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Originally published Friday, February 24, 2012 at 8:06 PM

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Protests of Brewers' Ryan Braun may not mean vindication

His suspension has been lifted, but the National League MVP won't find it so easy to clear his name.

Seattle Times baseball reporter

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The system works. Obviously quite a few people believe him to be guilty just because h... MORE
He got off on a technicality which is not remotely the same thing as begin exonerated. ... MORE
Braun is as innocent as OJ. MORE

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PHOENIX — In the insular world of the Milwaukee Brewers, the Ryan Braun story is over, and everyone lives happily ever after: Superstar vindicated, drug cloud lifted. Time to play ball! Nothing to see here. Move along, folks, move along.

The Brewers gathered in their clubhouse Friday morning to listen to an emotional Braun thank them for their support during his ordeal. Then about a dozen Milwaukee players sat in the bleachers and watched with rapt attention while Braun, during an extraordinary news conference, proclaimed his innocence in the strongest terms possible. Afterward, they all hugged Braun, one by one.

"His character was in question this winter," manager Ron Roenicke said in between those two events. "I don't think it will be in question again."

Uh, not so fast, Skip.

The overturning of Braun's 50-game drug suspension by arbitrator Shyam Das on Thursday does not necessarily translate to the vindication of Braun's character and the cleansing of his reputation. Not by a longshot, not in a world turned cynical by too many dubious steroids excuses.

It's becoming clear that many people still believe Braun beat the system on a technicality. Heck, commissioner Bud Selig believes it, based on the statement his office released in which it "vehemently" disagreed with Das' decision. That didn't go over well in the Brewers clubhouse, by the way.

"I was disappointed in that," Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy said. "It was almost like a sore-loser move. I think that was a low blow, and I don't think it was right to do that."

Braun, meanwhile, couldn't have come out swinging any harder than he did during his 25-minute session at the Brewers' spring stadium.

Standing at a podium set up near home plate, his voice shaking with emotion at times, Braun criticized the way his sample was handled and insinuated that it could have been tampered with while it sat for 44 hours with the person who collected it. He shot down a persistent rumor that his positive test was caused by medicine he was taking for herpes, denying he had an STD. He also blasted the media for inaccurate reports and alluded to possible legal action.

It was a forceful, compelling performance. But was it effective in rehabilitating Braun's reputation?

My hunch is that he didn't change many minds, either way. If you were predisposed to believe in Braun's innocence, then he certainly gave you reason to think he had been wronged by the entire system. His righteous indignation was in line with an innocent person who was grappling to correct a grave injustice.

Heartfelt statements like these made for riveting theater, and made you think hard:

"I truly believe in my heart, and I would bet my life, that this substance never entered my body at any point."

And,

"Today is about everybody who's ever been wrongly accused, and everybody who's ever had to stand up for what was actually right."

And,

"We won because the truth is on my side. The truth is always relevant, and at the end of the day, the truth prevailed."

And,

"I'm a victim of a process that completely broke down and failed in the way it was applied to me in this case. ... The system and the way it was applied to me in this case was fatally flawed."

And,

"When you know that you're innocent of something, it's extremely difficult to have to prove that when you're in a process where you're 100 percent guilty until proven innocent."

And,

"I told (the Players Association), I promise you on everything that's ever meant anything to me in my life, my morals, the values, the virtues by which I've lived in my 28 years on this planet, I did not do this."

But every accused drug cheat, from Rafael Palmeiro to Roger Clemens, has had an explanation or excuse. And usually issued with conviction and fist pounding. We've become numb to the denials.

So we end up where we always do in these cases — not sure what to believe. All we know for certain is that MLB's chain-of-custody protocol was not followed, according to the arbitrator. Did that leave Braun's sample susceptible to tampering? Braun certainly made that case as he went painstakingly through the timeline from sample collection on Saturday, Oct. 1 (after the first game of the National League Division Series) until the sample was finally dropped off at FedEx the following Monday afternoon.

"There are a lot of things we learned about the collector, about the collection process, about the way the entire thing worked that made us very concerned and very suspicious about what could have happened," Braun said.

But then you hear all the counterarguments from drug-testing experts, about how difficult it would be to corrupt a sample, and you start to worry about being too gullible, too eager to believe the good in people. Yet if Braun is lying, he's doing it as brazenly as anyone ever has.

The process was indeed fouled up, by all indications. Few would dispute that. But it's still a huge leap to believe that a collector messed with Braun's sample. Especially when you read from ESPN sources how the FedEx package, when it arrived at the laboratory in Montreal, "was sealed three times with tamper-proof seals: one on the box, one on a plastic bag inside the box and again on the vial that contained the urine."

All we really know is that Ryan Braun is now clear to play baseball. How his reputation will be viewed, moving forward, is in the heart and mind of the beholder.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @StoneLarry


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