Don’t believe what you hear about Ryan Braun

By Nathan Petrashek

Let me put this out there immediately: I have no idea whether Ryan Braun used performance-enhancing drugs.  It’s entirely possible that he did.  As much as we think we do, we (fans) don’t know who professional athletes really are.  While everything in Braun’s public persona suggests to me he didn’t, I simply don’t know.  And neither does anyone else except Ryan Braun.

That didn’t stop a ton of national reporters from generating clicks with misleading headlines.

Here’s one from SI’s Tom Verducci: “As Braun’s name surfaces in PED scandal, another sad day for sports”

The Miami Herald writes: “Braun releases statement on PED link to Miami-based clinic”

Even the Journal-Sentinel’s Tom Haudricourt gets in on the fun: “Ryan Braun attributes PED link to Research for 2011 drug appeal”

The problem: Recently discovered documents don’t link Ryan Braun to PEDs.

Let’s recap what we know.  Less than a week ago, the Miami New Times published a report linking some of baseball’s biggest names, including Alex Rodriguez, Nelson Cruz, and Melky Cabrera, with a Miami anti-aging clinic that also supposedly supplied performance-enhancing drugs.  The New Times obtained the records from an employee who worked at the clinic, Biogenesis, before it closed in December 2012.  The records contained numerous references to the University of Miami baseball team, including conditioning coach Jimmy Goins, which I said at the time spelled bad news for Braun after his successful appeal of a positive drug test in 2011.

It got much worse for Braun yesterday.  Yahoo’s Tim Brown and Jeff Passan found Braun’s name in the Biogensis records.  In some people’s minds, this meant an immediate link to PEDs and guilt.  Yet Brown and Passan specifically stated:

Three of the Biogenesis clinic records obtained by Yahoo! Sports show Braun’s name. Unlike the players named by the Miami New Times in its report that blew open the Biogenesis case, Braun’s name is not listed next to any specific PEDs.

Which is why the New Times didn’t report his name in the first place, incidentally.  In a blog post, the Mami New Times’ Chuck Strouse clarified:

Yahoo!’s story raises an obvious question. If Braun and Cervelli’s name appear in the Bosch records at the heart of New Times‘ investigation — and indeed, Yahoo!’s report does appear to match New Times records — why didn’t we report them in our first story?

Simple: An abundance of caution.

As Yahoo! notes, the records do not clearly associate either Braun, Cervelli or a third player who this morning denied all ties with Bosch (Orioles third baseman Danny Valencia) with use of supplements. Yahoo! apparently obtained copies of just these page of Bosch’s notebooks independently of New Times.

So what did the Biogenesis records reveal?  The Yahoo! story identifies three documents with Braun’s name:

1) A list that includes some players linked to PEDs (Rodriguez, Cabrera, and Cesar Carrillo) and some not (Francisco Cervelli and Danny Valencia).

2) A document which lists Braun’s name along with “RB 20-30k.”  A picture of this document was not included in the Yahoo! report.

3) A letter to an associate apparently congratulating Melky Cabrera on his MVP and referencing something called the “‘Braun’ advantage.”

Braun issued a plausible explanation after the story broke, claiming his attorneys consulted with Tony Bosch, a Biogenesis employee, while preparing for his successful appeal. Braun stated Bosch answered questions “about T/E ratio and possibilities of tampering with samples.”  According to Braun, there was a dispute over compensation for Bosch’s work, which was why Braun and his lawyer were listed under “moneys owed” and not on any other list.

This is at least consistent with the “RB 20-30k” notation and multiple references to one of Braun’s lawyers, Chris Lyons, later in the documents.  David Cornwell, another Braun attorney, released a statement saying he was introduced to Bosch early in Braun’s case and “found Bosch’s value to be negligible.”

While the reference to a “‘Braun’ advantage” is somewhat troubling, it amounts to nothing more than an obscure and ambiguous reference in a letter that could mean almost anything.  Nothing in the newest documents directly links Braun to PEDs or gives any more clarity to the circumstances surrounding Braun’s positive test in 2011 (for which I found Braun’s explanation last year wanting).

In short, we don’t know much more now than we did in 2011.  As with his statement last year, Braun’s most recent pronouncement almost raises more questions than answers.

So if you read anything proclaiming Braun definitively guilty or innocent, don’t believe it.  We just don’t know.

