I felt it important to publish my thoughts on this issue before the regular season begins, even if I'm late to the party. Warning: this is my longest and most thoughtful post yet.
Braun won his appeal by attacking the process -- his best, and possibly only hope of winning against the strictest (overly strict?) anti-drug policy in professional sports, a policy that doesn't care how a substance gets into a player's sample. If it's there he's guilty, no matter what.
Braun was able to convince Shyam Das, baseball's independent arbitrator who casts the deciding vote in these appeals and had never once sided with an MLB player, that the mishandling of Braun's urine sample invalidated the sample itself and therefore the lab results. Braun did not win on a technicality. A flawed or compromised sample which enters the lab cannot lead to a valid conclusion. Apparently Braun was able to recreate the result of his test through a similar mishandling of a clean urine sample. For more on this check out this twelve minute interview with the Injury Expert, Will Carroll. I'm no expert on these issues so I defer to Carroll. It's an excellent listen and should clear up any confusion that remains about the lab result and appeal.
So why did Braun have high levels of synthetic testosterone in his system last October? The experts decided that he's innocent, but the answer is we just don't know. Frankly the public does not have enough information to draw any conclusions from this case. We can't assume that he mistakenly ingested something, that someone tampered with his sample, or that he purposely took something to gain a competitive edge. This leaves us in a gray and confusing area. Very few people know the facts here, and anyone else who claims to "know" that he's a cheater or not a cheater is wrong. Of course we are welcome to our opinions.
Braun has alluded to the "real" story regarding his positive test, but at this point declines to discuss it in any detail. He told his family, close friends, and teammates this story. His explanation seems to be good enough for them, as several have publicly come to his defense, including players from other teams and Jonathan Lucroy, the Brewers' young catcher.
I've commended Lucroy on this site and still believe he's an outstanding individual, on and off the field. When asked about the "real" story he said, "I'm not going to get into the details, but if you knew what we [know], people would be like, 'Wow'." He continued: "If some of the things came out, it would be a lot more negative than positive. There are reasons [the 'real' story will remain private]."
Honestly, who knows what he means by this? It seems, though, that he's accepted the reasons for the failed test and does not think Braun cheated. In today's baseball culture I highly doubt he would put himself on the line to defend a teammate he thought had cheated the system. Of course I could be wrong, but that's just what I think.
In the end I understand why people think Braun cheated. I'm just not one of those people. If he fails future drug tests I might change my mind, but I am willing to accept that it's possible that a player could fail one of MLB's drug tests, by false positive or for whatever reason, without having tried to gain a competitive edge with PEDs.
Braun won his appeal and does not deserve to be labeled a cheater. The system is designed to place the onus of innocence on the player, who is deemed guilty until proven otherwise. There's a reason he's the first Major Leaguer to do so -- it's extremely hard and the player must thoroughly convince the arbitrator of his innocence; in this case Braun succeeded. Unfortunately he will still and possibly always be a cheater in many peoples' eyes, and it's especially unfortunate considering the public wouldn't even know about the failed test if the case hadn't been leaked.
Ryan Braun is still my favorite baseball player, as far as I'm concerned is still my favorite clean baseball player, and I will wear his jersey this season just as proudly as I ever have.