The Man Behind The Mask
Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
It was Dec. 10, 2011.
I was on my way to the “Beauty and the Beast” at the Overture Center in Madison, Wis. when I felt my phone vibrate. At the time I was without a smartphone so, in order to make up for the lack of technology, I allowed Twitter to send me tailored tweets from those in whom I had the utmost interest.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Brewers beat writer Tom Haudricourt was among those included.
I glanced down at my phone and saw his tweet. Unimaginable words raced onto my screen. Ryan Braun. Positive test. Performance-enhancing drugs. 50-game suspension.
I went into shock. I refused to believe that Milwaukee’s capeless hero, the reigning National League Most Valuable Player, and Wisconsin’s most recognizable athlete aside from Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, was really a villain.
The same night that the report broke, Braun texted Haudricourt, calling the accusations “B.S.” and proclaiming his innocence.
And almost instantaneously, Braun began running down the same path that many of his PED-using predecessors had traveled. He started playing the game of denial. And he played it well, better than anyone before.
He crafted his argument around the failures of other’s characters, particularly targeting Dino Laurenzi Jr, the man who collected Braun’s tainted sample. Braun lashed out at Laurenzi Jr., attacking his reputation and questioning his conscience. During Braun’s congratulatory press conference a few weeks after his successful appeal, he maintained that the chain of custody was corrupted by Laurenzi Jr.
It was at the infamous press conference, as he stood in front of numerous reporters with the Maryvale sun beating down, that he began spinning a web of lies. He started by explicitly guaranteeing that no banned substance had ever entered his body.
"“If I had done this intentionally or unintentionally, I’d be the first one to step up and say, ‘I did it.’ By no means am I perfect, but if I’ve ever made any mistakes in my life I’ve taken responsibility for my actions. I truly believe in my heart, and I would bet my life, that this substance never entered my body at any point.”"
As his speech went on, every word Braun uttered was undeniably believable, at least for Brewer fans. He had an articulate answer for everything and his answers made sense. Braun was the first player in MLB history to win an appeal and overturn a drug suspension, thus believing him wasn’t too far-fetched.
But Major League Baseball wasn’t buying it. The Commissioner’s Office, led by Commissioner Bud Selig (a crusader in the war against steroids and PEDs), issued a statement blasting arbitrator Shyam Das’ decision and swiftly fired him.
"“Major League Baseball considers the obligations of the Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program essential to the integrity of our game, our Clubs and all of the players who take the field. It has always been Major League Baseball’s position that no matter who tests positive, we will exhaust all avenues in pursuit of the appropriate discipline. We have been true to that position in every instance, because baseball fans deserve nothing less.As a part of our drug testing program, the Commissioner’s Office and the Players Association agreed to a neutral third party review for instances that are under dispute. While we have always respected that process, Major League Baseball vehemently disagrees with the decision rendered today by arbitrator Shyam Das.”"
But despite MLB’s vexation, Braun had won. He had beaten the system and figuratively flipped baseball the bird. He had no need for a bullet proof vest; he was already untouchable.
Outside of Milwaukee, however, fans began to view Braun in a different light. Like Major League Baseball, the majority of baseball fans thought that Braun had gotten off on a technicality by finding a loophole in the otherwise firm knot that is baseball’s judicial system.
As time went on, it seemed that the Brewers left fielder was in the clear; however, Braun’s hell was just beginning to burn.
Major League Baseball continued continued investigating and, in the end, the final nail in the coffin came from PED-supplier Tony Bosch, who ran a Biogenesis clinic that secretly provided performance-enhancing drugs to prominent athletes. Braun was rumored to be one of them and sure enough, MLB suspended Braun on July 22, 2013, two years after he originally tested positive. Braun accepted his punishment and expressed that he was guilty of “some mistakes”.
It only took him 590 days to come clean.
The steel curtain had been pulled back and the real Ryan Braun had finally revealed himself.
Soon after Braun’s sentence, Yahoo! Sports columnist Jeff Passan reported that, before Braun was suspended, he had reached out to fellow players with hopes of discrediting Laurenzi Jr and clearing his name. According to Passan, Braun told Colorado’s Troy Tulowitzki and Cincinnati’s Joey Votto among others, that Laurenzi Jr. was anti-Semitic and a Chicago Cubs fan, those being the reasons he allegedly tampered with Braun’s sample.
Both Tulowitzki and Votto denied those conversations ever took place, but Passan insisted that many of the other players Braun attempted to convince believed his story.
At this point, Braun was on the edge of his grave, just digging away.
Even if Passan’s report was erroneous, Braun is still guilty of virtually destroying at least two men’s reputations — Laurenzi Jr. and Das. Braun has recently said that he and Laurenzi Jr. went to dinner to discuss matters and the two have apparently buried the hatchet. Kudos to Laurenzi Jr. for having the heart to forgive someone who publicly trashed his name. I don’t know if I have that type of forgiveness inside me.
As the truth came out, not only was Braun’s name equivalent to dirt around the game, baseball writers crucified him as well. Of all the admitted steroid users, with the exception of Alex Rodriguez, Braun has taken the most heat. He hasn’t just been blasted by the media, he has been murdered. Justified or unjustified, it’s the way it is.
Passan called Braun a cockroach, Buster Olney labeled him the “Lance Armstrong of baseball” and Jon Morosi wrote that Braun is the “new active major league leader in reputations and careers ruined.”
There was no mincing of words when it came to taking down Braun. It was like an unspoken contest among baseball scribes. Whoever made Braun look more foolish would come out victorious. Everybody won.
With Spring Training fast approaching, Braun is still playing cat and mouse with the media. He continues to sidestep questions about his PED use and has repeatedly said he just wants to move on.
Don’t we all.
In order to do that though, we need more answers from the slugger. The following explanation we received from Braun was not remotely sufficient.
"Here is what happened. During the latter part of the 2011 season, I was dealing with a nagging injury and I turned to products for a short period of time that I shouldn’t have used. The products were a cream and a lozenge which I was told could help expedite my rehabilitation."
Fans can handle the cheating. It’s the lying and unwillingness to be completely honest for which they have no tolerance. Every time Braun refuses to answer a question, the bit of respect people might still have for him diminishes even further. Braun has already alienated people that were once close to him, Rodgers being the most notable. He’s also getting sued by longtime friend Ralph Sasson.
Isn’t it time for him to unleash everything and be 100% honest?
I have my doubts that the fans and media will ever forgive Braun for his sins. But should they? Probably. Holding on to hostility and anger is cancerous. It doesn’t accomplish anything. Fans don’t have to like the guy and they can still boo him if that makes them feel better, but let’s let go of the hate. Move on.
But even if fans choose to cling to their disdain, Braun still has a job to do. How he handles the criticism, the mud-slinging, and the thunderstorm of boos, along with how he performs, will define the rest of his career.
As I sat in the top level of the Overture Center watching “Beauty and the Beast” during that fateful night in 2011, I started wondering. Who is Ryan Braun? Is he a down-to-earth good guy, who just made a handful of devastating mistakes? Or is it all a facade? And later, I would ask, is he really the compulsive liar and cheater as the media deservedly painted him?
We may never know.
But like the Beast, Braun was not who he appeared to be. He wears a mask, clothed in disguise in an attempt to protect his true identity.