Steroids, Small Markets, and The Green Light at the End of the Dock

Let me preface this post by saying that I’m not writing it to defend Ryan Braun. I have no idea how I feel about him at the moment or if I will forgive him in time, I’m just sick of reading articles on this topic that are focused on Braun individually or on Major League Baseball as a whole. I’m writing this for the city that took the blunt force of the hit the moment that the 65-game suspension was announced.

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While my feelings on Braun are pretty ambiguous at this point, my feelings on the city of Milwaukee aren’t. I spent the last of my high schools years waiting impatiently, as the vast majority of seniors do, to get out of the only town I ever knew and see what other exciting things the world had to offer. Of course, I had been in college for maybe two days before I began to realize how significantly and inescapably Milwaukee had shaped my individual identity–an uncountable number of my values, mannerisms, and even speech patterns were unique to the Brew City and were invaluable in helping me develop into the driven, benevolent person I’m becoming more like every day. Luckily for me, my impatience to leave the Cheesehead State didn’t prevent me from, throughout my childhood, learning to identify with the common sources of pride  in the city I grew to love–most notably a thriving brewing industry, a kind-hearted, blue-collar population, and Milwaukee Brewers baseball.

While beer remains the most consistent source of Milwaukee pride on an international scale, baseball–despite its ups and downs–doesn’t lag far behind. When the Boston Braves packed up and moved into Milwaukee’s County Stadium in 1953, they became the first Major League baseball team to relocate in 50 years–a pretty serious risk taken by a generally conservative ownership group. The Braves’ management was nevertheless rewarded when, in their first season in Wisconsin, they  drew an all-time record 1.8 million fans and finished second in the National League. By 1965, when economic downturn due to job loss saw a massive drop in attendance and thus the sale of the Braves to Atlanta, the team had strung together 13 consecutive winning season on the backs of legendary heroes such as Hank Aaron, Warren Spahn, and Eddie Mathews, had won the 1957 World Series against the New York Yankees, and set numerous more attendance records. Baseball, beer, and the Brew City were forever intertwined.

When Bud Selig and the distraught nucleus of diehard Brewer fans in Milwaukee finally obtained a replacement expansion team from Major League Baseball in 1970, the modern-day Milwaukee Brewers were born. Over the next 20 years, the team made more than a few championship runs with future Hall-of-Famers like Robin Yount, Paul Molitor, and Rollie Fingers and established the now-permanent image of the scruffy, blue-collar Milwaukeean who could out-work anyone more talented than them to find success.b__gormanthomas80

Then came a period, starting in 1992 until 2005 (or, my whole lifetime until middle school), that made the European Dark Ages look like a mildly overcast day. The Brewers went 13 straight years without posting a winning record and looked simply embarrassing and hopeless doing it. The team, which had once been a source of immense pride for the city and the state and personified the romantic image of a Wisconsinite, was now the laughing stock of baseball and anything but a symbol of the hard-working common man. For a “small-market” city such as Milwaukee, this loss of such a key part of its identity was an absolute bombshell in terms of its national and international recognition–a bombshell that I’m sure every member of the city felt close to their hearts (even if I wasn’t old enough to yet).

Finally, hope began appearing again for the Brewers organization in the early 2000’s: they opened a brand new, economically genius stadium called Miller Park, they were purchased by a savvy, committed investment banker from Los Angeles named Mark Attanasio, and they were being flooded by a new wave of young talent from years of wise drafting–headed of course by the now infamous Ryan Braun.

From the day he was drafted in 2005 out of the University of Miami, Braun seemed to be nothing but a godsend to both the Brewers and to the people of Milwaukee; a classic “All-American” type of athlete, he spent only a year and a half in the minors before taking the Major Leagues by storm to win the NL Rookie-of-the-Year award in 2007. As arguably the best all-around hitter in the game, he led the Brewers to their first postseason appearance in 26 years in 2008 and then within a game of the World Series in 2011 with his unimaginably clutch hitting, all while appearing in 5 straight All-Star games and winning the National League Most Valuable Player Award in 2011. Baseball was finally back in Milwaukee, led by “Our Cal Ripken”, as he was called by baseball writer Buster Olney; with a winning team on the field again, the Brewers drew over 3 million fans in 3 out of 4 years and were well above the average MLB attendance over the whole time period despite playing in the smallest market in all of baseball. They were an elite team–something that the city could take pride in again on a national scale and something I felt that I could brag about to all my new college friends.

