Ryan Braun is a free agent.
As of the writing of this, Braun, who’s played for the Milwaukee Brewers baseball team his entire career, has not signed anywhere. At 37, he might not, because time comes for us all, especially aging first basemen who hit .233 last year.
If you’re unfamiliar with Braun, he’s best known for three things: being a transcendent talent early in his career; being one of the handful of Jewish players in Major League Baseball (MLB); and cheating.
Braun pinged a steroid test in 2012, which isn’t itself that unusual in baseball. One of the polite baseball fictions under which the game operates is that players aren’t on performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). The league likes to pretend that they’ve moved on from the “steroids” era of the 1990s and early 2000s when players suspiciously ballooned with newfound muscle mass. The league was shocked, shocked, I tell you, to find out about rampant PED use, and has since struggled to contextualize stats from that era, many of which come with a heavy asterisk.
Braun’s ascension came at a time when the steroids era was “ending.” He won Rookie of the Year in 2007, and then had five consecutive All-Star seasons in which he was awarded Silver Sluggers for his batting prowess and MVP considerations for his general contributions on the field, including as league MVP in 2011 and a runner-up in 2012.
But here comes the asterisk.
Braun tested positive in 2011 for PEDs, though contested the suspension claiming that a) the chain of custody was broken for his urine sample and b) that the man who collected that sample was both antisemitic and, perhaps more damningly, a Cubs fan.
He eventually won that argument based on the strengths of the former allegation. (The urine collector stored the sample at his home rather than putting it directly in the mail.) Braun, however, couldn’t argue his way out of a subsequent 2013 suspension that highlighted his connections with Biogenesis, a notorious PED-providing clinic in South Florida.
Despite MLB’s protestations that it has cleaned up the game, players know how to regularly flout drug testing. Until recently, players in the minor leagues were tested for marijuana use (which MLB considers a “drug of abuse” along with cocaine, ecstasy, and LSD). Players and teams used any number of methods to get around these rules, such as players using synthetic marijuana or organizations manipulating who is and isn’t on the 40-man roster — the roster that includes the big-league players and replacement players generally in the high minors — since players on that roster are not subject to the same drug testing rules.
But the thing about Braun is not just that he got tested and caught, but that he got tested and caught and is Jewish. The other notable current Jewish position player — also an All-Star and MVP finalist — is Alex Bregman, a third baseman for the Houston Astros. The Astros were, notoriously, caught stealing signs using cameras and a trashcan to improve their hitting. (Bregman’s listed height of six feet probably also constitutes a polite baseball fiction.)
And so there’s the issue of how to discuss these scandals in a way that both acknowledges Braun and Bregman’s culpability in them and that doesn’t feed into Jewish stereotypes about Jews being, well, cheaters. To put this in perspective, there is barely a seder’s worth of Jewish players in MLB. In a sport where there can be more than 1,000 rostered players in a season, we’re working at a minyan plus one. And because we have a collective sense of accountability — that an action by a Jewish person reflects on all of us — any action by a Jewish player is felt similarly by Jewish fans.
I was talking about Braun with a non-Jewish friend living in Milwaukee, where Braun is adored as a player. I mentioned the collective sense of shame and responsibility that Braun inspires, the hot roil of guilt for being such a shonda, particularly one who confirms the stereotypes about Jews being nefarious, ruthless, and corrupt. That friend noted that many fans likely don’t think of Braun as Jewish; he probably doesn’t keep kosher in a city fueled by pork sausages. (So dedicated to treyf are they that the Brewers have a sausage mascot race.)
But that itself is something of a privilege. The “I don’t think of you that way” doesn’t mean that you aren’t. And Braun himself brought religion into the conversation in accusing MLB’s urine-collecting proxy of being antisemitic. He is, however, not alone in contesting how MLB does drug tests. Other players have mentioned biases in who gets tested for PEDs, including some claiming that MLB disproportionately tests older, Latino players.
The challenge then is to reconcile a variety of contradictions: that Braun cheated; that other players were and are probably cheating similarly; that Braun used Judaism as a shield against being caught cheating; and that biases likely exist in MLB’s approach to testing, because biases exist in almost everything MLB does.
Braun, for his part, is beloved in Wisconsin and booed elsewhere. I was at the 2019 Wild Card Game between the Brewers and the Nationals — the last Brewers game to have fans in attendance to date — and can tell you Braun received more crowd vitriol than even his white-supremacist-tweeting teammate Josh Hader. To put this in perspective, Nats Park, which can have the atmosphere of a very friendly synagogue oneg, also went on to boo then-President Trump later in the World Series.
Perhaps Braun has paid for his transgressions. He served his suspension and received five years’ worth of guff in various stadiums. What is, after all, the point of punishment if not to provide an opportunity for growth? He’s at the end of his career and is probably going to hang ‘em up soon either this season or the next.
After his playing days are over, Braun may be remembered along with Sandy Koufax, Hank Greenberg, and the other Jewish greats as one of the best to play the game. A legacy that will likely come, justified or not, with a heavy asterisk.