MARYVALE, Ariz. – Nobody surfs the eye of the storm quite like Ryan Braun.
Twenty-nine, an MVP, an MVP runner-up, a Rookie of the Year and still the lone drug-program appeal winner, Braun, in fact, has become the very symbol of the era. Not in his guilt or innocence, whatever that may be, but in the hazy grayness that has become his reputation and then the manner in which he must conduct himself.
Are you sure Braun is dirty? Are you sure he's not? Either way, what does that mean, and what does it say about the game, and how much does any of it matter anymore to the people who watch, root for and subsidize it?
The better-physiques-through-science hulks of the past generation are, for the most part, gone. The cheaters remain. They merely come in smaller packages, in subtle advantages measured in testosterone patches and throat lozenges designed to lift a man to the edge of illegal. To the edge of an advantage. The fight evolves. The circumstances go grayer. Players huddle behind statements, lawyers and teams of PR experts. They lead with their consciences, or live with them.
And on a Friday morning here, while his teammates were inside horsing around and measuring golf tans, Braun was standing outside wrapped in microphones, notepads and, perhaps in some cases, suspicion.
As he was last spring, if maybe another 500 feet to his left, Braun was polite, polished, consistent. Following a Yahoo! Sports report that his name turned up on documents written by alleged performance-enhancing drug peddler Tony Bosch, none of which tied Braun to illegal Biogenesis products, Braun said his lawyers had once hired Bosch as a consultant. In the hours before ESPN uncovered and released another document with his name on it – this one on a list with Alex Rodriguez, Melky Cabrera and Francisco Cervelli and with another number, "1500," written beside it – Braun stuck by that story.
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He smiled. He laughed. He held eye contact. He clasped his hands behind his back and rocked easily in his black sneakers. Braun is friendly and believable enough. He is also a product of his era, or a casualty of his era, or a face of his era. Someday, perhaps, we'll know which. Meantime, only Braun knows for sure.
Ultimately, he's a symbol, because our trust has run thin, and MLB's patience has run out, and in camps all over the game Cabrera, Carlos Ruiz, Nelson Cruz, Cervelli and others are asked to explain themselves.
Shoulders back and gaze undaunted, Braun captures it all. He is the positive test, the leaked documents, the rush to judgment, the successful appeal, the angry denial, the next controversy, the shady characters, the new documents, the new statement and the latest sidestep. MLB has not yet contacted him in the course of its investigation into Biogenesis, Bosch and the notebooks that led to the Miami New Times and Yahoo! reports, but, sources said, it will. That's part of the life, too, that comes along with the urine, blood and longitudinal testosterone testing. You are what your body says it is. You are the company it keeps. Maybe, you are what a few scribbled pages in a notebook say you are.
Braun arrived with a message.
"I understand why a lot of you guys are probably here but I made a statement last week and I stand behind that statement," he said Friday morning. "I'm not going to address that issue any further. As I stated, I'm happy to cooperate fully with any investigation into this matter.
"I respect the fact that all of you guys have a job to do and part of that job involves asking me questions. I'm happy to answer any and all questions about baseball, spring training, the World Baseball Classic or anything else."
Later, asked about new blood testing for HGH, an innocuous question that brought admonishment from a Milwaukee Brewers official, Braun said, "Look, I've always been supportive of the system. I've always been supportive of additional drug testing or whatever testing they have that's available."
The directive from the Brewers was for baseball questions only. The days of separating the two – the sport from its drug problem, or its perceived drug problem, or those implicated in its perceived drug problem – are long gone, however. The investigations continue. Players, their agents and their alleged suppliers get pulled in. The process of separating the innocent from those who say they are innocent becomes convoluted, because there will always be another Biogenesis and, for it, another customer.
Meanwhile, a guy such as Ryan Braun stands in the middle of it, right or wrong. He's certainly not alone, though sometimes he must feel like he is. The fight is his, and it's far from over, whether he's dirty or not.
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