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Don't let baseball's dopes spoil the game

By Mike Downey, Special to CNN
updated 10:12 AM EDT, Thu August 1, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ryan Braun suspended for the rest of the year by Major League Baseball
  • Mike Downey says news of suspension comes in midst of a great season
  • People want to focus on Mariano Rivera, Chris Davis, Yasiel Puig, Downey says
  • Downey: Baseball's troubles with drugs are tiresome and distract from the game

Editor's note: Mike Downey is a former columnist for the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune.

(CNN) -- We still can't watch baseball without a bunch of big dopes getting in our way.

There we were that Monday, a day when yet another of the game's great players (Ryan Braun) got expelled for doing something bad, right in the middle of a very entertaining season, witnessing good things galore.

A beautiful, king-of-the-hill, top-of-the-heap New York, New York moment for retiring pitcher Mariano Rivera at the All-Star Game. A breakout, star-is-born summer for a Baltimore boy named Chris Davis who is belting home runs at a remarkable clip. A revival of the Los Angeles Dodgers following the arrival of Yasiel Puig, a young Cuban kid with incredible charisma.

Mike Downey
Mike Downey

Oh, and let's not forget the low-budget, low-expectation Pittsburgh Pirates looking like bling-ring contenders for a change. And the large-budget, lousy-last-year Boston Red Sox looking a whole better than a lot of experts expected them to look. And a lot of other fun in the sun.

Only to get rained on again.

Major League Baseball stepped up that day to suspend a big, big name of the game, Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers, his league's Most Valuable Player of 2011, for the remainder of 2013.

Ryan Braun suspended

In a vaguely worded statement, the 29-year-old Braun alluded to having "made some mistakes" as he accepted a ban from the field for the rest of this season. Braun had dodged this bullet once before, having failed a 2011 drug test only to successfully appeal it.

CNN Explains: Performance enhancing drugs
Doping in sports OK?

Now he conceded, saying, "I am not perfect."

Guess not.

It is not a perfect game, baseball, but it sure can be a thing of beauty when it is played the right way. To our continuing disillusionment, we keep adding names to a Dead Sea-like scroll of players who go at it the wrong way (or sure do seem to).

Some of us simply roll our eyes, the way we do when politicians get caught doing something unattractive, take themselves out of the game for a while, then magically reappear to run again on the I Am Not Perfect ticket and seek your vote.

You can expect Braun to be back, much the same way. A fan or two will boo in 2014 when his name is announced at a game, but if he hits the ball over the wall, a thousand or two others will stand and give him a hand as he rounds the bases, saying "nice job, Brauny," thrilled to have him back.

Milwaukee itself won't mind this latest suspension as much as it would if its team were not currently in last place. Trust me, if the Brewers were neck-and-neck right now with the St. Louis Cardinals and the Pirates in their division's race for first place, beers would be cried into from Madison to Beloit to Sheboygan.

This guy is a huge deal there. "Braun" jerseys aren't often seen on Broadway or in the Bay Area or deep in the heart of Texas, but in Wisconsin, he seemed to be the Hank Aaron of his generation, a rising star in his 20s who could well be a legend by his 40s.

In six seasons, Braun has been voted Rookie of the Year in one, then an All-Star in the next five. He already has 211 home runs. Robin Yount, who spent his entire 20-year career in Milwaukee before being elected to baseball's Hall of Fame, hit a total of 251 homers in that span.

That'll give you a small idea of how big Braun could be.

He is paid a king's ransom, if Kate's and Will's new baby in England won't mind us saying. Braun has a nine-figure contract in Milwaukee that runs through the year 2020. He is expected back at Miller Park, same time next year, tail between legs but bat in hand.

Kwik Trip drops Braun after drug suspension

I doubt if many elsewhere would recognize Ryan Braun today if he came walking down the street toward you.

He probably wouldn't be mobbed by paparazzi in, say, New York, a city with a history of big baseball stars. Or mobbed by autograph hounds in downtown Chicago, which is just 90 miles from Milwaukee, which is where Braun absolutely IS a big baseball star. He wouldn't have many smartphone cameras aimed his way while having dinner in Los Angeles, which is in the general vicinity of Braun's hometown.

He is no Derek Jeter, a famous face coast-to-coast.

Nor is he Alex Rodriguez, but they definitely do have something in common.

A-Rod's name has been linked to Biogenesis, a so-called "anti-aging" clinic in South Florida that is being investigated over the possibility of making performance-enhancing drugs available to a number of athletes. Braun's name also surfaced in that investigation. Some believe his suspension Monday will be just the first of several more to follow in the days ahead.

Again and again, the game of baseball has taken measures and given assurance that steroid use or substance abuse in any form will not be tolerated. We tend to nod and believe none of today's players would be foolish enough to take such a risk, but the fools could very well be us.

CNN Explains: Performance enhancing drugs

It was only a year ago that the All-Star Game was won by the National League -- and, as a reward, home-field advantage for the World Series -- with no small thanks due to Melky Cabrera, a player from the San Francisco Giants who was voted the midsummer game's MVP. But shortly thereafter, Cabrera was suspended for a positive drug test and did not return to the Giants, who happily enjoyed their home-field edge in the World Series anyway.

Thank goodness this year's All-Star Game hero was the Yankees' heroic figure Rivera, a man whose career has been pure to the point of immaculate in its lack of controversy or reputation stain.

I am certain that Mariano must have been guilty of doing something wrong during his career -- a parking ticket, perhaps, or leaving a sock in his locker -- but he remains among the hundreds of major leaguers who give us hope that baseball is a game more clean than dirty.

Ryan Braun pulled the old Lance Armstrong routine, casting aspersions on the work of those who did the testing and investigating, making it sound like somebody was out to get him. A lot of people bought it. He was going to be the one who really did get unfairly tagged as a doper (and a dope).

Sure he was.

And then rainy days and Mondays come around, and there was Braun's permanent stain for all to see.

It gets tiresome, doesn't it? Hearing about this stuff? Reading about it? (Writing about it sure as hell does.) Wouldn't it be sweet if we could just get through an entire season talking about nothing else except whether the Oriole boy would wallop 75 home runs, or if the Pirates would finally get to hold a World Series in their beautiful ballpark, or if L.A.'s fans would introduce a "Puig Leagues" section in the outfield seats as prominently as the "Hollywood" sign?

Oh, and don't the Braves look good, too? And, hey, the Rays are really on a roll. And that's a nice trade the Rangers just made. And, whoa, that Reds kid sure does throw hard. And maybe the A's really are in it to win it. And the town might be bankrupt but Detroit's team is loaded, man. And plenty of good seats in Miami still available.

Dopes, go away. We're trying to watch a game here.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mike Downey.

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