Cheaters still looking to beat the system
So maybe you’d drifted off into some fuzzy alternate reality, where major leaguers have no interest in performance enhancing drugs. Then you blink: Ryan Braun’s testosterone levels are a chemist’s dream and suddenly you’re staring at baseball’s darker angels again.
Or as Michael Corleone famously put it, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”
Seriously, did you believe the PED era was actually over?
Better question: do you think it’ll ever end?
Let’s work backwards and begin with a presumption of innocence that Braun is entitled to. That comes first. So is the opportunity for Braun to tell his side of this unfortunate tale—the appeal process will spill over into January, so there’s time for closer examination. And as for the breach of confidentiality. … well, no one profits from ESPN’s scoop, especially if Braun is clean, as he claims.
But what if he’s not, as many experts are convinced? Not only does baseball’s war on PEDs take a devastating hit, but Bud Selig—the man who championed the game’s clean-up—will be remembered as the sap who only managed to make the cheaters more resourceful.
Of course, Selig’s front men will point to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement’s blood tests, as well as the punitive muscle behind it: not only does a first offense net you a 50-game suspension, but now MLB can screen for HGH instead of just steroids.
Sounds impressive, except for one disturbing asterisk: There are many ways for a determined PED-user to still beat these tests. Victor Conte, the founder and former president of the now-defunct Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) recently told Yahoo! Sports the new detection process has “a loophole you could drive a Mack truck through.”
Apparently, testosterone is the new helper of choice, which, combined with growth hormone, speeds muscle recovery between workouts (or games.). A ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone that’s greater than 4-1 will trigger a positive test, but Conte says players looking for that extra edge will use any number of patches, creams and gels and oral medications immediately after a night game. They can be “clean” by the next afternoon, when random testing is usually administered in the clubhouse.
This doesn’t explain how Braun got caught. If he’s guilty, he may have simply gotten carried away—the Daily News reported the slugger’s testosterone levels were “insanely high,” more than double the amount of any previous test.
Braun’s camp is hinting that he’ll plead to a medical condition, insisting the use of testosterone boosters were part of his treatment. If this is the crux of Braun’s defense, he’s in trouble. MLB allows for a waiver called Therapeutic Use Exemption that permits players diagnosed with, say, attention-deficit disorder to use Ritalin, which is otherwise banned by the sport.
So why didn’t Braun apply for a TUE? Maybe because he’s no better or worse than so many other athletes who’ve wanted to perform at a higher level—and to make more money. It doesn’t make Braun a bad guy, not if you consider how prevalent cheating has been for 20 years. But he’s not the industry savior Selig has propped up, either.
Of course, most everyone wants to believe Braun is innocent. He’s a nice guy, articulate, respectful of fans and umpires, and obviously a mega-talent. Winning the National League’s MVP award was pure synchronicity: Braun was living proof that clean living pays, except when it’s not so clean.
So guess who’s having a private last laugh? None other than Barry Bonds, who was sentenced on Friday to 30 days home confinement, 250 hours of community service and two years probation. This, after the government spends years (and millions) to put the disgraced slugger in jail for perjury. The feds failed miserably; the case was flawed from the outset and Bonds can rightfully say cheating absolutely pays.
The difference between Braun and Bonds is that one of these stars cared about public opinion, the other sneered in our faces. Bonds finished his career with more home runs than anyone in the game’s history, and it was your problem, not his, if you thought the record was fraudulent.
Braun, on the other hand, still has a long run ahead of him, which is why he needs to be careful about his legacy. The odds are Braun will be suspended for the first 50 games next season—industry insiders believe, privately, there’s no chance he’ll win the appeal, no matter what line of defense he chooses.
It’s likely Braun’s good name is history. If the days of Norman Rockwell-innocence are over, his next-best option is to simply tell the truth. The heated, near-hysterical denials aren’t helping—just be honest about the temptation that’s been too powerful to resist.
If Braun wants to help baseball, not to mention his own place among the elite, he’ll tell his public that PEDs are a bad idea, that he got caught up doing something he now regrets. He will look into the cameras and say: “anyone thinking of using steroids or HGH or testosterone boosters ... don’t. It’s not worth it.”
If it stops even one young athlete from cheating, Braun’s candor will be have paid off. But there’s no point in delusion, either. Testing will never truly clean up the game, not when there are hundreds of millions of dollars waiting on the other end of a syringe. Or gel. Or cream. Somehow, they always pull you back in.