That Milwaukee Brewers slugger Ryan Braun, the 2011 National League Most Valuable Player, accepted a suspension for the remainder of the 2013 season, 65 games, marks a step forward for baseball's credibility in waging its anti-doping campaign. The action also makes it plain that baseball is dead serious in its investigation of the now-defunct Biogenesis clinic in South Florida, which is accused of supplying performance-enhancing drugs to a list of other players, foremost among them Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees. Rodriguez has denied any involvement. Stay tuned.
It also means baseball manifestly now understands what Olympic authorities have for years -- that you don't need positive tests but can rely on notebooks, receipts and other evidence to make a powerful case. And that the commissioner's office and the players' union jointly comprehend, and can work together to do something about, the real threat doping poses to the integrity of the game.
But it's just a start, and pending what's yet to come with Rodriguez and the others -- it's not enough.
Baseball needs, at the minimum, to adopt an Olympic-style approach to doping-related jurisprudence. Athletes who cheat need to be suspended for two years, at least, without pay. Baseball also needs to strip players of whatever awards and achievements they won while they were juiced, just like Olympic "champions" have to give back their medals.
Otherwise, why bother?
This, like many things in baseball, is an exercise in math -- probabilities, possibilities, tendencies and statistics. And, like many plays in baseball, there are short- and long-term implications.
First, giving baseball credit. The sport has made significant advances since the BALCO scandal erupted 10 years ago, and again since the 2007 Mitchell Report. Baseball at least has in place now testing protocols and a three-tier suspension program: 50 games for a first steroid-related offense, 100 for a second, a purported lifetime ban for a third.
Then again, as evidence of how flawed the system remains, there's this:
Last season, pitcher Bartolo Colon failed a drug test. Baseball hit him with a 50-game suspension. He served it (the final five games came this year) and signed a new deal with the Oakland A's. Now Colon is a candidate for the Cy Young Award for the American League's top pitcher; on Sunday, he shut out the Angels, improving his record to 13-3 and lowering his earned-run average to 2.52.
The game Sunday was Colon's first start since returning from the All-Star Game -- Colon's third career All-Star Game appearance. Again, and for emphasis: last year, a drug cheat, this year an All-Star.
Asked by reporters Sunday to explain how Colon is able in this, his 16th big-league season, to pitch at such a high level, A's manager Bob Melvin said, "I've been trying to explain it all year and I can't."
Colon, like Braun, like Rodriguez, has been linked to Biogenesis.
Most of the U.S. press harshly criticized Braun after word of his suspension came down on Monday.
ESPN's Buster Olney, for instance, called him the "Lance Armstrong of baseball." Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports said Braun's name is "ruined," his reputation "shattered," and he will "forever be an object of scorn." Christine Brennan at USA Today: "They threw the bum out."
Why such intense reaction?
Because, perhaps, Braun had escaped liability for a 2011 test on a technicality, then said at a news conference in the Arizona desert before spring training in February 2012, "Today is about anybody who has been wrongly accused," and, "The simple truth is I'm innocent."
In a statement issued Monday by Major League Baseball, Braun said, "I realize now that I have made some mistakes."
He realized that because he was flat-out caught, of course. Moreover, the statement does not acknowledge in plain language what those "mistakes" might be, even if they're obvious.
All of that, yes.
And yet, from here, while Braun may -- and let us emphasize, may -- be embarrassed, what is his real punishment? Again, probabilities, possibilities, tendencies. There's short-term damage control, for sure. But in the long run, who's the winner?
The Brewers are terrible, as of Tuesday 16 games under .500, 19 games back of St. Louis in the National League Central. Braun's right thumb, moreover, is hurt. So sitting out 65 games in a lost season? Big deal.
Commissioner Bud Selig gets to crow that he got one of the game's big names for more than 50 games. Sixty-five is 15 more than 50. That's a bonus for the commissioner, who also undeniably sends a signal to Rodriguez. But for Braun -- so what?
The announcement by MLB suspending Braun doesn't spell out why. For Braun -- that's a win.
When Lance Armstrong was found out to be a serial doper, the seven Tour de France titles were no longer his. When Marion Jones was found out to be a cheater, her Olympic medals were stripped. Ryan Braun's MVP award? That's still his.
And here's Braun's biggest win:
Braun's suspension means he has to forfeit nearly half of his $8.5 million 2013 salary. Again, so what? He's getting a guaranteed $127 million from the Brewers through 2020.
Rosenthal, in that same column, estimated that the money Braun would forfeit this year would amount to 2 percent of Braun's career earnings.
This, bluntly, is the problem.
Do the math. Run the analysis. If you can take steroids (or whatever), and those performance-enhancing drugs can help you bang your way to a deal worth more than $100 million, and then you get caught, and getting caught means you have to give up 2 percent of the money -- would you make that trade?
Absolutely you would. Two percent? That's an ATM fee.
Who cares, meanwhile, what all those sports writers say? That's just noise.
Unless and until baseball enacts a policy that means a big name like Braun is giving up two years and something like $40 million -- now we're talking real money -- there's no meaningful deterrent. Frankly, it's debatable whether $40 million from $127 million is significant enough -- after all, that still leaves 87 million reasons to take steroids -- but at least it's enough to start the conversation.
Next spring, Ryan Braun will come back and there will likely be another news conference in the Arizona desert, and he will say something and we will all get back on with the business of baseball. Contrary to what my good friend Christine Brennan wrote -- she and I went to college and graduated together -- baseball did not throw the bum out.
Look around. Mark McGwire is now the hitting coach of the Los Angeles Dodgers.