Ryan Braun remains in the crosshairs of public opinion despite the successful appeal of his 50-game suspension.

Ryan Braun has been exoneratedWell, not exactly.  It’s like a suspected criminal getting a not guilty verdict but losing the civil trial, that sort of uncomfortable moment where you aren’t sure if you should be cheering or cursing Bud Selig yet again (one of these days it’ll stick).  Ryan Braun, circa 2011 season, was by all appearances a stand-up guy, a team player who was a role model for kids everywhere and a statistical leader well deserving of the MVP award.  He may still be a stand-up guy even if he turns out to have used performance enhancing drugs.  We don’t know if he did, though.  Even after his appeal, we don’t know.  That might be the hardest part.

Every season of Law & Order seemed to have an episode like this- the investigation winds up leading to a murder from 20 years ago but- oh no!- the critical piece of evidence is gone from the locker room.  Or the medical examiner isn’t quite sure if it’s the same finger print after she pledged it was the same on the stand.  Or Lenny “sees” the murder weapon on a casual tour of the apartment even though it’s way up in the suspect’s closet out of view.  The case doesn’t become about whether the defendant is guilty but whether the evidence has the proper chain of command, was interpreted correctly, or was obtained fairly.  The advantage of Law & Order is when the evidence is obtained we see it happen and we usually know that the suspect is guilty by the time Jack McCoy is furrowing his brow and shaking his head back and forth at the outrageous decision of the judge.

Unfortunately in this case there is no incredulous “But Your Honor!” to enjoy as we wonder how (or if) McCoy will find a way around it.  We have no idea if Ryan Braun took artificial testosterone.  There is so much about this we don’t know and likely never will know about whether Braun was guilty, even though he is saying all the right things.  He got off on a chain of custody issue, the claim (however unlikely) that his sample may have been tainted in the 48 hours from its receipt to delivery to Montreal, despite being sealed the entire time.  I wonder who in Wisconsin would want to so such a thing (a rogue Cardinals fan/cat burglar with access to artificial testosterone?  I will send that tip along right away).

Now, that excuse may have been simply a means to an end.  Braun’s attorneys could have determined that the immediate need was to successfully appeal MLB’s suspension, and that the best way to do that was to argue the custody route.  They may have felt that breaking down the type of testosterone or arguing that the testosterone was natural or testing was faulty would be confusing or just less convincing to the judge.  They may very well have an arsenal of arguments in their back pocket ready to strike.  But we don’t know that.  What we know is that Braun won’t be suspended.  But what does that really change?

It doesn’t alter whether Braun did or didn’t break MLB’s rules, that is still very much up in the air.  50 games over the course of a career isn’t going to destroy all hope of breaking any records down the line, so at the end of the day the real damage is to his reputation, and this ruling in and of itself does little to change that.  The rest of the country isn’t going to be swayed by the chain of custody argument that works for legal purposes.  Ryan Braun has a long way to go in repairing his image, fairly or not.

Repairing that image relies not only on being a role model going forward- once someone is considered a user of performance enhancing drugs, that sticks with you- especially if you try to deny it.  Andy Pettitte retains a clean reputation (more or less) because when he was tagged with the PED label he admitted to it- we don’t know if it was the full extent of it but he opened up and owned it.  He suddenly changed from being a cheater to “making a mistake” and was embraced again by the baseball community.

Braun has already denied and appealed, so that ship has sailed.  I want to believe him.  I never thought Ryan Braun would use PEDs but what do I know?  What do any of us know?  The landscape is so devastated by fervent denials that have been eviscerated by the facts (or at least mountains of circumstantial evidence) that no fair-minded person can completely dismiss any accusation, regardless of how much faith you have in a player.  Growing up Rafael Palmeiro was my favorite player, even during his hiatus with the Rangers.  I learned about trusting a “good guy” the hard way.

Unfortunately it feels like the biggest news of the week didn’t really tell us much at all.