On top of all of this, Ryan Braun had made a serious commitment to the city of Milwaukee as well as to the Brewers when he signed a team-friendly contract that would keep him in Milwaukee for most of his career at well below market value–this truly seemed incredible to Brewers fans after we had to watch the other young stars he played with (namely CC Sabathia and Prince Fielder) depart for bigger markets that could offer them much more money. Braun teamed up with Packers quarterback (and perhaps only person in Wisconsin more famous than him) Aaron Rodgers to open up a local chain of restaurants and to contribute money to charities in the Milwaukee area. It truly did seem like a new golden age of baseball in a historically great baseball town.

And then it all came crashing down. If you’re still reading this article, then I’m sure you know about the tragic downfall of Ryan Braun that had been slowly approaching since his “erroneous” positive test in 2011 and that hit the fan with his admission of taking PED’s earlier this summer. The biggest celebrity this town had known in over 20 years and the future of Milwaukee baseball for the foreseeable future–completely tarnished, along with the memories of the once-in-a-lifetime seasons that Braun had led the Brewers on over the past few years. We were a laughing stock once again–and what’s worse, we couldn’t even look back on the awesome success we’d had only a few years back without feeling sick and cheated. Instead of shedding Milwaukee in a positive light–as an over-achieving, odds-defying group of rebels that the 1980’s Brewers had done–Braun had represented the city as a smug, arrogant man who would choose cheating over hard work to achieve his goals.

But is this really fair? Not two months before Braun was suspended I went to see The Great Gatsby in theaters with a couple friends. As I sat there enjoying Baz Luhrmann’s amazing rendition of one of my favorite books of all-time, I was yet again mystified by the complexity of Jay Gatsby. When I think back on how I perceived his character in the book, I can’t ever remember regarding him as less than a hero–an idol whose ambition should be a striving point for all Americans. One of the final scenes of the film, however, is a montage of all the negative reaction following Gatsby’s death–how he cheated to make it to the top, how he didn’t deserve all his success, etc. Nick, and pretty much anyone who reads the book, sees Gatsby as a great man who had to do some unfortunate things to achieve his in-the-end worthwhile goal of winning back Daisy’s heart. So where is the limit? If your goal is worthwhile enough, who’s to say that you went about achieving it the wrong way?

I’m not going to pretend like I know Braun’s exact motives for using PED’s; I doubt anyone besides The Hebrew Hammer himself has any idea. There are many rumors flying around about the exact nature of his drug usage, but the most well-substantiated claim is that he took them for a few months in mid-2011 in order to recover from a nagging injury that occurred mid-season. If this is the case, that means that he was already a well-established Major League player who had already signed that massive contract to stay in Milwaukee. There doesn’t seem to be a different rational motive for his drug use outside of simply trying to help the team that he had committed to reach the success that the whole city had been dreaming about since the Braves jumped ship over 50 years ago.

Yes, Ryan Braun cheated. His drug use was unfair to other MLB players and to all of the fans who cheered him on, assuming him to be playing clean all the time; it was even unfair to the entire sport of baseball, which was using him as a key centerpiece to showcase their new “clean” game. He reacted arrogantly to the accusations and to this day has not yet given a full explanation or taken real responsibility. But if Braun had taken this “lozenge” simply as a means of helping his downtrodden city regain a key source of its pride that it so desperately needed, and not as a selfish supplement in an attempt to cheat the system and make more money (as is being portrayed by a surprisingly high number of sports writers), where does that leave us? Where does that leave him? The immediate reaction was deservedly scathing, but tempers should cool as time passes and clearer heads will prevail. Maybe, just maybe, he doesn’t deserve to be the pariah that every corner of the sports world is making him out to be forever.braun

The green (or, in this case, the blue and yellow) light at the end of the dock can sometimes be quite blinding, making us forget what exactly we’re stepping on in our never-ending quest to reach it. Braun definitely stepped on some wrongs things–this is for certain. But unless we can know exactly what light he was chasing, who are we to pass ultimate judgement on him? Am I being overly-optimistic about his motives? Sure. But are some people, such as Jeff Passan, being overly-pessimistic? Undoubtedly. And anyone who can play with this much passion for their city just can’t be as evil as he’s being made out to be.

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