Ryan Braun said he was clean and the only guy whose vote mattered agreed that he was clean enough. Case closed.
But that's all Braun will be from now on: clean enough.
He called the decision Thursday by arbitrator Shyam Das overturning his 50-game suspension "the first step in restoring my good name and reputation."
Good luck with that. Because it doesn't matter how carefully Braun chooses his words when he meets with reporters at Brewers camp Friday, or how he parries the inevitable questions about juicing for as long as he plays. People made up their minds on this one the moment word leaked out in December that he tested positive for elevated testosterone levels, just like they did with Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, et al., guys who passed plenty of drug tests in their careers, too. The decision leaves Braun and his supporters free to maintain his innocence. It leaves everyone else, including Major League Baseball, free to insist that he got off on a technicality. With the almost-certain exception of Commissioner Bud Selig, how close you live to Miller Park in Milwaukee is probably as good a predictor as any about which side you chose at the outset — and where you're likely to remain.
The centerpiece of Braun's appeal challenged the chain of custody after he gave his urine sample to Comprehensive Drug Testing Inc. on Oct. 1, the Saturday the Brewers opened the NL playoffs. Instead of dropping it off that same day with FedEx, as set out in the drug agreement, the collector decided it would be more secure at his home in a refrigerator over the weekend than in a drop-off box. Nearly 48 hours later, he sent it to a World Anti-Doping Agency-certified laboratory in Montreal. That may be all Das needed to hear.
Yet some people on Braun's side are hinting that timing wasn't the only problem the arbitrator had with the chain of custody, although that won't be known until Das releases his written opinion sometime within the next 30 days. Some other people couldn't wait that long, already claiming to know who the collector is and that he had easy access to a lab. Whatever. What is undeniable is that Braun's lawyer raised enough doubts about the process to make the results irrelevant. In doping circles, that's scored as a "W."
U.S. Anti-Doping Agency CEO Travis Tygart, whose month got off to a bad start when federal prosecutors in Los Angeles closed their investigation of seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong without bringing charges, labeled the Braun decision "a real gut-kick to clean athletes."
But plenty of baseball people, including a few in Braun's NL Central neighborhood — where the phrase "competitive balance" really means something — had no problem with him being able to play on opening day.
"You never want to see a guy go down," said Dusty Baker, manager of the rival Cincinnati Reds. "I would never be happy about a guy being suspended."
Baker might actually believe Braun was clean, or he might just be relieved one of the game's rising stars beat the system, same as Baker would be if one of his guys claimed innocence, then beat long odds and became the first ever to win an appeal. People in the game decided long ago that performance-enhancers are an occupational hazard only if you get caught. And either way, the game metes out its own version of frontier justice. Braun is coming off an MVP season with a big contract and without slugging partner Prince Fielder, who departed for Detroit. No matter what else happens, a big drop-off from the numbers Braun posted last year — .332 with 33 homers and 111 RBIs — will be treated in the court of public opinion the same as an admission of guilt.
The folks at MLB headquarters, meanwhile, must be viewing the whole episode with mixed emotions. The system worked, maybe not the way it always has previously or even the way they envisioned.
"As a part of our drug-testing program, the commissioner's office and the players' association agreed to a neutral third-party review for instances that are under dispute," executive vice president Rob Manfred said in a statement. "While we have always respected the process, Major League Baseball vehemently disagrees with the decision rendered today."
As consolation, baseball gets to keep the big draw Braun has become and the momentum in a market that's just beginning to show signs of life again. And so long as Braun holds up his end of the bargain on the field, they can say with a clear conscience, too, that their game is clean enough.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.