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July 25, 2013

Tom Lindley: After Braun's suspension, fans left to wonder why

So Milwaukee Brewers slugger Ryan Braun is done for the season, suspended for violating baseball’s anti-drug policies. No surprise there. He dodged a suspension last year when a urine sample showed elevated levels of testosterone. It was his good fortune when it was proven his specimen had been mishandled, and his appeal succeeded.

Braun’s defense was that “I am not perfect” — a lame claim anyone could make. Now he will have the remainder of the season — 65 games — to think about his imperfection. But this isn’t Little League, and a “my bad” response doesn’t get it.

Someday Braun may choose to offer more insight into his actions and explain how so many at the top of their profession — in his case, baseball — can’t play by the rules.

It is expected that more major leaguers will soon find themselves in the spotlight of shame as the summer drags on. Braun is believed to be just one MLB player associated with Biogenesis, a now-closed Miami clinic. It’s likely a couple dozen more players, including Yankee superstar Alex Rodriguez, could be named before the end of the season.

The “why” question remains unanswered, even though it would be hard to image that it’s not linked to fame and fortune. Braun had both, but the suspension will cost him almost $3.8 million of a $9.6 million salary.

The loss of pay is substantial. But Braun’s loss of credibility, while considerable, is not as easy to calculate.

A few summers ago I talked with a guy about his son who played several seasons in the major leagues. I was intrigued by what he had to say. Fans can observe the highs — a game-winning home run — and the lows — getting traded to a slumping team — and empathize. What most of us cannot comprehend is the challenge of going to the ballpark day after day and performing against the best players in the world.

Spectators have no idea how difficult that is, partly because they can’t imagine how truly good professional players are and the mental toughness it takes to succeed under never-ceasing scrutiny.

For many, this father told me, the life of a big leaguer is a blessing and a curse. Pro athletes are treated like royalty. They fly on chartered planes. Everything is available for their asking, including gourmet meals and the finest hotel accommodations. But what is given can also be taken away — quicker than fielding a ground ball at shortstop and firing it across the diamond.

Seeing your name penciled in on the line-up card is a statement about your ability. Hitting the field six or more days a week takes its toll. The pressure and responsibility mount as the wear of a six-month schedule of games builds. Hitting a 98 mph fastball in April is one thing, doing it on a sweltering night in August after 125 games is another.

Don’t perform and 10 people are ready to take your place. Suffer an injury and someone replaces you. Slump and you’re benched. This isn’t an occupation built on job security nor loyalty. Knowing your dreams — your livelihood — can be taken away is frightening.

That doesn’t seem to match Braun’s situation, of course. He was the National League’s MVP in 2011. He was an established star, not a utility man or an infielder with a .230 batting average. He was hitting .298 this year and still carries a .312 lifetime average.

Maybe Braun and others like him are looking for an edge, anything to keep them atop the occupation they’ve spent a life chasing, even if that means using a magic potion available from a Miami clinic.

It would be so much easier to fashion a remedy or understand the problem if it was identified. Until then, players and fans can only speculate about where a career tragically took a wrong turn and fame was replaced by failure.

Tom Lindley is a national columnist for CNHI News Service. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com

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