Say it ain’t so, Ryan!

February 20, 2013

If there is smoke there is fire. And Ryan Braun’s season and reputation may be burning. For the second straight year Braun enters the major league season with questions and doubts about his use of performance enhancing drugs.

How should a Brewers and long-time baseball fan react?

Braun is the face of the Milwaukee franchise. In his 6 seasons the left fielder has hit .313 with an on-base percentage of .943. Braun averages nearly 35 home runs and produces more than 100 runs per year. He has been an All Star 5 times, received the Silver Slugger Award 5 times, and earned the National League MVP Award for 2011. Braun is on his way to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Well, maybe.

Last year Braun was accused of failing a mandatory drug test. Major League Baseball was set to levy a suspension of up to 50 games, roughly a third of the season. Instead Braun and his legal team went through the MLB Arbitration system. They successfully argued that Braun’s test sample had been tampered and valid.

Did he win on a technicality? Most fans in Milwaukee, and many in the country, thought the decision was right. Heck, his stats were consistent year to year, and baseball is about stats. There hadn’t been any significant increase in his results. The annual home run totals were 34, 37, 32, 25, 33, and 41. The batting averages were .324, .285, .320, .304, .332, and .319. There are no outlier.

Look at the guy. At 6’2′ and 200 he doesn’t have the physique of other “bashers.” I recall taking my son Bill to a card show where we met Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire . Canseco looked powerful but McGwire was not imposing. Canseco was on the “juice” and in the end McGwire looked like Popey.

And of course there was Barry Bonds. Young Barry looked like his dad, a great athlete but not a weight lifter. Barry could hit but suddenly he could hit for power and distance. By the time he led in career home runs he was Mr. Potato Head.

Braun wields a 40 ounce bat (son Andrew has one in his bedroom won in a raffle) and hits to all fields. There are as many frozen doubles as homers. He is a hitter, not a slugger.

There was no reason to doubt Braun would have another outstanding season in 2013. As recent as last week ESPN proclaimed Braun the #1 player in fantasy leagues. Braun may have claimed the top of all players.

Now what to think? Last year his answers were plausible. The sample had been kept overnight in somebody’s house.  It could have been mixed up. A player PED test sample was going to be mishandled sooner or later. Why not Braun’s?

But how do you explain it this time? There’s much more circumstantial evidence. There are reported documents and lists with Braun among players having violated the PED rules. This time his attorneys haven’t offered an explanation. Braun has been silent.

Many local fans hope and believe. Some — like fans in San Francisco and St. Louis — may consider Braun a “cheater” but he’s “our cheater.” What’s the problem, they all do it. The MLB should just recognize that and lift the ban.

I can’t. I need Braun to give us the explanation.

Tell the truth. Last April you picked the Pittsburgh Pirates to win the NL Central Division. Yeah, me too. And we’re both liars.

As I write this the Pirates are either a half game ahead or behind the Milwaukee Brewers in what will be the most interesting division race this season. The NL Central looks like a 4-team battle. The Reds were last year’s winners. But St Louis were a preseason favorite though many thought the Brewers off-season acquisitions would give them the edge.

But no one, I mean no one, predicted the Pirates would be in the mix with 70 games to go. And why would you? They finished the 2010 season with 105 losses and last in the NL Central. They have not had a winning season in 20 years. 

These are not the Paul Waner, Pie Traynor, Ralph Kiner, Bill Mazerowski, Roberto Clemente, and Willie Stargel’ family. All indicators are they don’t hit. 

In fact the Pirates’ batting average (.247) is 11th in the league. The Cards, Reds, Brewers, and the Cubs and Astros have higher percentages. They are 11th in runs (371), 13th in home runs (62), and 11th in on-base percentage (.314).

They are not prolific.

The Pirates can pitch. Their young staff allows 3.40 earned runs per game. But doubters and stat guys would point out their WHIP (1.31) is the same as the Reds and Cardinals. The Brewers’ number is at 1.32.

They don’t field as well as the Reds and Cards (the Brewers are a softball team in the field).

History says they can’t win. When they were contenders in the 70’s, there was the Big Red Machine. Sure they had a big family once, years ago. But when they had the next shot Bonds couldn’t throw Sid Breams out at home. Sid Bream for crying out loud. It’s been high profit team constantly selling assets.

Sure, history can be a poor predictor. But I wouldn’t bet on them. They are the Pirates.