Ryan Braun is a cheater and a liar. We have known the Milwaukee Brewers slugger was a cheater for a while now, especially after years of defiance led to the acceptance of a 65-game suspension in the wake of the Biogenesis investigation.
Looking back on his legendary speech after, ahem, clearing his name during the 2012 drug suspension appeal—and the many denials before and after—is comical at this point. Everything Braun has said about performance-enhancing drugs in the past now serves to expose him as a liar.
Will Braun still be an MVP-caliber player in 2014?
With nothing left to lose at this point, Braun released a statement, via MLBlogs, apologizing for the cheating and the lying. And while fans of the Brewers won't forget what Braun did, they certainly can, and will, forgive him.
While a lengthy tell-all statement seems like a good start, especially after rumors swirled last week that Braun was sullying the name of the test collector by suggesting he was anti-Semitic, there is one way Braun will get Brewers fans back on his side.
He needs to mash.
Braun needs to come back next season and hit as well or better than he hit in his MVP season. In 2011, Braun hit .332 with a .994 OPS and knocked in 111 runs for Milwaukee, followed by a year in which he finished second for the MVP with a line of .319/.986/112.
He hit 74 home runs combined in 2011 and 2012, and while his performance this season wasn't anywhere near that level of production, his career numbers show it's entirely possible for him to get back to that level next year.
Unless, of course, he was juicing all along. (Note: Some of us do suspect just that and don't care because look at those numbers!)
Braun is a career .312 hitter with a .938 OPS and 211 home runs in just over 3,700 at-bats. Until this year, he knocked in 100 or more runs in every season but his rookie campaign (97 RBI in 113 games) and this season (38 RBI in 61 games). Is there any reason to believe he can't get back to that level again?
If he can—if Braun can go from drug-using liar back to Milwaukee's best—the fans will have no choice but to forgive him. They'll have no reason not to forgive him too.
As the old saying goes, most fans root for the laundry. Even in a star-laden culture, the best fans still root for the name on the front of the jersey while tolerating the antics from each of the 25 names on the back. That is not new. Throughout history, we have been constantly forced to justify rooting for unsavory characters.
In a way, the struggle between rooting for a franchise and the players it employs is part of what makes baseball America's national pastime. We cheer for the team that represents our city, even if our righteous heroes often share the same clubhouse with liars, cheaters, drug addicts, drunks, racists…you name it.
Does anyone remember this classic Onion story from 2006 with the headline: "Brett Myers Atones For Punching Wife With Solid Seven-Inning Outing?" It wasn't that far from the truth. Myers proved to be one of the early heroes of the Phillies' 2008 World Series run, warts aside.
Now, I admit that's cherry-picking by linking to Myers' incident and not one of the million other horrible off-the-field incidents in baseball's history like this or this or this, but as a lifelong Phillies fan and someone who chronicled the 2008 Phillies season, that justification was always difficult to swallow.
It would have been just as easy to look back on, say, Miguel Cabrera's multiple issues with drinking and how it impacted his play for the Tigers, something that has become a historical footnote and not a career-defining series of incidents as he tries to win consecutive Triple Crowns.
(Note No. 1: I am not making a moral judgment on the difference between rooting for a guy who struggles with alcoholism and someone caught cheating by taking PEDs. These examples only serve as a reminder that players who do dishonorable things both on and off the field are often forgiven and their misdeeds forgotten when they get back to putting up monster stats and helping their teams win.)
Braun's statement said all the things he needed to say. In the nearly 1,000-word mea culpa, he apologized seven times, to the fans, the team, the league, his family and Dino Laurenzi Jr., the urine-collector whose name he sullied and career he ruined.
Braun said he deeply regretted the things he said in that February 2012 press conference, claiming, "(a)t that time, I still didn’t want to believe that I had used a banned substance. I think a combination of feeling self righteous and having a lot of unjustified anger led me to react the way I did. I felt wronged and attacked, but looking back now, I was the one who was wrong."
