Ryan Braun should be thankful for procedural flaw
Athletes have a long and hilarious history of excuse-making for the performance-enhancing drugs that somehow materialize in their bodies. Cyclist Tyler Hamilton blamed his positive test on an unborn twin he had absorbed. Tennis player Petr Korda attributed his dirty urine to alleged steroid-laden veal. Runner Dieter Baumann faulted a tube of spiked toothpaste. And, of course, Manny Ramirez’s “personal health issue” necessitated him taking a hormone found most commonly in pregnant women.
When it came his turn to explain his violation of baseball’s drug program, Mike Morse did something novel: He told the truth, and it hurt more every time.
Morse was 21 when he used Deca-Durabolin. Distraught over a torn thigh muscle, worried about his fledgling career, desperate to heal, he took the oil-based steroid in late 2003. When he tested positive while in the minor leagues in May 2004, he accepted the 15-game penalty and apologized for an error in judgment. He tested positive two months later for the same substance – and baseball suspended him again. When he arrived in the major leagues the next season, the Deca remained in his system – its nandrolone metabolites are present for up to two years – and he received another suspension for the same cycle of drugs. In baseball, triple jeopardy lived.
The focus on the sport’s PED program has sharpened since National League MVP Ryan Braun’s positive test for synthetic testosterone was overturned on a chain-of-custody misstep late last week. Criticism has cast the program as everything from inadequate to unfair to, as Braun suggested in the news conference following his victory, “fatally flawed.”
More than perhaps anyone else, Morse has good reason to flay the program. It truly, genuinely wronged him. Even the arbitration panel, in its report after his failed appeal, admitted: “The panel recognizes that this result may be viewed as unfair to Michael Morse.”
And Saturday, Morse, a soon-to-be 30-year-old outfielder with the Washington Nationals who slugged 31 home runs in a breakout 2011, still said this of a system he knows stunted his growth and stigmatized him for years: “I think it’s a great program. Everything about it is good.”
Of all the crazy aspects of the Braun case – and there are plenty – perhaps the craziest is just how strong he came out against the drug-testing parameters to which he, as a member of the players’ union, agreed. What Braun doesn’t seem to realize is that the flaws he criticized were precisely what saved him from his appeal being about the substance in his urine rather than the journey his urine took.
Ryan Braun still hasn’t answered the question, and he probably never will. Maybe he is telling the truth when he says he doesn’t know how synthetic testosterone entered his body. It flies in the face of everything Braun has built himself up to be: a person in control of everything, whether it’s his restaurants, his clothing company and especially his baseball destiny.
“He knows everything – everything – that goes into his body,” a former teammate told Yahoo! Sports this week.
At his news conference Saturday, it was easier to focus on his talking points than parse details. Braun has more polish than a nail salon. He cut a believable figure by dodging the particulars and instead questioned Dino Laurenzi, the collector of his sample.
Here are facts confirmed during Braun’s arbitration hearing: The two cups of urine Braun provided sat in Laurenzi’s basement, inside a temperature-controlled cooler. The seals on the cups remained intact. When the samples were sent to the Montreal lab for testing, scientists agreed they had not been compromised by the storage, according to multiple sources. Any mishandling wouldn’t explain the exogenous testosterone, either. It’s not exactly the sort of thing that grows in a pee sample, no matter how badly bungled.
Braun chose not to believe that story. His narrative sounded better with the 44-hour gap in between the specimen collection and Laurenzi’s shipping it to Montreal at FedEx. That breach in the chain of custody, after all, convinced arbitrator Shyam Das to invalidate the test. Even if MLB called it “vehemently” wrong, it was a fair ruling. The chain-of-custody rules weren’t clear enough. Braun’s lawyers seized on that and won the case.
Protocols exist to provide the greatest likelihood of specimens arriving in the Montreal testing lab without being tainted. MLB and the union needed to update their drug program to include a stricter – and more exact – procedure. When baseball adopted its testing program, it allowed Comprehensive Drug Testing, the agency that collects the samples, to write the rules. No longer does that suffice, even if CDT is a widely respected agency that has done testing for the NFL and NHL, too.
Still, it’s important to acknowledge that Christiane Ayotte, recognized as the foremost expert in PED testing in North America and head of the Montreal lab that ran tests on Braun’s samples, testified at his arbitration case that the sample had not degraded. In other words, the mishandling had not affected the specimen’s integrity. The threshold for degrading is low – more than 5 percent and the sample is invalid – which affirms MLB’s argument that Braun’s case was relevant only in a procedural bubble.
The knowledge that Braun’s sample was still deemed good, plus the use of a loophole both MLB and the union agree needs closing, has led to a backlash against not just baseball biffing another steroid situation but Braun’s judicial victory not translating into a public one.