Lingering Questions

It’s been days since we learned of Ryan Braun’s exoneration in perhaps the biggest controversy since MLB and MLPBA instituted the current drug-testing policy.  Yet there are still lingering problems, with both sides.  The media didn’t waste any time disclosing the names of the collector of Braun’s urine sample and his son, and word is that MLB has assigned a security detail for their protection. My hope is that with this post, we can step away from the frenzy and approach this rationally.

Why did Braun attempt to create an inference of tampering in his press conference?

We now know that Braun successfully challenged his drug test on the basis of a 44-hour delay between the time of the test and the time it was eventually shipped via FedEx to a Montreal testing facility.  During that time, the collector apparently kept Braun’s sample and those of two other players in his home, but reports vary as to where precisely the samples were held; one version has the samples on a desk, another in the fridge, another in a cooler in the basement.  During his press conference, Braun made the following statement:

Why he didn’t bring it in, I don’t know. On the day that he did finally bring it in, FedEx opened at 7:30. Why didn’t he bring it in until 1:30? I can’t answer that question. Why was there zero documentation? What could have possibly happened to it during that 44-hour period? There were a lot of things that we learned about the collector, about the collection process, about the way that the entire thing worked that made us very concerned and very suspicious about what could have actually happened.

The inference Braun would have us draw is that the collector (or, perhaps, his son) had something to do with the positive drug test.

But why would Braun suggest this?  MLB has said that, at the hearing, neither Braun nor MLBPA contended that the sample had been tampered with.  The Montreal lab did not find any evidence of tampering, and, from Tom Haudricourt’s description of the process, tampering would be extraordinarily difficult to pull off, despite Braun’s statement during his news conference that “it would be extremely easy” for a motivated person.  And if reports are true that Braun was able to describe, with repeatable results, precisely how a 44-hour delay in transporting the sample could lead to an inaccurate test, then we have a scientific explanation and there is no need to allege malfeasance on the part of the collector.  And what motive might the collector have had?

What evidence Braun has against the collector, he declined to reveal.  Braun was up front in stating he could not answer those questions, as he is contemplating all his legal options.

**UPDATE**

According to a former Anti-Doping Agency official, a 44-hour delay could not have produced the positive result found in Braun’s sample.  If true, that would explain Braun’s tampering charge, but not how he won his appeal.  If he produced no evidence of tampering, and there is no scientific explanation for the positive result, how in the world was Braun exonerated?

What does the MLB have to gain by challenging the result of the arbitration hearing?

Almost immediately after the decision was announced, the MLB was reportedly contemplating federal litigation aimed at overturning the award.  But they appear to have nothing to gain by doing so.  Courts treat arbitration awards deferentially; they may vacate an award under only four circumstances:

(1) where the award was procured by corruption, fraud, or undue means;

(2) where there was evident partiality or corruption in the arbitrators, or either of them;

(3) where the arbitrators were guilty of misconduct in refusing to postpone the hearing, upon sufficient cause shown, or in refusing to hear evidence pertinent and material to the controversy; or of any other misbehavior by which the rights of any party have been prejudiced; or

(4) where the arbitrators exceeded their powers, or so imperfectly executed them that a mutual, final, and definite award upon the subject matter submitted was not made.

9 U.S.C. § 10(a).  It isn’t enough to show that the panel committed error, or even serious error.  And let’s be clear; the dispute here is about the interpretation of the Joint Drug Agreement.  The arbitrator appears to have simply accepted the player’s interpretation over MLB’s.   In short, the MLB isn’t likely to succeed in federal litigation if it chooses to go that route, though its ultimate decision on the matter will have to wait until the arbitration panel issues its written opinion (due 30 days from the date of the award).

Indeed, by contemplating the litigation route, MLB appears by its actions to disregard the very process it now seeks to uphold.  On the one hand, the Commissioner’s Office wants to make its drug policy look airtight and infallible.  This is the message it seeks to broadcast with press releases stating, for example, that it “vehemently disagrees” with the panel’s decision.  Yet, on the other hand, a decision to litigate means that the process does not work; that it did not produce a just result in this case.  By litigating, MLB in fact concedes the system is flawed, and undermines its work to clean baseball up.

Why do some still view Braun as guilty?

This is a much tougher question, as it goes to philosophical debates this country has been having for centuries.  As one New York Met observed following the news of Braun’s exoneration, many (most?) still regard O.J. Simpson as guilty of killing his ex-wife, even though he was found innocent in a criminal trial.  The perception of many – that Braun skated on a technicality – is not likely to go away soon.  This is because many view Braun as not having challenged the science of his test.  In other words, the perception is that Braun has failed to explain why his sample was tainted in the first place.  Bob Wolfey reports that in unscientific polls, a majority of the nation felt that Braun’s legacy is still tarnished, although most aren’t sure whether he actually used PEDs.

