PHOENIX – Three years running, Ryan Braun has pushed the self-prescribed narrative, from outraged to evasive to contrite. Mow the grass, line the fields, oil the gloves, address the cheating, run the drills, hit the showers, must be the start of Milwaukee Brewers camp.
This time, so you know, he's sorry. He messed up. He wishes he hadn't. It's all been so difficult. He'll try to make it right.
"I take responsibility for the mistakes I made," he said.
Now, which way to the batting cage?
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Granted, he's been apologizing now for seven months, which ought to be enough. As you no doubt know, he purchased and ingested performance-enhancing drugs in 2011, tested positive, somehow got away with it, rallied his teammates around him, fire-and-brimstoned a statement that ran down Major League Baseball and its contracted specimen collector, lived the life of the vindicated, turned up in the pages of Biogenesis documents, made up a story about that, surrendered as MLB's investigators closed in and served a 65-game suspension. The timeline carried on for about 2 ½ years, closing (for the moment) early Thursday here, a few steps from the side door of the Brewers' clubhouse.
"None of it was easy," he said.
Over about 10 minutes, Braun again declined to reveal specifics of his use, including whether he'd used performance-enhancing drugs before or after the period surreptitiously documented by Biogenesis founder Tony Bosch. He referred often to his statement of last summer, which was long on regret but conspicuously short on details. He would not answer why he turned to Bosch or to drugs that were illegal without a prescription.
"If I had a good answer," he said, "I would provide it to you."
Ultimately, he said, "For me, it's counterproductive to continue to look back."
Two years ago, he found it exceptionally productive to look back.
Anyway, Braun is the Brewers' right fielder. He'll bat third. He did his time, and now will play through whatever the ballparks of America, including his own, have in store for him. He hasn't been on a baseball field since July 21. He hasn't faced a pitch designed to make him miss in those seven months. And it'll be another week, at least, before that. It's not important. Time and talent are on his side. His right thumb, bothersome when he was on the field last season, seems mostly healed, perhaps the sole benefit of the suspension.
The broader picture remains vague.
Braun is 30 years old. He is under contract for seven more years, maybe eight. Maybe that's a good thing for Brewers owner Mark Attanasio, and maybe he lost the gamble. That's the trouble with betting on human beings, and not the business world, which is his day job. People are far less predictable.
Braun has been accused of using PEDs since he was in college. It's all in a lawsuit brought by his former friend and confidant, a man by the name of Ralph Sasson. The allegations could be false, the sort of deception with which Braun is well acquainted. They might not be. But at-bats are coming for Braun, hundreds of them, and their outcomes will have a bearing on the public perception of him and his career, along with great relevance for the Brewers, who aren't in the habit of handing out $105 million contract extensions to mysteries.
"He had a lot of good years without doing anything wrong," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said Thursday morning. "I expect him to be the same player, yes."
Nobody can know. Was he clean before? Has he been clean since? Will he be clean going forward? Nobody knows. Not Mark Attanasio. Not Ron Roenicke. Certainly not MLB, which, try as it might, can hardly catch them all. Hell, Braun almost got away. He was a lousy $4,000 debt from freedom, the amount Tony Bosch apparently owed a former employee, that went unpaid, that caused the conflict, that brought the whole thing down on Braun, Alex Rodriguez and the rest. It's that fragile. And, so too, could be Braun.
An apology was all that was left, and Braun got around to it eventually, when that was the only thing left the people of Milwaukee hadn't yet heard. The truth, or something like it, and then the apology.
He returns to the clubhouse, where the denizens will love him if he hits. He is their best player. If he is not, they'll gripe about him behind his back, because he makes all the money, and he lied to them – his friends and teammates – which, in his world, is a far greater transgression than lying to the people who come to watch him play and help pay his salary. That's just the way it works.
He returns, like they all do, like they all have, and folds into the game. It won't matter anymore what anyone thinks of him or his decisions, just that he is the hitter he once was. Some come out the other side and are. Some aren't.
It's not unique to Braun or the Brewers. The Biogenesis backdraft seared a lot of men, a lot of franchises. What is special is how it returns here, year after year, the same topic, the same guy, the same weariness.
Batting cages are over there.