- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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There's a speech that Martin Landau's character gives near the end of the darkly brilliant Woody Allen film "Crimes and Misdemeanors" that often comes to mind whenever I see amazing powers attributed to someone's ability to "look you in the eye" and "act as if they're not guilty," as if that's an accurate gauge of whether a person is telling the truth.
And the scene came rushing back to me as the discussion heated up about whether Ryan Braun's second straight MVP-caliber season proves the Milwaukee slugger's assertion that he never used performance-enhancing drugs even more than the fact his positive 2011 test was overturned on appeal.
The movie is about a lot of themes: betrayal, guilt, the human capacity for denial, and our yearning to believe the world is "just." It's also about what happens to a fictional man of great stature and ambition who is tripped up by a personal failing (in this case, Landau's character, Judah, has an affair and then violently disposes of the crazy mistress who threatens to destroy everything he's built). In his big summation near the end, Landau, speaking in a tone of voice that's so matter-of-fact it's haunting, describes how Judah went from panicked to guilt-ridden to relieved when an unexpected exoneration magically came his way: "One morning, he awakens. The sun is shining, his family is around him and mysteriously, the crisis has lifted. He takes his family on a vacation to Europe and as the months pass, he finds he's not punished. In fact, he prospers What the hell? His life is completely back to normal."
The point is the actual outcome proved nothing about the truth.
And it seems to me that's a good distinction to keep in mind now that Braun's terrific season seems to be getting freighted with more or less meaning than anyone can be sure it deserves. I'm all for the argument that his thrown-out test shouldn't be held against him in the upcoming MVP vote. But what I can't reconcile is the rush to declare that Braun's numbers categorically prove his claim that "I am an innocent man." Same goes for the rush to put Braun to the eyeball test and rhetorically ask his doubters, "Does Braun look like a guilty man to you?" or turn this into another hackneyed tale of sports "redemption."
A lot of it is based on the assumption that no one in Braun's position would dare do anything wrong again. And that logic might seem reasonable if so many other PED users hadn't looked us right in the eye, too, after being accused. If you want a few laughs, read this funny old Slate magazine compilation of how athletes have explained failed drug tests, "The Dog Ate My Steroids." But if you want a more sobering take, listen to this audio of BALCO founder Victor Conte, taped for San Francisco radio station KNBR after Braun's positive test came to light last year. Conte describes in daunting, rapid-fire detail how many ways tests can still be beat.
Which again pretty much underscores the point Allen's movie made: The outcomes may or may not have anything to do with the truth.
So isn't it better to confine ourselves to what we do know about Braun?
Ryan Braun is an exceptionally good baseball player. So good "it's stupid," Brewers pitcher Mike Fiers said with a laugh earlier this year. "Ridiculous," Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke agreed, smiling as well.
Braun has had a hell of a season under trying circumstances. That's a fact, too. His numbers alone deserve to put him in the neck-and-neck race he's in with Giants catcher Buster Posey for the National League Most Valuable Player award. Braun's stats back up his opinion -- expressed most recently to CBSSports.com -- that he's played even better this season than he did while winning the MVP award last year. And he's done it without lineup protection from fellow slugger Prince Fielder, who moved on to Detroit this season.
What adds a special dimension to Braun's performance is the personal backstory. He's raised his level after becoming the only major leaguer ever known to have a positive drug test overturned. And if the process had worked the way it should've, none of it -- neither the fact his sample tested positive for five times the admissible level of testosterone, nor that an arbitration panel ruled 2-1 that the sample was mishandled -- would've ever gotten out publicly. Instead the positive result was leaked to ESPN before the appeal was over, in a breach of the program's confidentially provision. Braun was upset about the ensuing damage to his reputation. And he has a right to be. Still.
So Braun deserves praise for how he's handled this year. Even by September, when the Brewers traveled to Chicago to play a series against the Cubs, the New York Times reported Braun was still hearing taunts from fans such as "Ster-oids, ster-oids" or "Hey Ryan, I've got a syringe for you!" But that day -- same as he has all season long -- Braun refused to acknowledge the catcalls, let alone lash back. In the most expansive interview he gave on the topic all season, Braun told Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports he truly viewed this season as an opportunity to "continue to do what I've done my whole career. I thought that was going to be the single-most important thing I could do to move forward and to get people to see I'm still the player -- if anything, better -- than I've ever been in the past."
In sum, if the yardstick is performance or personal behavior, it is hard to tell a difference between the Before version of Braun we had come to know -- the five-tool talent, popular teammate and model citizen who had decried PED use in the past -- and the After version of Braun that we've seen since the controversy blew up. He's played terrifically and comported himself even better despite the suspicions that have followed him since his appeal. Those are all facts, too.
So if voters think Braun had a better year than Buster Posey, or that the tiebreaker doesn't have to be that Posey's Giants made the playoffs while Braun's Brewers probably won't, they shouldn't hold the test fiasco against Braun.
They should go ahead and give the man the award.
But beyond that? I don't get the rush to proclaim that Braun's MVP caliber year categorically proves his innocence -- case closed, write it down in ink, call it a wrap.
Ryan Braun is a hell of a ballplayer who performed well enough to win another MVP award.
Leave it at that.
The outcome proves nothing about the truth. That's a good distinction to keep in mind now that Ryan Braun's terrific season seems to be getting freighted with more or less meaning than anyone can be sure it deserves.