Mark McGwire hurt. So did Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens, and Barry Bonds. Ryan Braun's suspension Monday still marks baseball's darkest day of the past decade.
Braun, the Milwaukee Brewers outfielder who won a National League MVP back in 2011, accepted a 65-game suspension for unspecified violations of the MLB drug program. It comes a summer after the slugger escaped suspension for a positive test for elevated testosterone because a urine sample had been improperly stored. Braun had adamantly denied the allegations of performance-enhancing drug use for a calendar year, claiming to be a victim of botched procedure. Now he's done for the season.
The suspension of Ryan Braun stings for three unprecedented reasons, each of which have the ability to make even the most raucous rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" turn solemn.
First, Braun becomes the first active MVP to be suspended for PED use. That shouldn't read as some "did you know" ESPN factoid. That's a sign of how tough this is to swallow. While the record-setters mentioned in the infamous Mitchell Report have been forever tainted, the likes of McGwire and Sosa were already retired, years removed from the game of baseball. Even Bonds and Clemens were never indicted or proved guilty on any charges while they finished out their careers in controversy. This is the first time that one of the sport's star players has been been punished while still playing, and that makes it discernibly tougher to watch Braun succeed — or fail, for that matter — in 2014 and beyond.
Second, Braun had shouldered the reputation of being one of baseball's "clean guys" in a post-Mitchell Report age. After the video game numbers of the steroid era seemed to be fading, players like Braun, David Wright, and now Mike Trout were winning fans back with what was perceived to be clean, honest play. Braun's modest media front, lauded hustle on the field and exhausted defense of his reputation after the initial steroid charges made him a poster boy for clean ball. Losing someone like Albert Pujols would be devastating for the MLB, but at least it comes with a level of expectation. Even a breakout slugger like Chris Davis or Jose Bautista is more palatable for suspension. But the all-American wonder kid who worked hard in a small city? Braun was the symbol of baseball turning a page.
What hurts almost as much as Braun's image and his precedent is the way baseball itself handled the suspension. Since Braun's initial failed test came and went, the MLB had been working tirelessly to catch him again. The same goes for Alex Rodriguez and every other notable name mentioned with steroids over the past year. Many took problem with the fact that after Braun had accepted his suspension, league officials issued a statement saying that they "commend Ryan Braun for taking responsibility." It highlights the disconnect between the league, its players and its fans, one that likely won't be bridged any time soon. As tough as this is for baseball's supporters to grapple with, it appears to be even tougher for Braun's contemporaries.
It sounds like more suspensions are on the way, but none more austere or visceral than Braun's. Monday is tougher than anything else in the past decade because it seemed like baseball was finally rounding the corner, escaping from the controversy that cost the sport millions of fans. Braun's suspension keeps the steroid issue alive and well in baseball culture, and it's going to make the recent "guilty until proven innocent" mantra all the harder to overcome.
For now, we sit and wait for the league to hand down more punishments. The first cut is the deepest, as Monday proved, but it also means that there's only more cuts to come.