I was on my way home to Milwaukee for the weekend, somewhere in that brief stretch of no man’s land that separates the casino town of Dubuque, Iowa from the Wisconsin state line, when 2011 National League MVP Ryan Braun, whose appeal of a fifty game suspension for having tested positive last October for synthetic testosterone – a “Performance Enhancing Drug” banned under Major League Baseball’s Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program – had the day before been upheld by long-time baseball arbitrator Shyam Das, concluded his twenty-five minute press conference at the Milwaukee Brewers’ spring training facility in Phoenix, Arizona. Scanning the radio dial, I was able to follow reaction to what was perhaps the most direct and impassioned public denial ever issued by a baseball player accused of using PEDs – while standard procedure is to look toward the future from behind some sort of pseudo-legal smokescreen, Braun went so far as to say he would “bet [his] life” that the banned substance in question did not enter his body, either intentionally or otherwise – in two rather different forums: on the popular syndicated sports talk show the Jim Rome Show, guest hosted that morning by NFL network personality Andrew Siciliano, and on a local sports call-in show broadcast out of Madison, Wisconsin.
Not surprisingly, reactions varied. Siciliano, addressing a national audience, scoffed – he literally produced a guttural, scoffing type sound from out of the back of his throat – at Braun’s all but unequivocal implication (though he was careful to stop short of outright accusation, noting that he knew what it felt like to be “wrongly accused” and did not want to subject someone else to such an injustice) that during the forty-four hours that his dirty urine sample was in the possession of the part-time urine collector who had taken it from him after a playoff game between the Brewers and the Arizona Diamondbacks at approximately 5:00 p.m. on October 1st of last year, a Saturday, it had been intentionally and maliciously contaminated. It required a rather broad leap of faith, Siciliano suggested, and perhaps a bit of stupidity as well, to believe that some part-time urine collector in Milwaukee had managed to open the sample that had been sealed in Braun’s presence in the Brewers’ clubhouse, manipulate it such that it would fraudulently testify to the presence of a large quantity of synthetic testosterone in the body of the individual from whom it had been taken, and then re-seal it with such competence that no one at the drug-testing lab in Montreal to which it was subsequently sent via FedEx early the following Monday afternoon would detect even the slightest evidence of tampering – and, moreover, to believe that this part-time urine collector in Milwaukee would want to do all of this.
Nonetheless, the fact that the collector, whose name we now know is Dino Laurenzi, Jr. of Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, took Braun’s urine home with him that afternoon and did not send it off by FedEx until 1:30 p.m. the following Monday though there were, as Braun pointed out during his press conference, upwards of nineteen FedEx offices open between Miller Park, where the Brewers play their home games and where the sample had been collected, and Laurenzi’s home is apparently the reason Braun’s appeal, unlike every other appeal that has been filed since the current drug testing program was ratified by Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association in 2006, was upheld by Das. Language in the Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program specifies that “absent unusual circumstances, the specimens should be sent by FedEx to the laboratory on the same day they are collected,” a specification with which Laurenzi, in the Das’s view, did not comply. In Wisconsin, that violation of protocol was at once more than enough and utterly beside the point: Braun’s innocence was by and large accepted from the outset there – one of few things Wisconsinites from both sides of the proverbial aisle have been able to agree upon in recent months – and to that extent Das’s ruling, and Braun’s press conference, simply provided new fodder for its discussion. The Madison radio hosts to whose show I returned every few minutes as I drove prattled on admiringly about how genuine, sincere, and intelligent Braun looked and sounded during his press conference, while outraged callers in took turns raking Major League Baseball and ESPN over the coals for, in the case of the first, leaking information that, as per the terms of the Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program should have remained confidential throughout the appeal process and, because it was upheld, forever thereafter, and in that of the second reporting the leaked information back in December.
I, too, believe that Braun is telling the truth when he says he did not use PEDs, and for reasons that have little to do with the results of his arbitration case and the – depending on who you ask – reasonable or all but entirely unreasonable possibility that his urine sample was tampered with while it was in Dino Laurenzi, Jr.’s possession. Last summer, I paid for online access to live broadcasts of every Major League Baseball game through the playoffs so that, from places as far flung as a dorm room in Amherst, Massachusetts and a mountaintop apartment near Santa Barbara, California I could follow the Brewers’ most successful season since 1982 all the way through to its bitter end, a loss in the National League Championship Series to the division rival St. Louis Cardinals. What I saw, watching Braun game after game on my computer screen, was an immensely talented hitter having his best season not because, making the same swings on the same pitches, he was as though magically hitting the ball harder and further, but because he had become more patient at the plate, more able to orchestrate his at-bats rather than have them orchestrated by the opposing pitcher (except when that pitcher was the Cardinals’ Octavio Dotel, who befuddled Braun throughout the National League Championship series), something that in turn enabled him to “pick his pitches,” as the saying goes. I also saw his body looking more or less the same as it had the game – and season – before, his head no bigger and his jaw, to my eye, no squarer or more protuberant, and listening to postgame interviews I detected none of the peevishness we consistently saw out of players like Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, the great anti-heroes of baseball’s steroids glory years, but only the same California cool demeanor Braun maintained throughout his press conference in Arizona.
That said, I can hardly claim impartiality in these judgments. I was born and grew up in Milwaukee. In 1982, the last time the Brewers competed in the World Series, my father carried me into the home games at the old County Stadium on his shoulders and kept me there, thus avoiding having to pay for two bleacher seats. I had a lump in my throat when they lost the seventh and deciding game of that World Series in St. Louis, and then again when I held up a “Welcome Back, Gorman” sign the first time mustachioed fan favorite Gorman Thomas, having been traded away, visited County Stadium as a member of the visiting Seattle Mariners, and to this day I still have the copy of the front page of the Milwaukee Journal (now the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, having merged with what its in-town counterpart in 1995) published the afternoon after Paul Molitor’s epic thirty-nine game hitting streak ended in 1987 that my father laminated for me the following morning at work, at risk of being reprimanded for personal use of the laminating machine. I am a fan, in other words, and the rub of it is that if that makes me more qualified than most to speak to the question of Braun’s guilt or innocence – more qualified because I am more familiar than most with Braun’s natural demeanor, his jawbone, the speed with which his bat moves through the hitting zone, and with the incremental narrative of his rise to the top of the baseball heap that gives the lie to the notion that last summer’s was a “breakout” season – it also makes me infinitely less so, for Braun belongs, for me, to a history of longing no mere evidence could ever have the power to arrest. Each time he steps to the plate, or for that matter in front of the microphones, I am not only rooting for him to succeed but also, and precisely by way of him, rooting all over again for Gorman Thomas to wave back to us when we roar in appreciation before his first County Stadium at-bat as a Mariner, and for Rick Manning, whose game-winning hit in the tenth inning left a hitless Paul Molitor standing on deck on the night his thirty-nine game hitting streak ended, to strike out so Molitor can have one more chance at history before the night ends, and, from atop my father’s shoulders somewhere out there in the old County Stadium bleachers, for the 1982 Brewers, the greatest Brewers team of all, the ones we called “Harvey’s Wallbangers” because they had a tendency to pound the baseball so forcefully that it banged off the outfield wall and because their manager’s first name was Harvey (and because of the cocktail, I suppose), to win a World Series history tells us they have long since lost.
The unbearable weight of so many such dreams has surely led plenty of our most gifted athletes to violate what Braun, in his Arizona press conference, described as “the morals, the virtues, the values by which I’ve lived my 28 years on this planet.” And their lightness, no doubt, lifted others to greatness.