It’s the flimsiness of Braun’s equivocating that upon closer examination reveals somebody who engaged more in spin than truth-telling.
His foremost excuse for not delving deeper into details was “pending litigation.” It sounded like a perfect cover. Question is, who would Braun sue? Laurenzi? For what, exactly? Keeping a sample that Ayotte would testify was just fine? Perhaps the person who leaked the information? It’s not as if Braun could sue for defamation of character. He’s a public figure. Moreover, during the appeal he didn’t bother disputing the validity of the synthetic testosterone in his urine.
And those don’t cover the biggest reason: Should Braun pursue litigation, it would force him to be cross-examined and speak under oath. Bad idea, especially with the precedents of Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Miguel Tejada and others. If Braun wanted to tell his unfettered story, he would, litigation or not. It takes a special kind of naïveté to buy that excuse.
Some of Braun’s other arguments reeked of desperation. He talked about how his T:E ratio of more than 20:1 was three times higher than any previous in baseball. He didn’t talk about how other athletes’ ratios have tested as high as 70:1.
Braun said he had taken 25 tests before without a positive. Just like others who had tested positive. And he didn’t improve in size, speed, power and the rest of the stereotypical PED symptoms that ignore the fact that most players who use have done so to heal injuries or maintain health and stamina.
Then Braun said he would “continue to take the high road.” Instead, he took a scalpel to the integrity of Laurenzi: “There were a lot of things that we learned about the collector, about the collection process, about the way that the entire thing worked that made us very concerned and very suspicious.”
None of which he’d share, mind you. He’d rip the guy. He’d plant wild theories. He’d ignore MLB issuing a statement standing up for Laurenzi. He had won, and he owed nobody anything.
The system that Ryan Braun believed failed baseball not only gave him a touchdown, it was letting him dance in the end zone.
Since baseball began testing for PEDs seven years ago, it has suspended 27 players. The first was Alex Sanchez, a 5-foot-9 wisp of a leadoff hitter who looked nothing like the behemoths with which baseball associated its steroid use. Neither, for that matter, did Morse. He was a 6-foot-5, 195-pound beanpole, the tallest shortstop in baseball history for whom added bulk would’ve meant a move off his favorite position.
Age added weight naturally, and Morse today plays left field and first base, though he keeps his shortstop glove around just in case. Following his positive with Seattle, he became persona non grata, appearing in just 35 major-league games the next three years. Washington stole him for Ryan Langerhans, gave him playing time, watched him evolve into a 240-pound monster – on the back of his left shoe, it says, I’M A, matched with a right heel that says, BEAST – and Morse has outgrown what he once thought would chase him forever.
“I haven’t thought about it in years,” Morse said. “I’m past it. I don’t talk about it. It happened. It’s done. I’ve moved on.”
J.C. Romero is trying. The St. Louis Cardinals left-handed relief pitcher tested positive for androstenedione – the same steroid precursor Mark McGwire took legally in 1998 – after he used a dietary supplement called 6-OXO Extreme. The bottle was improperly labeled. The andro showed up in trace amounts. While ignorance is no excuse, Romero turned down a deal from MLB – 25 games instead of 50 – and continued to fight. He lost and served 50 games. Romero sued the supplement maker, which settled out of court with him in January. He won money. Just not all of his reputation.
“Was it fair?” Romero said. “No. Life isn’t.”
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Fairness is the ultimate balance for baseball to strike in its program, and the Braun case didn’t show as much of an imbalance as the public may recognize. The idea of MLB going after a superstar of Braun’s caliber proved the league’s seriousness in rooting out PEDs. Braun’s victory showed the guilty-until-proven-innocent system baseball employs for those who test positive can indeed yield a good result for the players against whom the odds are stacked. If it’s minutiae and details that need a once- or twice-over to ensure lawyers don’t find a pin prick and gouge it into a gaping hole, all the better.
A strong program brings value to baseball. It proves the sport is serious about keeping its games from devolving into ones divided more by morality – are you or aren’t you willing to use PEDs? – than talent. It gives players a choice and levies consequences. It tries to be fair and right, something evident when MLB and the players join together to script its particulars. Mistakes happen. Baseball rues that it hadn’t changed what amounted to an easy rule fix.
So Braun won, though he didn’t exactly have a pair of supporters behind him in Morse and Romero. Persecution has its different hats, and the biggest thing Romero could praise Braun for was: “He stood up for himself.” Said Morse: “Good for him.” And that was that.
Both declined to say anything more because they didn’t know the whole story. They did recognize a guy getting off on a technicality while the reasons for his synthetic testosterone-laden urine remained unanswered. That’s not a flaw in the program. It’s not a flaw in the system, either. It’s nothing more than Ryan Braun’s truth, one with which we have to live no matter how incomplete.
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