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A small first step for Ryan Braun

No matter how remorseful or contrite Ryan Braun wants to appear, he has a lot of image repair left that can't be helped by consultants or meticulously crafted apologies. It's relatively easy to bare your soul in late August, when you're serving a suspension from the comfort of your living room. Try dealing with the fallout when it's April or May and some well-lubricated Cubs fans have you in their crosshairs at Wrigley Field.

A month after accepting a 65-game hiatus for his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal, Braun released a 944-word statement that was more noteworthy for self-flagellation than details about his experience with banned substances. If you can overlook the fact that Braun apologized via an email released by the Milwaukee Brewers, we haven't seen a baseball figure show this much contrition since Jim Joyce botched Armando Galarraga's perfect game.

In the course of 10 paragraphs, Braun apologized to his family, teammates, the Brewers organization, his friends, agents and advisers, as well as the now famously maligned urine sample collector, Dino Laurenzi Jr. Braun took sole responsibility for his actions, and admitted to a sense of righteousness and unjustified anger that led him astray. When the words "ashamed" and "sorry" no longer sufficed, Braun ratcheted it up a notch and pronounced himself "deeply ashamed" and "deeply sorry."

Steroid insights? Not so much. Skeptics who were hoping that Braun might cop to PED use all the way back to his days as a University of Miami Hurricane aren't going to find any "gotcha" moment or long-term pattern of deception. He admits only to a bout of weakness during the 2011 season when he was struggling to come back from injury and needed a pick-me-up. Maybe one day Braun will provide insights into the mindset of the elite athlete and the reasons why even a player of his stature would be willing to risk so much for an edge on the field. But not now.

Eyes roll whenever players describe PED use as isolated incidents, because we're conditioned to be skeptical. Think back to Alex Rodriguez's big news conference in February 2009, when he admitted to performance-enhancing drug use from 2001-03 while playing in Texas. Maybe Rodriguez thought baseball writers and future Hall of Fame voters would quarantine his 156 home runs as a Ranger and view the rest of his Cooperstown-caliber career in a vacuum. It was a bizarre gambit, but some voters might have actually gone for it if A-Rod hadn't fallen back off the PED wagon.

Before Braun delivered his (emailed) apology, his case took a few twists and turns. In June, Braun had a meeting with Major League Baseball that "didn't go well," according to one person familiar with the situation. MLB had collected voluminous evidence from the Biogenesis files, and Braun, by all accounts, essentially stonewalled.

It was Braun who requested a second meeting. Did he conclude that the noose was tightening and his case was a lost cause, or did he actually have pangs of conscience and decide he was tired of living a lie? Feel free to believe the former (and why wouldn't you?), but Braun's decision to accept his 65-game suspension greased the wheels for Nelson Cruz, Jhonny Peralta and 10 other members of the Biogenesis 14 to accept their discipline from MLB. That left A-Rod and his battalion of lawyers as the final holdouts at the gates of the Biogenesis Alamo.

Sources say Braun also made it clear to MLB officials that he received his Biogenesis supply from a third party and not directly from Tony Bosch. That might not win him much sympathy from Kirk Gibson, future Hall of Fame voters or people who owned Braun on their fantasy league teams. But anything that can provide a sliver of distinction from A-Rod has to be a good thing, right?

Inevitably, as players sit on their fat paychecks, the public debate will continue to swirl around the risk-reward ramifications of PED use. Braun has $117 million still owed him through 2020, and he'll be forfeiting a paltry $3.25 million during his suspension this season. He also gets to keep his 2011 Most Valuable Player award, even though you can probably find a healthy share of Brewers fans who would be happy to declare his victory null and void or give the award to runner-up Matt Kemp.

But think for a moment about stakes that transcend even money. Ryan Braun is 29 years old and in the prime of his career. He's almost certainly kissed his Cooperstown aspirations goodbye, and he now resides in that netherworld with Manny Ramirez, Rafael Palmeiro and other PED cheats who can never reclaim their reputations. If Braun struggles at the plate next season, it will be because he's off the juice. If he hits 40 homers and knocks in 120 runs, it will be because he's back on the juice. He's the architect of a no-win scenario strictly of his own making.

And just think of the sordid revelations that have come out since Braun's suspension on July 23. He reportedly tried to discredit Laurenzi, the beleaguered sample collector, as an anti-Semitic Cubs fan. And now, on top of that, a former friend named Ralph Sasson has filed a defamation lawsuit against Braun. It alleges, among other things, that Braun used PEDs in college, violated NCAA rules by taking cash payments at Miami and cheated on his fiancée, model Larisa Fraser.

Braun can personally attest to the fact that you haven't lived until you've been called a "cockroach" by a national sports website, as he was in July. When baseball players and PEDs invite national outrage, there are only two degrees of reaction: Bad and worse.

If you cling to the hope that baseball will one day move past the onslaught of steroid news, Braun's apology was a brief respite from defensiveness and hostility. He could probably build on it by reaching out to Don Hooton and doing work for the Taylor Hooton Foundation. But that strategy certainly didn't work so well for A-Rod -- and can anyone legitimately envision Braun as an anti-PED crusader and keep a straight face?

Parse his statement, and the words "performance-enhancing drugs" don't even make a cameo. You get the impression that Braun took a lozenge and a cream to recover from an injury, his testosterone level spiked, and yada yada yada. In the overall "step in the right direction" scale, his admission of guilt is the equivalent of Ben Revere going deep in a bid to chase down Barry Bonds on the career home run list.

That said, any day without a Joe Tacopina sighting is a positive development for baseball. The real test for Ryan Braun begins next spring, when he steps back on the baseball field to a world of skepticism, hostility and anger. He better learn to keep his head down, and keep his distance from Ryan Dempster.