Ryan Braun announced his retirement from baseball on Tuesday, sharing the news in a short video message filmed in his home. If this came as a surprise to you, it’s probably because you didn’t realize that Braun was in fact an active MLB player until yesterday. He wasn’t, really. After struggling through 39 games in the plague-shortened 2020 season, Braun began this one as a free agent. It appears that no teams were interested in his services, and now his career is over. Thank goodness.
I say that not as a slight against Braun the ballplayer, who was for a time one of the very best in the game—a complete player whose smooth swing almost singlehandedly reinvigorated a franchise and will remain etched in the minds of a generation of Brewers fans. I don’t really mean to denigrate Braun as a person, either. He probably wasn’t any more of an asshole than a lot of major-league ballplayers are.
He really was an asshole, though! Aside from winning an MVP award and turning the Brewers into contenders, what Braun will be most remembered for is the long and ultimately humiliating tumble he took down MLB’s steroid-era staircase. In case you’ve forgotten the particulars: News broke in 2011 that Braun had pissed hot for a banned substance; Braun successfully appealed his 50-game suspension after it was revealed that the person who collected his sample, Dino Laurenzi Jr., failed to follow the proper protocols; after winning his appeal, Braun gave a surly press conference in which he denied use of any banned substances and portrayed himself as a victim of a railroading campaign; a year later, after his name popped up in the Biogenesis scandal, Braun admitted that, actually, he had used steroids in 2011. Oh, and we can’t forget that before he won his appeal, Braun was apparently calling other ballplayers to solicit their public support and let them know that Laurenzi Jr. was an antisemite.
I watched Braun’s post-appeal press conference again today, and though I was impressed by the sheer volume of lies that he managed to pack into just a few minutes of speaking, I mostly found myself just exhausted at having to recall that entire era of baseball. On one side you had Bud Selig and his wannabe G-Men waging a stupid, self-sabotaging drug war against his own players and handing out 50-game suspensions based on little more than circumstantial evidence. On the other side you had guys like Braun and Alex Rodriguez, who were absolutely being hard-done by a baseball commissioner who fancied himself a police commissioner, but who also insisted on doing just about everything they could to be as unsympathetic as possible.
A lot of words have been typed about baseball’s waning popularity and what might explain that lack of interest, and I’ve always considered myself apart from that conversation. I work in sports media, after all, and baseball was the first sport I ever truly loved. I just sort of assumed that my passion for and enjoyment of the game was immune to any dampening factors. But then I spent the morning thinking about Braun, what he meant to me as a player, and how I would remember him. I found myself so annoyed at having to dive back into his career and remember all the stupid, cynical twists and turns of his steroid scandal. It occurred to me that Braun standing behind that podium and snapping, “If I had done this intentionally, or unintentionally, I’d be the first one to step up and say, ‘I did it,'” happened seven years after Rafael Palmeiro infamously wagged his finger at Congress. Season after season of baseball was weighed down by this shit; it’s no wonder that so many fans may have found something else to be interested in.
Braun was one of my favorite players. I wanted to spend the morning watching him lash balls out of the Brewers stadium while cataloging all of his best, most memorable moments from his 14-year career. Instead, I ended up watching him give a shitty press conference and reading a bunch of old articles about whether a urine collector did or did not seal up the urine properly and get it to FedEx on time. I guess that’s my fault, but it’s also Braun’s fault, and central baseball’s fault. It’s ironic that so much wasted effort was put into trying to secure the history and sanctity of the game, and yet all I wanted to do today was stop thinking about one of the greatest players I’ve ever seen as soon as possible. I’ll go watch some soccer highlights now or something.