MLB: Ryan Braun’s Trail of Lies

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It all makes sense now.

I would count myself among the defenders of Ryan Braun since word leaked in December 2011 that he’d failed a drug test and was appealing a 50-game suspension from Major League Baseball.

At every step, it appeared he had a case. Not necessarily that he was 100 percent innocent, but that he wasn’t being given the measure of due process owed to him by the Joint Drug Agreement.

But I didn’t think he could beat Bud Selig, Rob Manfred and the MLB. They don’t get beat. They aren’t in the business of getting beat. They have a legal monopoly for Pete’s sake.

After his suspension was overturned by an arbitrator, I was flabbergasted. I could not believe he’d won.  And similarly, I could not believe MLB had gone out of its way to tarnish the reputation of one of its biggest stars for seemingly, ultimately, nothing.

When MLB issued a biting statement about how they “vehemently” disagreed with the ruling, it appeared like sour grapes and nothing else.

Then Braun got up in front of the Arizona microphone and proclaimed his innocence, decried the haters, swore he’d never done anything to result in a positive test, denounced a system that showed its flaws and, of all things, trashed the tester he blamed for thwarting the process and possibly tampering with his urine.

So why had MLB done this? Why did MLB go to such great lengths to go after Braun? And why, when his name popped up in a relatively tangential fashion in the Biogenesis case, did they seem hellbent on making Braun fall?

It all makes sense now.

Because Braun was a cheat, and, worse so, a liar, who made MLB look like fools. MLB knew who Braun really was. They weren’t going to lose this time.

I found myself, over this last year and a half, always feeling like Braun had been seriously wronged by MLB. In some ways, that is still true.

His argument about how Dino Laurenzi may have mishandled his sample clearly had some merit, especially if it was convincing enough to lead an arbitrator to overrule his suspension.

In addition, someone from MLB obviously leaked that initial information regarding Braun’s 2011 positive test and suspension to ESPN, which is and always has been a violation of the testing program. It would make no sense for anyone in Braun’s camp to leak that information.

The Players Association has to take such breaches seriously. This is especially true after someone leaked names of players with positive tests on the 2003 survey that led to mandatory testing.

It was collectively bargained, between the union and the league, that no one would ever learn the identities of those who tested positive. Someone broke that contract, hence breaking the law. As far as I know, no one was ever held accountable for that.

MLBPA even has a case this time, since virtually all the names of players in the Biogenesis case are out there and details of the investigation have been widely reported.

Someone has a big mouth over at MLB, and it’s not because steroids made their head too big. It’s something that needs to be fixed.

I always hated it when people said Braun “got off on a technicality.” MLB’s drug testing system, like the U.S. criminal justice system, is based on a series of rules, regulations and procedures to ensure fairness to all involved.

If those procedures are broken in any fashion, the accused cannot get a fair hearing. They can’t. To me, that’s a little bigger than a technicality. That’s the way these systems have to work.

So perhaps Braun deserved his initial reprieve from discipline. Apparently this time, however, with no chain of custody issues at hand, Braun had to cut a deal. All things considered, maybe he got off a little easy this time, missing the rest of a lost season for the Brewers.

When this first broke, my initial feeling was Braun’s reputation in Milwaukee would survive, and maybe it will. But the more I think about it, the more I wonder if that will be the case.

See, it’s not so much that he cheated. Over the last dozen years I’ve accepted that cheating is part of sports, after so many people lauded as heroes have come crashing back to Earth as disappointments. I don’t get let down when this happens because I don’t let myself get let down anymore.

It’s that he lied. And was so damn convincing at it, too.

It’s that he pulled a Rafael Palmeiro on us. It’s that he did what Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds did to us. It’s that he did what we’re probably going to find out Alex Rodriguez did to us.

Could Braun have come right out in 2012 spring training and said, “I was on the juice but my due process was breached”? Of course not.

But his outright, steadfast denials? His righteous indignation? His defiance of the entire episode? The fact he lied to his own teammates, who were reportedly furious Monday? That’s where Braun enters into a different category.

We’ve mostly given passes to players like Mark McGwire, Andy Pettitte and Jason Giambi because they contritely admitted the truth about their PED use.

None of them lied like Braun, nor did any of them go out of their way to publicly disparage a participant in the process like Braun did with Laurenzi.

If I were a Brewers fan, I could handle rooting for a cheater. Hell, David Ortiz was supposedly on the 2003 list, and it doesn’t stop me from cheering every time he comes to the plate. But someone who did what Braun did? That’s a tougher sell.

Time will be the determining factor here.

I have more thoughts about the turning tide in baseball among the players, the ones who feel wronged by the cheaters and liars. They are clean, but they can’t be above suspicion, because of jerks like Braun and A-Rod. And they no longer want the likes of Braun and A-Rod to be protected by their union. They are pissed off and they should be.

I’ll offer those the next time a star gets suspended. Which you can guarantee will be soon.

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CELTICS: Memories Colored Green

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Sometime soon, the Boston Celtics will officially complete a blockbuster trade with the Brooklyn Nets, and will close the book on an era that began almost exactly six years earlier.

And what a story that book will tell.

The most-used name for this era–”The New Big 3”–must have been blasphemous for longtime Celtics fans, the ones who lived through the dominant 1980s era of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish.

During Bird’s career, the Celtics won three titles, five Eastern Conference titles and made it to three other conference championship series.

