Tonawanda News

July 24, 2013

DUVALL: Tip of the cap to the real ballplayers

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The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — I was sitting at the end of the bar in one of my favorite local watering holes one night last week, quietly enjoying a beer and my thoughts after a long night at the office. The ubiquitous late night SportsCenter broadcast was playing on mute. The neon light in the window flickered and I peered through the golden tint of my pint of beer to the distorted Molson CanADIAn coaster below.

I glanced up and happened to catch a bulletin on ESPN’s hamster wheel of news spinning at the bottom of the screen: MLB union head says MLBPA will no longer defend players against overwhelming evidence of steroid use.

The union, the bulletin went on to say, would instead encourage players to cut a deal with MLB on punishment.

I silently rose my pint of beer and toasted the screen.

Finally, I thought, the good players — the clean players — are getting the upper hand.

It didn’t take long for the union’s advice to sink in.

Ryan Braun, the sanctimonious rat who plays left field for the Milwaukee Brewers, was suspended for the remainder of the season after taking the baseball equivalent of a plea bargain for violating the league’s new, tougher performance-enhancing drug policy.

One might point out not having to go to the ballpark for the remainder of the Brew Crew’s pathetic 2013 season might be more reward than punishment. Essentially, Braun will pay $4.5 million or so for the privilege of giving up early on a Brewers squad that is 16 games below .500 and in last place in the National League Central (19 games behind my first place St. Louis Cardinals).

Of all the steroid users over the last decade or longer in baseball few are as odious as Braun.

After the 2011 NL MVP failed a drug test during the playoffs he was suspended 50 games. He had the suspension overturned on appeal after he exploited a loophole in the testing procedure, then took to Miller Field during spring training to proclaim his vindication to all the world — when pretty much the whole world knew he got lucky.

Eventually new evidence surfaced when Braun’s name turned up on a list of people owing money to the shady owner of a shady anti-aging center known in baseball circles to be a steroid dispensary. 

I’ve loved baseball since I was a boy. It’s the thinking sports fan’s game of choice. It has intellect, intrigue, power, grace and its own set of quirks that keep those who seek to explore its vast landscape interested for a lifetime. Ballplayers — not just guys who play baseball but real ballplayers — are fascinating creatures. They growl, grin and spit. They’re tough as nails but most of the time conduct themselves with all the seriousness and maturity of a 7-year-old. 

Don Mattingly was a ballplayer. Roberto Clemente and Hank Aaron were ballplayers. So were Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Bob Gibson. When I watch today’s players I see a handful of guys who will someday join that pantheon — Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina is top of mind.

Baseball fans revere these men.

And so I smiled Tuesday because Ryan Braun is not a ballplayer. He’s a guy who’s paid to play baseball.

This 2013 season has had its share of fascinating story lines. A youthful slugger in Baltimore we all pray isn’t doping, Chris Davis, is on pace to break what purists still call the single season home run record, set by Roger Maris at 61.

Thanks to the likes of Braun, Davis has had to confront questions about his success head-on. I smiled again when he refused to recognize Barry Bonds as the home run champ. When asked how many home runs it would take for him to consider himself the all-time single-season champ, he replies “62” — ignoring the gaudy 73 four-baggers Bonds slapped while on the juice.

Baseball is a long way from eradicating steroids. Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez is next on MLB’s most wanted list. The bloated, aging embarrassment to pinstripes and the Yankee legacy has been juicing nearly his entire career and should be booted from the game for life. 

The damage these guys have done is both incalculable and entirely specific.

Baseball is an old game, played more or less the same since its inception. Sixty-one home runs in a season, 755 in a career — those are sacred accomplishments. 

And it was real ballplayers like Maris and Aaron who set them.

Ryan Braun can play golf the rest of the summer and come back next year to begin collecting the massive $145 million contract he signed the season after he got caught using steroids. We’ll see how good he is without the juice.

Me, I’ll be watching the real ballplayers, and smiling to myself that they’re closer to getting the fair shake they deserve.

Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. Contact him at eric.duvall@tonawanda-news.com or follow him on Twitter, @EricRDuVall.