If you’re someone who regularly follows sports, you’re likely familiar with the Ryan Braun fiasco that reached its (likely) conclusion earlier this week. If you’re someone who doesn’t follow sports, well, you’re probably wondering who Braun is and what he did wrong.
Braun is a left fielder for Major League Baseball’s Milwaukee Brewers, and a pretty good one, at that—so good, in fact, that he was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 2011—a season in which he batted .332, hit 33 homers and knocked in 111 runs. Only 27 years of age at the time, Braun looked the part of a budding MLB superstar and, more importantly, a role model.
Of course, reports of Braun using a “banned substance” began to find their way onto ESPN and the Internet. And just like that, an ultra-memorable season was reduced to a big “so what?” in the wake of a performance-enhancing drug scandal. It’s the same old song and dance for Major League Baseball—a league that has constantly searched for ways to up its marketability following a 1994 strike-shortened season that nearly turned off baseball fans for good. Of course, anger and resentment on the part of fans was cast aside in 1998 when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa “resurrected” the game by flat-out destroying Roger Maris’ then-record of 61 home runs (McGwire pounded 70 HRs that year, Sosa with a more modest 66). As a result, baseball in the late 1990s turned into a virtual home run derby every night, and the fans ate it up with a spoon. It wasn’t long before we were all witnesses as Barry Bonds and his incredibly swollen cranium slammed 73 home runs in 2001.
Then we started to hear rumors that the fabulous home run displays brought to you by Big Mac, Slammin’ Sammy and Bonds weren’t simply the result of improved hand-eye coordination and countless, grueling hours spent in the weight room. Nope, those noteworthy campaigns were aided by something else.
After getting over their initial shock upon hearing the news that many of their heroes were cheaters, baseball fans eventually wised up and turned their backs on those who cheated the game in the name of the long ball and the fastball. Remember Eric Gagne? He converted 84 consecutive save opportunities for the Los Angeles Dodgers between 2002 and 2004, and picked up the 2003 Cy Young for his trouble. He was also named in the Mitchell Report, which documented the use of performance enhancers in baseball. If you’re a closing pitcher and you go practically two years without blowing a save, you should be considered a legend. Gagne, rather, is just another name listed on a report of players who indulged during baseball’s “bigger, faster, better” era. Sad, but not nearly as sad as how any of Gagne’s fans felt upon hearing the news that their idol is just another name on a long list of players who have disgraced the game of baseball.
The good news is that it feels like baseball is seeing progress in terms of getting human growth hormone out of the game. The league isn’t anywhere close to being considered “clean,” as evidenced by Braun’s 65-game suspension, as well as the upcoming suspension for the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez (remember when A-Rod was considered a squeaky-clean kid who just so happened to be the youngest to reach the 400 HR club?), but the league’s current “deadball” era suggests that the game is on its way back to where it needs to be. Let’s hope that’s the case.
Next week, we’ll examine the HGH issue that currently exists in the NFL.