This perception – that Braun has failed to prove his innocence – is inaccurate.  Again, Braun was apparently able to show how a sample sitting for 44 hours could become tainted.  But more than that, the perception is wrong because chain-of-custody (which many view as the “technicality”) IS a part of the scientific process.  We need to make sure that the sample was “pure” (as in untainted by outside influences), just as it was when it left Braun’s body.  The only way to demonstrate that is by ensuring that we know, at all times, where the sample is, what condition it is in, and who had access to it.

While it is correct that Braun did not prove that he never took performance enhancers, what we do know is that the process that yielded the positive result were so flawed that the panel’s confidence in the validity of the result was undermined.  In other words, the positive result was untrustworthy.  With that in mind, Braun has no obligation to prove that he never took PEDs, a likely impossible task anyway given the difficulty of proving a negative.  What he does have is an obligation, consistent with the Joint Drug Agreement, to ensure that nothing prohibited enters his body in the future.

What can MLB do to ensure this never happens again?

MLB and the MLBPA have an obligation to annually review the program and develop recommendations for improvement.  You can bet that’ll be an interesting meeting next year.

The current JDA lacks a hard deadline for shipment, but does say that, “absent unusual circumstances, the specimens should be sent by FedEx to the Laboratory on the same day they are collected.”  The collector must take the specimens “to a FedEx Customer Service Center for shipment.  The specimens cannot be placed in a FedEx Drop Box location.”  If a collector does not immediately prepare the specimen for shipment, he or she has to “ensure that it is appropriately safeguarded during temporary storage.”  This requires that the collector “keep the chain of custody intact” and “store the samples in a cool and secure location.”

I suspect future changes will obligate the collector, before temporarily storing the samples, to verify that there are no open FedEx locations within a X-mile radius of the collection site.  In the event that a collector must store the samples because FedEx is closed, language will probably be added requiring the collector to mail the samples at beginning of the next business day.  While these changes might be tough for MLB to swallow – after all, failure to comply would mean more invalidated tests – it appears that spelling out the collector’s obligations up front is the only way to prevent future cases like Braun’s.  Presumably, the collection agency would then instruct its employees precisely what is expected of them.  Not that I expect there to be many of these cases; if you’re in the business, and you haven’t learned anything from the Braun affair, you should probably find another line of work.

Jose Bautista, home run king?

Last night Jose Bautista hit his MLB-leading 17th and 18th home runs.  Bautista is on pace to not just replicate, but obliterate, last year’s 54 home run season. Not bad for a guy who, before last year, hit only 16 home runs in a season (2006).

To put that in perspective, the Brewers’ best slugger, Prince Fielder, is sitting at 10 home runs.  In fact, Fielder has only approached Bautista’s eye-popping home run total twice, in 2007 (50) and 2009 (46).

Fielder and Bautista were both slated to hit free agency after this season, but Bautista, unlike Fielder, signed what most now view as a team-friendly 5-year, $65 million extension that will keep him a Blue Jay until 2015.  Fielder is reportedly looking for a $200 million payday.

Baustita is well on his way to a historic campaign.  Through May 22, some of baseball’s top single-season sluggers put together only slightly better home run totals.  Barry Bonds, for example, hit 24 by this time in 2001; incidentally, Bonds absolutely demolished opposing pitching in mid-May of that year, knocking out 9 in the preceding days.  He would end the season, of course, with 73, topping Mark McGwire’s 70 in 1998.  McGwire had socked 21 by this time in that season.

Historic home run totals are still possible even with a slow start.  Sammy Sosa, who would go on to challenge McGwire for the season record in 1998, had hit only 9 by this time in that year.  And Roger Maris, whose record stood for 37 years, was only 7 home runs deep into his 61-run season by May 22, 1961.

Consider, though, that many of the sluggers just named are either suspected or admitted dopers, and the true significance of Bautista’s numbers becomes clear.  Bautista, simply put, is putting up historic home run totals in perhaps the most pervasive testing period in major league history.

What’s more, he’s doing it in “years of the pitcher,” when batting averages and power numbers are down all over baseball.  Yet here is Bautista, who just keeps hitting.  It should be fun to watch.

And maybe this year the MLB will deem him worthy of playing in the home run derby.