Keeping Score

Ryan Braun’s Name Is Cleared, but Is He Believable?

The slugger presents his case with conviction, but complaints about the system hurt his credibility.

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Left; Charles Trainor Jr. / Miami Herald / Landov: Frank Franklin II / AP

At left, the Miami Heat's LeBron James in a game against the Los Angeles Lakers in Miami on Jan.19, 2012; at right, the New York Knicks' Carmelo Anthony during a game against the Phoenix Suns in New York on Jan. 18, 2012

Baseball fans are experts at many things, like cracking peanuts, stretching during the seventh inning, and making personal judgments about innocence of alleged drug cheats. Is Barry Bonds believable when he says he never knowingly took performance-enhancing drugs? What about Roger Clemens’ denials? When we suspected Mark McGwire was juicing after he refused to talk about the past with Congress, only a later mea culpa confirmed our best hunches.

So what to make of Ryan Braun? A day after arbitrators upheld Braun’s appeal of a positive drug test that would have kept him out of the lineup for the first 50 games of the 2012 season, the Milwaukee Brewers outfielder, and reigning National League MVP, maintained his innocence at a Friday press conference in Phoenix. Braun seemed to escape on a technicality. Since the collector of his sample did not immediately run to FedEx to ship it out to a lab on a Saturday, and instead kept it refrigerated in his home for two days, Braun’s case raised enough chain-of-custody issues – could the collector have tainted the sample? – for the arbitrators to toss it out. (The anti-tampering seals on the package, however, were reportedly unbroken when the package arrived at the Montreal lab).

(READ: My Fearless Sports Predictions for 2012)

So why did Braun’s results show elevated levels of testosterone? “If I did this intentionally, or unintentionally, I’d be the first person to step up and say, ‘I did it,’” Braun said. “I would bet my life that this substance never entered my body at any point.” Braun pointed to the collector as a possible scapegoat, though no evidence of tampering has emerged as of yet. “I was able to prove that I literally did not gain a single pound,” says Braun. “I literally did not get one-tenth of a second faster … I didn’t get one percent stronger.

As a speaker, Braun comes across as sympathetic: his forehead crease reveals overwhelming stress. This off-season, Braun should have been enjoying the MVP afterglow. Instead, his credibility was questioned. “I can’t ever get that time of my life back,” says Braun. “It should have been an incredible time in my life.”

Braun lost pity points, however, when he criticized baseball’s drug testing system. “We’re part of a process where you’re 100% guilty until proven innocent,” he said. “It’s the opposite of the American judicial system.” This complaint is a bit disingenuous. Hundreds of Major Leaguers pass drug tests every year. Under the agreement that Braun’s union signed with Major League Baseball, a positive test indeed indicates guilt. Those are the rules. Once you cross that threshold, yes, the burden of proof falls to the guilty party. Braun is not someone who was simply accused.

Unless definitive proof of Braun’s guilt or innocence arises, fans will soon put this case behind them. Performance-enhancing drug fatigue set in long ago. And despite all these ordeals, the sport is robust. “Who I feel bad for, quite honestly, are the athletes in the program who are meticulous about keeping track of what’s in their supplements, in their medications,” Travis Tygart, CEO the United States Anti-Doping Agency, tells TIME. “This is a gut punch for all the athletes who do it the right way.”

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