, Wis., named Dino Laurenzi Jr., had stored Braun's urine in his basement over a weekend instead of taking it immediately to a FedEx facility, Braun was able to fight the 50-game suspension mandated by MLB's get-tough testing policy.
Imagine a similar scene playing out in the spring of 2005 -- minus the testing, of course -- amid tell-all books and I'm-not-here-to-talk-about-the-past testimony and rampant media speculation on who's juicing and who's clean. Imagine the nation's sporting media being given such a smoking gun to aim at, say, a National League MVP by the name of Barry Bonds. What's different now? Is it a matter of suspicion or records or hat size?
Whatever the case, the shift is complete. The natural progression from denial to acceptance -- the Kubler-Ross of performance-enhancing drugs -- reached its final destination on Feb. 23, when mediator Shyam Das cast the deciding vote and rescinded Braun's 50-game penalty. The Brewers slugger proclaimed his innocence by attacking the procedure, and the first major challenge to Major League Baseball's new drug policy, the one designed to
restore faith in the legitimacy of the game and those who play it, was spectacularly and very publicly successful.
Yet in the days that followed, there was no outcry over Braun's antics, no call for congressional hearings. Baseball may maintain that Laurenzi did nothing wrong; mediator Das may disagree. But since Feb. 23, anything pertaining to the matter, any lingering effects or prevailing winds or collateral damage, has been vague and inconclusive and therefore met with apathy. Braun was suspended; the suspension was overturned. Next question.
Fatigue has changed the course of the conversation. And so perhaps only one question remains, humming along in the background, lurking: Do steroids even matter anymore?
THE BRAUN CASE is a convenient reflection of where we are, a notch on the evolutionary time line. The initial wave of Steroid Madness -- call it the Canseco/McGwire Years -- created shock and anger and charges of personal betrayal. How could we have been duped into enjoying, even celebrating, that hypertrophic summer of 1998? Somebody had to pay. Now, however, the outrage seems quaint. We've slumped gradually into an angle of repose, where the cases of Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez were seen as inevitable, unsurprising. It might have been satisfying to see them squirm, but nobody got too worked up.
Charitably, you could say Braun is providing a service, personifying the precipitous decline in the disgust directed at the pharmacological habits of our athletes. A respected member of the baseball industry, a longtime friend of Braun's, was asked what he thought of the failed test. He replied, "I like him so much as a person, I guess I choose not to think about it."
We're ready to surrender. We're ready to consign performance-enhancing drugs -- testing and all -- to the same musty drawer that contains Lasik
surgery, nutritional supplements and Bartolo Colon's magical mystery shoulder. Literally and figuratively, we're tired of the argument. In the long-awaited Roger Clemens perjury trial in Washington, D.C., where the feds had hoped to finally recover from the failed Bonds prosecution, two jurors were dismissed for falling asleep during testimony. Apparently, lines of questioning like the one taken by prosecutor Courtney Saleski -- "I want to ask you some questions about pus" -- don't capture the public's imagination as much as they might have a few years ago.
Major League Baseball still cares. It must. It has touted its new testing policy as the toughest in professional sports, and on the surface it is. MLB's position on Braun -- and PEDs in general -- was further clarified on May 14, when the league quietly employed its unilateral right to fire Das. The arbitrator's departure, tellingly, passed without much comment.
In fact, White Sox reliever Matt Thornton has been one of the few players to express a definite opinion on anything regarding Braun. At the time of the Das decision, Thornton remarked, "A good lawyer can get you out of anything right now." His words carried no anger, just resignation. Manny Ramirez, the most penalized PED cheat in the history of the game, doesn't care about Braun either. Standing in a hallway outside a minor league clubhouse in Sacramento, Calif., awaiting another rehab game in his rehab tour, he expresses no interest in the case. "That's not my problem," he says. "I worry only about Manny."
