Friday, February 24, 2012

Braun Skates By a Razor's Edge

Defending NL MVP Ryan Braun has had his 50 game suspension for testing positive for a banned substance overturned by a 3-arbitrator panel. This has produced all sorts of interesting reactions in the chattering classes because A)it's never happened before, at least that we know of B)it massively changes the dynamic in the NL Central this upcoming season C)there was considerable weirdness around the whole case from the get-go and D)the reason the suspension was overturned will no doubt cause endless controversy going forward. 
For those unaware of the facts of the case, such as they are, they can be summed up thusly:

What Happened:
  • At the end of last season, Milwaukee Brewers slugger Ryan Braun tested positive for a banned substance, later revealed to be artificial testosterone.
  • Braun was informed of the positive test privately, as per MLB's drug testing regulations, before the voting for NL MVP. 
  • Braun immediately took another test, which was negative.
  • Braun won NL MVP over a slightly-more-deserving-but-saddled-with-a-joke-of-an-owner Matt Kemp of the LA Dodgers*, knowing of the positive test but not violating his right to privacy and due process by informing the voters of the BBWAA of the test.
  • The test results were leaked, causing many of the writers who had voted for Braun to verbally roast him and demand he turn in his MVP award.
  • All sorts of weird bits of evidence surrounding the test came to light, and Braun vowed to appeal

Reasons to think Braun is clean:

He'd never failed a test before or since (23 clean results)
There's absolutely no logical reason he'd start juicing at the end of a season when he'd been clean all year and put up monster numbers.
His test numbers were so out of whack - we're talking "Bruce Banner in line at the DMV" out of whack - they looked like they came off a video game, and statistical outliers that berserk are always suspicious.
His followup test was clean.
Reasons to think Braun isn't clean:
His sample tested positive. Way, way, positive.
It is theoretically a very accurate test, with basically zero chance of a false positive.

Random bullshit swirling around the case:
The way the results were leaked on the supposedly anonymous testing is highly unethical, to say the least.
Various holier-than-thou reporters were ready to crucify Braun for daring to win the MVP award they voted for while testing positive, and not turning the award down
Rumors that Braun tested positive because he was taking a herpes med. (What is it about baseball players and wacky herpes rumors? See also: Jeter and Jessica Alba)
Conspiracy theorists claiming that since Selig once owned the Brewers, he was going to rig things so that Braun would get off.

The ruling:
Braun's guilt cannot be proven because there's a break in the chain of custody of the first sample, which tested positive. Apparently the messenger charged with transporting it thought that the local FedEx Office was closed and held onto it over the weekend, creating a two day gap in the chain of custody during which time anything could have happened to the sample, up to and including contamination, deliberate mucking about, or Moises Alou using it to wash his hands. 
The verdict was rendered 2-1 by the panel, which consisted of one MLB rep, one MLBPA rep, and one independent arbitrator (Shyam Das) who has a history with these things. MLB is furious about the whole thing, which is idiotic - the last thing you want to do is keep trashing your product, particularly your young, superstar, photogenic product, once you've been given an out on this whole embarrassing mess.

Why Everyone Is Mad:
The reason Braun's suspension was overturned by the arbitrator - and let's be honest, this was a one-man show, because the MLB arbitrator was always going to rule one way and the MLBPA was always going to rule the other - was, as noted, because the chain of evidence was broken, and Braun's sample apparently spent two days in a bike messenger's fridge. Now, leaving aside all jokes about what you're likely to find in a bike messenger's fridge (and they are plentiful), the fact is, the sample was not where it was supposed to be according to the rules of the testing. Period. That's it. Never mind that weird things can and do happen to samples that are not kept according to strict protocols, never mind that the tamper-proof seal was supposedly in place - none of that matters. The rules were broken, which leads to the inescapable conclusions that A)the positive test was unreliable, because it was not conducted under the agreed-upon rules and B)the way in which Braun's appeal was upheld will be described in all corners as "on a technicality".
And since we all now "on a technicality" means "he did it and got away with it but those darn rules kept a good cop from taking a dirty scumbag down like in that episode of Law and Order I just watched"**, those convinced that Braun actually did cheat will just entrench in their positions, forever convinced that he was guilty and that only some sort of shenanigans got him off. 
And to those who feel that way, I say "bugger off". As noted above, the chain of evidence was broken. None of these jokers would hesitate for a minute to use a broken chain of evidence defense if they were on trial, even if only in the court of public opinion. And as noted above, weird things happen to samples that aren't dealt with according to protocol. Ryan Braun did not test positive; a sample of Ryan Braun's tested positive under circumstances that rendered that test invalid
There's a whole other debate to be had on this, over the fact that Braun's results were leaked in violation of MLB's CBA with the players' association, a fact that conveniently gets overlooked in the supposed greater good of "finding cheaters". But that's a topic for another time. What matters now is that somehow, the system creaked to a conclusion in accordance with its own rules. It didn't get there quickly, and it didn't get there painlessly, but it got there. And that, more than any positive test, means that the system is working. Short-sighted zealots my decry this as Braun setting up a blueprint for cheating the system***; wiser heads will realize that preserving the accuracy of the testing process is more important in the long run.
And some of us do still remember the long run.

*Many of these same writers were ready to run Kemp out of LA on a rail the year previous for being "lazy" and "a clubhouse cancer" and so forth. Funny how that changes.
**Just so you know, Law and Order doesn't actually get that stuff right all the time.
***Step one: Cheat. Step two: find bike messenger too dumb to read the posted hours at Kinko's. Step three: PROFIT!

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