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Steiner: Braun proves himself (Oct. 2)

Peter Steiner | Tuesday, October 2, 2012

It takes years to build a good reputation but only moments to lose it. Last year, Ryan Braun learned this the hard way.

On top of the baseball world after winning the National League MVP and leading his team to its first division title in 29 years, Braun was hit with the worst possible pitch in baseball: accusations of performance-enhancing drugs.

For two months following the announcement, Braun’s name and reputation was dragged through the mud by the media, fans and other players. Due to the confidentiality agreement of the arbitration process, Braun couldn’t respond to the rumors – rumors that were quickly turning into facts in the minds of baseball fans.

As a diehard Brewers fan with a signed Braun jersey hanging in my room, I was devastated by the news. In the days and months following the report of Braun’s synthetic substance use, disbelief and anger took over. How could the hero of Milwaukee, the franchise player for the next decade and a genuinely nice guy stoop so low as to use performance-enhancing drugs?

With the ongoing arbitration, my fellow Brewers fans and I desperately searched for explanations. Perhaps the “insanely high level of testosterone” in his test sample must have meant something went wrong. I held out hope that someone had made an egregious mistake and Braun would be ruled innocent.

Unfortunately, the rest of the baseball wasn’t as kind. In a country where the accused are innocent until proven guilty, Braun was immediately guilty with no chance to prove himself innocent. Even if his case were overturned, his reputation would be destroyed.

In February, the announcement came that Braun had won his arbitration case. Not only would Braun be free of a 50-game suspension, but the Brewers left fielder was also the first player to overturn a ruling by the MLB. Despite the success, skepticism still prevailed because the case was overturned based on a technicality – the test sample’s chain of custody had been broken en route to the testing lab.

At a press conference following the successful, but controversial decision, Braun fought for his reputation with a persuasive account of all details, vehemently denying performance-enhancing drug use and explaining that the testing system was “fatally flawed.”

But while Braun may have gained the Brewers fans back, he certainly didn’t convince many others outside of Wisconsin. The MLB loudly and publicly disagreed with the decision, even going so far as to fire longtime arbitrator Shyam Das.

So there was only one option left for Braun. He had to go to work and prove that his 2011 MVP season was not a fluke.

And Braun has done exactly that.

With a .341 batting average, .600 slugging percentage, 41 home runs, 30 stolen bases and 112 RBIs, the California native will soon finish the 2012 season with better numbers than in his 2011 MVP campaign. And although the Brewers are now officially out of the playoff race, Braun helped them win 24 of 30 games in September to come within one-and-a-half games of the wild card.

Not only has Braun accomplished all this without Prince Fielder batting behind him, but the slugger has also been under intense scrutiny all year. In every road game, Braun has faced jeers and boos from unapologetic fans. Through it all, Braun has looked straight ahead, focusing on one goal: proving he is and will continue to be the star player who rightly won the 2011 MVP.

Now with baseball’s regular season winding down, Braun stands again as a leading candidate for the NL MVP. But it is already a given; Braun will not win the award.

Many baseball fans explain that the Giant’s catcher Buster Posey will win the NL MVP because his team made the playoffs, while the Brewers did not – the same argument against Matt Kemp last year.

But I predict that Braun won’t even finish in the top three of the MVP race. Most voters and fans have already made up their mind about Braun. Their mentality boils down to one slightly-reformed saying. Once an alleged cheater, always a cheater.

Based on his convincing press conference and an impressive 2012 season, there is no doubt in my mind that Braun is innocent. It is implausible to think Braun cheated last season when he performed better this year with all eyes upon him.

In a baseball era filled with fallen stars, it’s refreshing to cheer for a player overcoming performance enhancing drug accusations. Maybe one day all the Braun haters will recognize the legitimate case Braun has presented and have a change of heart.

If that occurs, then the nearly impossible may just happen – a reputation will be restored.