Meanwhile, detritus swirls in Braun's wake: Das' job, Laurenzi's reputation, the public's confidence in baseball's supposedly ironclad testing program. Through it all, Braun plays, and produces. He's on pace to hit more home runs this year than last, despite the loss of Prince Fielder behind him in the Brewers' lineup. He is now the undisputed face of the franchise, a tremendous talent who forever endeared himself to Milwaukee fans by signing long-term with a smaller-market team. He doesn't appear scarred, or contrite, in any way.
"He's handled all of this really well," says Brewers manager Ron Roenicke. "He's very strong mentally. He's very smart about what goes on, and he's got common sense. He understood what was going to happen this year, and he understands that in some places it will continue. Some places he gets booed because he's always been booed. He's a great player, and great players get booed."
Aside from the occasional inconvenient question from the media, it's baseball as usual for the Brewers, for all of MLB. Close your eyes, click your heels and ignore facts like scientific proof of synthetic testosterone. The game is an escape, a diversion, entertainment for the masses. The players are distant figures on a screen, numbers on a stat sheet, remote and untouchable. It's a relationship that doesn't require scrutiny of urine samples.
Roenicke is polite but would rather talk about Braun's swing or defensive shifts or even Rickie Weeks' inability to hit. But what are we supposed to make of his star's situation? Roenicke is not sure how to proceed. He shakes his head, shrugs, tosses a get-me-out-of-this smile.
Would he at least agree that it's tough for people to decide what to believe?
"It is," he says finally, almost under his breath.
WE BELIEVE WHAT we want to believe. Some fans still contend Bonds never took steroids, just as others will never believe Braun's positive test can be wiped away with a vote taken in a New York City boardroom. Does the mediator's reversal do anything to remove, or even smudge, the stain? Is there even a stain visible? Braun is part of the continuum of the unresolved, from Bonds to Clemens to A-Rod to journeyman catcher Eliezer Alfonzo, whose suspension was lifted under a similar procedural loophole the day Das' dismissal was announced.
Give baseball this: Testing mostly works. Minor leaguers and Guillermo Mota get busted all the time. Testing is a resolution, and the current program -- absent the fine print -- is both fair and strict. But McGwire admitted to steroid use in a time without testing, and Braun failed a test and admitted nothing. Can the average fan be forgiven for failing to see the difference? Revisionism sees McGwire as a contrite hero, Braun as a maddening example of how money buys lawyers who fashion justice by parsing words and clouding intent. When the mechanisms intended to provide clarity result in more confusion, the system fails and we lose interest.
Or, as Braun would say: irrelevant. He is a man of routines, ensconced in the minutiae of his profession -- the compulsive glove adjustments, the rigid uppercut practice swing just outside the batter's box, the gotta-pee toe-tapping inside it. Irrelevant has been incorporated into the routine, just another twitch of the head or tap of the bat.
Against the Mets, on a drizzly night in New York, Braun is thrown out on a high chopper over the mound. The diehard chanters, just three or four discordant voices, serenade him with "ster-roids" on his way back to the dugout. One fan near the Brewers' dugout yells, "Where were your steroids on that one?" In a mostly empty Citi Field, Braun undoubtedly hears every taunt. It never shows, of course. Irrelevant.
What does history tell us? Mike Greenwell was the runner-up for AL MVP in 1988, behind Jose Canseco. When Canseco admitted to being a steroid user, Greenwell was indignant. "Where's my MVP?" he asked. "I was clean. If they're going to start putting asterisks next to things, let's put one by the MVP."
Matt Kemp was the runner-up for NL MVP last season, behind Braun. Before Braun's suspension was overturned, Kemp was asked whether he believed the award was rightfully his. "I would want to win by them voting me," he said. "I wouldn't want them to say, 'Oh, this person did that, so how about we just give the award to this person.' I don't think it should work that way."
Performance-enhancing drugs were once a national obsession, baseball's most scandalous scandal, capable of inciting grandstanding lawmakers and apoplectic columnists. Times, and attitudes, change. A reigning MVP continues to play at an MVP level under a dissipating cloud of suspicion. Players shrug and move on. Jurors nod off amid the steroid trial of the century. Major League Baseball fumes and fires. Braun repeats the four most debilitating syllables in the English language.
Outrage is replaced by fatigue.