Result is positively bad for baseball

The past three months have felt like a renaissance for baseball, with a regular-season finish nobody will forget, a World Series arguably among the best ever, and an offseason percolating with big names and big moves. Lots of momentum.

A Major League Baseball official spoke happily about all this the other day, and I said to him -- completely in jest, without any foresight -- "Hopefully for your sake, you don't have a big steroids bust before spring training."

So much for that, with Ryan Braun joining Rafael Palmeiro and Manny Ramirez as the most prominent players who ever tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug.

What hurts the sport most is that Braun is one of baseball's young pillars. It's one thing if a Manny Ramirez gets nailed with a positive test, because Ramirez's roots extend back to a time when baseball was in its wild, wild west era, the so-called steroids era, when a phone call made by a teammate could get you a package of PEDs in your clubhouse locker the next day -- and nobody did anything about it.

Braun took his first at-bat in the big leagues in 2007, or the year after the players' association and Major League Baseball finally took the needed steps to put some teeth into their drug-testing program -- and for the first time, the penalty for testing positive hurt more than what you'd get for scuffing a baseball. Since then, players who've been suspended have ranged from the Old Guard, such as Ramirez, to fringe players such as Mike Jacobs.

Now the testing nails Braun -- the 2011 National League Most Valuable Player, the face of the Brewers' franchise and one of the best hitters in the game -- coming off a season in which he hit .332 average, with 33 homers and 111 RBIs, demonstrating staggering bat speed throughout the campaign.

While baseball's stance against performance-enhancing drugs has hardened significantly in the past decade, some officials, scouts and players have long believed that some have cheated the system, either through the use of human growth hormone (which is banned but won't be tested for until next spring) or other unknown means. This past summer, club officials chuckled at what they considered to be the absurd physical growth of a handful of players.

As word of Braun's positive test breaks Saturday, there are some executives who think the risk-reward equation is still incredibly one-sided. Ramirez has been busted twice, having made tens of millions of dollars over the past five years, and he was reinstated Friday by Major League Baseball.

If Braun serves a 50-game suspension next season, he will resume being paid under the terms of his $150 million contract that runs through 2020.

"Does crime pay?" one executive asked Saturday night. "Absolutely."

Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

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