Baseball season is nearly upon us, and I for one could not be happier about this. I love the St. Louis Cardinals and cannot wait to see the new team in action this spring. As we approach the 2012 season, though, a bit of news was all the talk recently: the Ryan Braun steroids appeal.
First, a summary for those who may not follow baseball. Ryan Braun, Milwaukee Brewers’ outfielder and the 2011 National League Most Valuable Player, tested positive for “performance enhancing drugs,” PEDs (aka steroids) last October. This news was leaked to the press along with the detail that a second test a week or so later came back clean. Naturally, Braun appealed 50-game suspension that was handed down from Major League Baseball. This is no surprise, as every player that gets caught using PEDs appeals the suspension with claims that, “My trainer gave it to me and I didn’t know what it was,” or “It was just a supplement or prescription or fertility treatment.” These excuses never go anywhere, because MLB’s policy is that regardless of the source, each player is responsible for what goes into his body. If you don’t know what’s in a supplement, you probably shouldn’t take it.
The surprise came in the Braun case last week, when, for the first time ever, a player’s appeal was actually successful, and here’s why: Braun’s defense wasn’t some lame excuse for why he took PEDs but didn’t mean to. Instead, he argued that the original result was invalid because the sample was improperly handled. The story, last I read, was that the collector couldn’t get the sample to FedEx to send to the lab before the FedEx office closed, so he took t sample home with him over the weekend. Predictably, fans were incensed that “just because he’s the MVP, he gets off on a technicality.” The spokesman for the League stated that MLB “vehemently disagrees with the decision rendered today by arbitrator Shyam Das.” and MLB columnist Richard Justice warns that Braun should be careful not to squander the gift of a second chance that he’s received. Apprently fashionable outrage trumps common sense, justice and proper science.
In any laboratory procedure, there are certain protocols that must be followed to ensure that what you measure is what you think you’re measuring and what you intended to measure. If you aren’t confident in the integrity of the sample you’re analyzing, your results are exactly meaningless. In other words, if some guy takes a bottle of Ryan Braun’s pee home for the weekend, it raises some questions. First of all, who takes Ryan Braun’s pee home for the weekend? Second, if you’re going to take Ryan Braun’s pee home, wouldn’t you think that selling it on eBay would be more lucrative than a career as a pee courier? Finally, What might have happened to the urine sample between when it was collected, and when it finally made it to the lab? Since it was out of the proper sample-handling chain of custody for a significant period, we don’t know. And that’s the point. You don’t really know what you’re analyzing at all anymore, and is it fair punish someone for an analysis of what could just as easily some bike messenger’s bong water?
An acquaintance told me the other day that none of these sample-handling arguments are relevant, because, “everyone knows he used drugs, and he just got off on a technicality.” How does everyone know he’s guilty, if the positive test result is suspect? At best, it’s ambiguous. You didn’t “know he’s guilty” before the test result was leaked, so you’re basing your conclusion on bad evidence. I wish the courier had spilled some gasoline in the sample on his way to FedEx. If he had, it would confirm my suspicion that Ryan Braun is a robot with an internal combustion engine.
Now listen, I am no Brewers’ fan. In fact, my team, the Cardinals, would really benefit from Braun’s absence for almost a third of the season. But I have to agree with the arbitrator on this. Braun’s suspension should have been reversed as it was, and MLB should apologize to him for wrecking his off-season. Besides, it will be more fun watching the Cards thump the Brewers without any excuses. Besides, the mouthing off by that goofy little center-fielder they have (what’s his silly self-applied nickname? Timmy the Teddy Bear? Something like that…) will certainly be more entertaining this way, rather than him pouting that “You only beat us ’cause Braun is out.”