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.

Voices in My Head

September 8, 2012

Milwaukee dedicated a statue to Bob Uecker last week. “Ueck” is a nationally known personality. He, a native of Milwaukee, played as a back-up catcher for the Braves, Cardinals and Phillies in the ‘6os – and without distinction. He parlayed his play and humor into numerous appearances on the Johnny Carson Show (Carson: “Well, how hard is it to catch a knuckle ball.” Uecker: “I don’t usually have a problem. I would wait for it to stop rolling and then pick it up.”). Uecker was a major character in a sitcom (“Mr. Belvedere”) and as announcer in the move Major League (“Just a little outside…..”). And, of course, he has sold with the best of them (“Great seats, eh buddy?”).

But more than anything else Bob Uecker is a baseball play-by-play radio broadcaster and personality – not “announcer” – for the Milwaukee Brewers. On a quiet afternoon Summer and Fall you can hear the voice, “Get up, get up, get out of here…” You stop to hear Uecker at a critical moment, you wait to hear him share that moment.

You enjoy the game through the voice of a play-to-play pro painting a picture of probabilities, actions, choices, nuances, and outcomes.  Baseball does that better than any other sport.

For me baseball broadcasters started with Phil Rizzuto – the “Scooter” – and Jerry Coleman doing Yankees games on WPIX.  They were a Yanks double-play combo in the ’50s. and knew the game. Before there was Red Barber and Mel Allen, radio and TV guys. The Mets countered with Bob Murphy, Ralph Kiner and Lindsay Nelson. But who cared about the Mets?

Yes, radio gave us the early NFL. For me the New York Football Giants home game on the radio broadcast would waff from yard to yard like burning leaves in a Jersey Sunday afternoon. “Tarkenton hands to Koy who gets a seam off tackle….goes to his left…gets a block…dodges a defender…. bulls his way before being stopped on the play. It’ll be second and 9 at the Giants 16 yard line….” Marty Glickman would make some truly brutal Giants losses sound close.

And in the 70’s and 80’s NYC metro sports fans were treated to 3-4 magical years of Knicks basketball and 50 years of frustrated Rangers defeats. Marv Albert told it all.

But TV changes the NFL and the NBA.

Baseball – radio broadcasts in particular – is best. And almost each market has had a special voice.

As a homer I’ve enjoyed: Jack Buck and Mike  Shannon in St Louis – and later Bob Costas – for the Cards. Hawk Harrelson at Sox Park. And Harry telling the story from Busch, and Comisky, and Wrigley. Now Uecker.

What about Bob Prince (Pirates); Harry Callas (Phillies); Ernie Harwell (Tigers); Marty Brenamen (Reds); and Vin Scully (Dodgers)? They are icons. I wish I had heard more  of them. They are as much a part of baseball’s history as Ruth or Fenway.

You are a baseball fan. You have known your own. You can hear them. Baseball puts voices in your head and special memories in your mind.