Ryan Braun's reputation strikes out

Ryan Braun will return to the baseball field in 2014 and resume his career as a Milwaukee Brewer. With or without pharmaceutical help, he's young and talented enough to hit home runs and add a few more All-Star Game appearances to his portfolio. If fellow PED offender Bartolo Colon could do it with that Buddha physique at age 40, there's hope for Braun yet.

But clearing fences and salvaging his dignity are two distinct propositions. Braun's credibility is shot, and his reputation has been tarnished in a way that 65 games on the shelf and $3.25 million in lost wages can't begin to measure.

His baseball legacy will never recover from this. As for the impact on his conscience, that's a question only he can answer.

The news of Braun's suspension for the remainder of the 2013 season was stunning, given the recent machinations about how Major League Baseball would handle developments in the Biogenesis case. In recent weeks, we've heard a torrent of speculation about timelines, appeals and whether MLB was bound by the 50-100-lifetime suspension parameters because the pending Biogenesis suspensions all stemmed from "non-analytical positives.'' A lot of us who are paid to know better were convinced this saga would drag on well into the offseason.

And then, suddenly, the human element reared its head, with a stunning news release from commissioner Bud Selig's office that rendered the Matt Garza trade completely irrelevant. Baseball had snagged one of its two big fish on the Biogenesis docket. And now you have to wonder how long it will be until the A-Rod shoe drops.

"As I have acknowledged in the past, I am not perfect,'' Braun said in a statement released by MLB. "I realize now that I have made some mistakes. I am willing to accept the consequences of those actions. This situation has taken a toll on me and my entire family, and it is has been a distraction to my teammates and the Brewers organization.''

He realizes now that he's made some mistakes, and the situation has taken a toll on him and his family? Is it too late to call in a script doctor?

Braun went on to apologize to the fans in Milwaukee and his fellow Brewers. He did not mention Dino Laurenzi Jr., the tester whose reputation he assailed in his successful quest to avoid a suspension in 2012. But scores of people rushed to their Twitter accounts to fill in that particular blank.

Not long ago, Braun was perceived as a future face of baseball -- a telegenic and articulate slugger with fan and media appeal in abundance. The first crack in his veneer came in December 2011, when ESPN reported that he was under investigation for elevated levels of testosterone.

Braun fought his 50-game suspension and won, and I was there on that blindingly sunny February day in Maryvale, Ariz., when he stepped to the microphone and expressed righteous indignation over his plight. "I truly believe in my heart and I would bet my life that this substance never entered my body at any point," he told the media. And if you're inclined to give people the benefit of the doubt, you accepted his explanation despite your reservations and were willing to move past it.

But in baseball clubhouses, lots of Braun's peers filed the incident away for future reference. Over the past few months, I've heard Braun's name mentioned by his fellow players and gotten the obligatory eye-roll that's typically reserved for A-Rod and a select few others who are too polished, slick or consumed with their own self-image for comfort.

As I sat down to write this story, I received a text from a former big leaguer who was active for several years in the union and at the forefront of the effort to stamp out PED use.

"I never bought his denial last year, so I'm not surprised,'' the player said. "He's very smart and very calculated. There's no way this happened to him by any sort of accident.''

In a roundabout sort of way, Braun performed a public service with his grievance. Baseball and the players' association got together and tightened up some loopholes in the testing program to make sure they don't recur. While fans remain eternally skeptical, the tide has turned in big league clubhouses and the overwhelming majority of players are anxious to move on to a new, PED-free era.

Is baseball or any other sport ever going to be 100 percent clean? Unfortunately, no. Do some players (e.g., Mark McGwire or Andy Pettitte) use PEDs because they lose their self-confidence in the face of injury issues or declining performance and are desperate to regain their edge? Sure. Do fringe players feel compelled to partake because it's the only way they can continue to compete at the highest level? Of course. Like it or not, when you throw money, morals and America's national pastime into one big pot, you get a steaming bouillabaisse of competing interests and contradictions.

Many people have compared Braun to Lance Armstrong, who assembled a long list of lies and obfuscations and steamrolled everyone in his path during his lengthy career as a championship cycler and PED denier. Braun will also elicit comparisons to Rafael Palmeiro, who became persona non grata with a single ill-advised finger wag before a Senate hearing in 2005.

But when all is said and done, Pete Rose might be the most apt comparison. I was the Cincinnati Reds beat reporter in the summer of 1989 when baseball was assembling a case against Rose for gambling. On numerous occasions that summer, Pete would trot out some test theory for the beat writers as a way to debunk the latest revelation. The more Pete shared his theories, the more he believed them. The third or fourth time he told a story, I'm convinced that he was convinced it was 100 percent accurate.

A quarter of a century later, Rose is a walking American tragedy, and the closest he can get to the Hall of Fame is standing on the front steps in Cooperstown and watching his family go for a tour during his (now canceled) reality show.

I don't know if Braun is an inherently bad person, a serial liar or just a ballplayer who got trapped in a situation of his own making and didn't know how to escape. But his willingness to cut a deal in the Biogenesis case merely confirms the rampant sentiment that he skated on a technicality the first time around. And now he'll have to spend the rest of his career walking around with a scarlet "F'' for "fraud.''

Credit baseball for assembling a strong enough case to make him cave without a fight, and possibly setting the dominoes in motion for further deals. Where does Braun go from here? Bernie Brewer will be a grandfather before he can even think about trying to recover.