For all the overwrought, inane and at times laughable narratives pushed by The Media (caps very much needed), perhaps none is more inane than the concept of "redemption."
You see it every season. Player X has a terrible October resume, so he must redeem himself in the postseason. Team X lost the division in heartbreaking fashion to Team Y, so obviously they'll be playing Team Y harder to redeem themselves from defeat. On and on these stories go, recycling the same verbs and adjectives to espouse the same empty rhetoric.
But never is it more disingenuous than when lazy folks try to conflate actual wrongdoing with a sense of on-field redemption. The Internet is littered with these storylines. Player X gets busted for DUI, looks to redeem himself. Player Y injected horse hormones into himself, got busted and now wants to prove himself to the fans and community. (Please note I'm not conflating performance-enhancing drug use and actual, dangerous crime. Just the similarities of pushed narratives.)
Heading into spring training, the redemption dog and pony show this season belongs to Ryan Braun, the disgraced Milwaukee Brewers outfielder who was suspended the last 65 games of 2013 for his link to the Biogenesis wellness clinic in Miami. With Alex Rodriguez spending his 2014 season in Centaur-filled baseball purgatory—and his story far beyond absolution for most—it's Braun taking center stage as the face of PEDs this spring.
And don't worry. Ryan Braun and the word "redemption" already gets 68,000 Google hits—most of which are links to your favorite columnist writing a road to a happy ending for Braun. How a player once so beloved he could co-own restaurants with Aaron Rodgers and get the Brewers to sign a nine-figure contract can win back the hearts and minds of those he betrayed.
Never mind the fact that the whole betrayal thing is nonsense. The Brewers want to know when you, the fan, will have Ryan into your home with warmth again. The great Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel had a post Thursday, which highlighted a survey the team is having its fans take before the season. It ranged on a wide number of topics, but there are numerous questions about how fans feel specifically about Braun.
One sample question: "In light of Ryan Braun's return to the Brewers this season, how do you feel about the future of the Milwaukee Brewers?"
"If we get some specific, strong indications, again not just whether it's about Ryan or other things, we have to digest that and take it into account," Brewers chief operating officer Rick Schlesinger said. "What we're going to specifically do with the responses in relation to Ryan Braun, we haven't determined."
Here's the thing: Ryan Braun cannot redeem himself. He is, based on all the evidence we have laid before us, a pretty loathsome character. He not only categorically denied taking performance-enhancing drugs when initially suspended by MLB before the 2012 season, he went on a scorched-earth campaign to discredit any and everything that linked him to cheating.
If that meant soiling the name of a man like Dino Laurenzi Jr., the collector who allegedly botched Braun's urine sample, then dammit, that's just what had to be done. Never mind if Laurenzi was smeared across national and local platforms, costing him his job and making him a pariah in Wisconsin—where he lived and where Braun was considered a hero pre-2013.
Whatever. It had to be done.
Granted, Laurenzi did and does deserve some blame. The appeal went in Braun's favor because Laurenzi screwed up the sample from a legal perspective. There's no arguing that. But the way Braun went out of his way to publicly vilify Laurenzi when he knew he was guilty exposes a quality that makes any "redemption" qualities insane. You can eat dinner with a man, but making an actual amends on the past isn't quite as easy.
Braun's press conference after he won the appeal is one of the most ironic rewatches on the Internet. He's no Lance Armstrong, who went down in a complete blaze of glory, suing everyone and their children. It's nonetheless a looking glass into the human condition of compartmentalization and self-justification.
The way Braun and the Brewers can get past the fiasco is the same way the most media savvy have done in the past: acknowledgement, silence and production.
Few remembered David Ortiz testing positive for PEDs in 2003 when he was setting the world on fire last October and winning the World Series MVP. Andy Pettitte retired for a second time after last season and received respect in New York and elsewhere, with little mention of that whole Brian McNamee thing.
To varying degrees, both men put their heads down, went back to work and became the same people they were pre-PED allegations. Ortiz had a miserable 2009 after the positive test was made public, but he regathered himself and should soon sign a fat extension in Boston at age 38. Pettitte pulled his hat real low, stuck his glove a centimeter below his eyes and was a three-win pitcher down to his very last toss.
Braun already has the say-nothingness down. After the standard, pour-your-heart-out apology, Braun has spoken almost entirely in platitudes. Take what he said to reporters at spring training last week:
I made a mistake. I deserved to be suspended. I took full responsibility for my actions. And as I've said many, many times, all I can do is look forward and continue to move forward. I wish I had the ability to go back to change things and do things differently. But unfortunately I don't have that opportunity.
That's step one. Step two will be continuing to produce at a high level, and there's no reason to think he won't. Braun's 2013 stat line before being suspended (.298 average, 9 HR, 38 RBI) was entirely uninspiring, but it was plagued with a series of injuries that probably made his suspension something of a relief.
Nearly every projection system has Braun back to being an All-Star level player in 2014. He'll hit somewhere around .300 with 25 to 35 home runs and 100 runs batted in. Assuming he didn't sit around and mope these past few months, Braun will continue to exhibit 20-steal speed at age 30.
For all the rightful criticism he's taken, Braun is still a superstar from a production standpoint. He's not a broken-down slugger nearing 40 with a bum hip like Rodriguez. The way back into the good graces of Brewers fans is not to feign regret and hope for forgiveness—people, as dumb as they may seem, can see through superficiality far better than most suspect.
Give them a few good months, some silence and a lot of good swings, the boos will turn to golf claps. Lead the team to the playoffs, here come the loud cheers. Go deep into the postseason—steroids? What steroids?
There's no such thing as true redemption by the definition of the word for Braun. But with enough effort, he may be able to go back to being a baseball player. Considering where he's at now, that's a win in and of itself.
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