For Nats, a matter of reputation

For Nats, a matter of reputation
February 24, 2012, 11:57 pm
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VIERA, Fla. -- What's the No. 1 deterrent for major-league players not to take performance-enhancing drugs? The risk of getting caught? Possible suspension? Dangerous side effects to their bodies?

No, it's none of the above. The No. 1 reason most players are scared to take steroids or HGH? Let Ryan Zimmerman explain ...

"This is our livelihood," the Nationals third baseman said this morning. "That's the biggest thing that can be put on you that takes away your reputation and everything you've ever worked for. You get that once in your career, you're screwed for the rest of your life. Everyone's always going to remember that."

Which is why Ryan Braun, even in victory over MLB in his drug-test arbitration case, will probably never be able to clear his name. Whether he actually took steroids or something else that caused his testosterone levels to skyrocket to numbers never before seen in professional sports, the world will forever remember he had a positive test linked to him.

Braun made as compelling a case for his innocence as you could imagine today at Brewers camp in Phoenix and surely won plenty of support from fans, media and fellow players around the sport. But this issue will always hover over him, for the rest of his career and beyond, and there will always be questions about the validity of his argument or the arbitrator's stunning decision to side with a ballplayer contesting a drug charge for the first time in history.

That was the prevailing sentiment throughout the Nationals clubhouse today as players sat glued to the TV watching Braun's news conference and the pervasive analysis that was offered before and after.

That, and an overwhelming sense of relief for a fellow major-leaguer who at least earned some vindication.

"Hey, I know if I didn't do anything wrong and I tested positive, I would want an opportunity to appeal it and prove my side," veteran utilityman Mark DeRosa said.

The entire Braun saga has been an unmitigated disaster, from the initial leak of the news of his positive test, to the unnerving details of his urine sample sitting in a collector's refrigerator for two days instead of being sent via FedEx to World Anti-Doping Agency headquarters in Montreal, to this evening's latest press release from MLB authorities whining about the result of this process.

Nobody comes out of this in a particularly positive light, though Braun and the players union certainly look better than MLB and the collection agency that botched protocols for transporting his sample last October.

Few would fault players for suddenly being skeptical of the entire drug-testing process, and it's fair to wonder whether the strong relationship that have been established between MLB and the union over the last few years might fall apart over this issue.

Drew Storen, the Nationals' player representative, said today that shouldn't be the case.

"I don't think so," the closer said. "I don't really know the details of the story, so I think once the details come out, we'll have a better understanding. ... But I think one thing people don't necessarily realize: We are all working together toward a drug-free sport. Everybody wants a drug-free environment."

Veteran players say they still have faith in the process, despite the obvious screw-ups in the Braun case.

"I've been in the league since the first drug testing was implemented, and you've seen how effective it's been," said DeRosa, who debuted in 1998 just as Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were breaking Roger Maris' single-season home run record. "I really feel like it's done remarkable things to clean up the game."

To a man, players insist the sport is far cleaner now than it was during the late-1990s and early 2000s. Sure, there will always be a handful of guys who think they can cheat the system, but there is legitimate fear from everyone about getting caught ... and the ramifications that come along with it.

It's become pretty well-established that anyone strongly linked to PEDs faces nearly impossible odds of being voted into the Hall of Fame. (Full disclosure: I'm a Hall of Fame voter, and at this point I won't select any players who have either admitted taking PEDs or were otherwise proven to have taken them during their careers.)

Now, the vast majority of big-leaguers will never be in the conversation for Cooperstown. But even the marginal players know even the slightest link to PEDs right now spells doom for their careers. That's simply not worth the risk, in most players' minds.

"I think the drug system has done a very good job," Zimmerman said. "There's literally no drugs in the game. If you're doing drugs, you're taking a huge risk and you're more than likely going to get caught. So I think the system has done its job."

To an extent. Braun may have used the system in place to clear himself from suspension and perhaps the loss of his MVP award. But he may never be able to clear his reputation.

Which is why every player in the majors today was so consumed with the news coming out of Brewers camp.