In the statement, Braun tried to employ the Andy Pettitte defense, admitting he used PEDs but suggesting it was for a "short period." Baseball fans will remember Pettitte suggested he only used HGH "for two days" to help with a nagging injury he had.
Braun has a little bit of Barry Bonds in his statement too, admitting he used "a cream and a lozenge which I was told could help expedite my rehabilitation." The cream and the clear…throat, if you will.
(Note No. 2: This is an important point in Braun's admission and ability to rehabilitate his career. While many fans admonish those who take any PEDs, making the clear distinction between a cream or a piece of candy and the steroids of yesteryear softens the mental image of Braun taking "hardcore" drugs, sneaking into a bathroom stall to jab needles in his backside. The process of enhancing performance is far more sophisticated in today's game, and the perception of Braun's admission could, in a way, help him with fans looking to justify what he did.)
It feels strange to get this far into a story about PEDs and player retribution without talking about Bonds.
Bonds was so good and had such an easy-to-dislike personality that fans outside San Francisco hated him even more after the rumors swirled of his steroid use. Bonds testified in front of a grand jury in 2003 and played four more seasons in baseball—three if you don't include the 2005 season in which he had just 42 plate appearances.
While Bonds became a pariah around the game—much like Alex Rodriguez has become this year—he was still embraced by his home fans. He was beloved. He was a star.
It wasn't because Giants fans believed he was clean, either. It was because he was incredibly productive.
In 2004, at the height of the BALCO investigation, Bonds won his fourth consecutive MVP award, batting .362 while hitting 45 home runs with an OPS of 1.421. Those are video-game numbers, and Bonds was still vociferously supported by fans of his team (not by all, but surely by most) because he was a star.
It happens to this day. Part of the reason MLB was thinking about banning Rodriguez for life—a far stiffer penalty than his involvement in Biogenesis would have historically warranted—is because it would afford him no chance for on-field retribution.
As it stands, Rodriguez was suspended for 211 games and has been pilloried and lampooned in every stadium he has played in while his appeals process plays out. A-Rod's lawyers have been on the offensive, fighting with MLB officials through the media, still maintaining the belief he will be exonerated upon appeal. The entire process is a mess.
And yet, Rodriguez is cheered when he helps the Yankees win—something he has done more often than not since his return. If the Yankees can muster a late-season run at a playoff spot and Rodriguez can be a productive member of the team, does anyone think Yankees fans will care that he's a cheater?
They didn't care in 2009 when he helped them win a World Series. Why would they care now?
The idea of production serving as retribution isn't just about those Hall of Fame names we, in the media, like to cherry-pick. Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz, for example, had a career year in 2012, then was suspended after 25 games for using Adderall without a prescription.
Ruiz is in the midst of his worst season in the majors in 2013, leaving most Phillies fans angry at him—not for taking the drugs but for being dumb enough to get caught. If Ruiz were productive this season, the suspension would be roundly forgotten by now. Since he has been horrible upon his return, the penalty has become an albatross.
Will Brewers fans ever forgive Braun?
Braun can't let his penalty become an albatross. He needs to come back next season refreshed and ready to get back to the Hall of Fame-caliber numbers he has produced his entire career.
Brewers beat writer Adam McCalvy spoke with Brewers GM Doug Melvin about Braun's statement, and the Milwaukee executive talked about how the most important group Braun needs to seek forgiveness from is the 24 other guys in the clubhouse:
I think his actions when he comes back are going to be the most important thing. When a player comes back from a situation like this, he’s going to be one of the guys.
I think once you put on the Brewers uniform, there’s an acceptance that you’re all working in the same clubhouse, on the same team. Guys are all professional enough to understand they’re on a team. They’ll all move forward and try to win ballgames.
In the end, that's really all that matters to the team or the fans. Braun's most successful apology will come next year when he suits up to help the Brewers win ballgames.
When Braun shows productivity, not humility, fans will forgive him the most.