Since July 31, 2007, the Celtics won one title, two Eastern Conference titles and made it to the conference championship series one other time. So comparing the eras is difficult, and not really fair.

But what the Celtics will lose when they trade franchise icons Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett means more to me than anything else I’ve experienced as a basketball fan.

I could be bitter about that front office snake who lies through his teeth in public at almost every turn and is perhaps the most stone-cold businessman in the NBA.

I could be angry about trading Pierce and Garnett for draft picks, expiring deals and a washed-up, overpaid headcase.

I could be distraught about losing the best Celtics coach of my life, Doc Rivers, after he decided he didn’t want to honor his contract once the tide turned.

I could be upset about the other leg of the New Big 3 fleeing for our hated rivals and winning a title there.

I could be despondent that the franchise now appears to be in the hands of an equal-parts moody and talented point guard coming off a major injury.

I could be all of those things. But I’m not. You have to accept change. In life, in family, in work and in the teams you love. This was going to happen eventually.

I find myself grateful for the incredible times I experienced thanks to these guys, and the memories they provided. There were enough basketball memories in six years to last a lifetime.

***

Everything seemed lost in June 2007. The Celtics had endured their worst season in 10 years and the lottery came up snake-eyes. In a draft with two (at the time) consensus can’t-miss prospects, the Celtics were stuck at No. 5 despite having the league’s second-worst record.

One of the greatest what-ifs in team history has to be: “What if the Celtics ended up with Kevin Durant in the 2007 draft?” Undoubtedly, Danny Ainge would have built around youngsters Durant, Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins and Al Jefferson, and likely would have dealt Pierce to bring back a shooting guard, either young or old. Perhaps that team would have won more than one title.

But alas, the ping pong balls came up as they did, and Ainge went to work, first netting Ray Allen at the draft and later pulling the deal with his old teammate McHale to bring in Kevin Garnett. Seeing the joy on their faces at that initial press conference, I knew we were in for something special. And we were.

For the first time in my cognizant life, the Celtics became a force. Amidst a Red Sox championship run and a Patriots undefeated regular season, the men in green were stealing headlines and winning the hearts and minds of fans like me who’d waited all their lives to see it.

Sure, during this recent run, the Celtics gained a reputation of being hot-heads. Overconfident. Even bullies at times. But to me, it created a sense of fear in the opposition. A bravado not seen on Causeway Street in years. When it was working, it was something to behold. Who wanted to play the Celtics when the games really mattered?

Garnett was the heart and soul of the entire thing. I think ultimately it was always Pierce’s team given his long and meritorious service in Boston. He was the captain, after all.

But everything changed when Garnett set foot in the Hub. Suddenly it became about work, about strength, about team and about wanting nothing but crushing the opposition every night.

Not beating them. Crushing them.

Garnett is such a rarity in sports these days. He’s extremely guarded about his personal life. He rarely, if ever, grants sit-down interviews. You’ll never see a KG reality show. Hell, he’s the one athlete I guarantee you will never have a Twitter account.

Why? Because he’s singularly-driven. All the bullshit associated with being a major pro athlete in the 21st century is secondary to crushing your opponents at every turn for KG. That’s why he never engages in the extracurriculars. Tim Duncan is similarly wired, and when they go, it’ll be a sad day for the NBA.

On the court, Garnett engages in a healthy amount of chest-thumping bravado and he’s perfected the art of trash-talking. Sure, maybe I’m biased, but I always believed it to be genuine. As a fan of KG’s team, I loved it. He would get so hyped up, so crazed with intensity night in and night out, it was hard not to feel it myself.

I’m sure it impacted his teammates too. Although he did make one of them cry once. That we know of.

Pierce had such a turbulent run in his first decade here I always wondered if he was suited to be a team leader. But when Garnett arrived, he was allowed to be himself.

And what was Pierce? Just one of the best pure scorers the league has ever seen. Garnett helped gloss over some of Pierce’s defensive shortcomings so Pierce could do his thing.

To paraphrase Lester Freamon, all the pieces mattered. Allen came up with timely three-pointers and free throws, cementing his place in history as the best at both. Rondo admittedly still has a long way to go, and will probably never get there, but he does absolutely amazing things on the court. And Perk was consistently one of the best rim-protectors in the league while doing the dirty work along the boards.

We can’t forget the great supporting players in this drama. James Posey, Tony Allen, P.J. Brown, Eddie House, Big Baby Davis, Leon Powe, Brian Scalabrine, Rasheed Wallace, Nate Robinson, Avery Bradley, Brandon Bass and Mickael Pietrus among others played their roles in the success of this franchise.

But it doesn’t happen without that starting five, which never lost a playoff series when they were all playing together from beginning to end.

***

As much as I loved this era, there’ll always be the questions of what may have been. The ‘08-’09 team was marching to a repeat when KG went down with a mysterious knee injury, which wrecked their chances after they expended every ounce of their energy in an epic first round series against the young Bulls.

They played behind their capabilities the next year but turned it on in the playoffs. It was an incredible, exciting run, nearly as rewarding as the ‘08 run, until Game 7 in LA. With no Perkins, Sheed ran out of gas, Pau Gasol ate them up on the boards and they blew a double-digit second half lead.

It still stings. They should have won that damn title.

For ‘10-’11, the Celtics may have been on their way to another deep playoff run when Ainge decided to take a bigtime gamble and trade away Perkins for Jeff Green’s promise, which is still yet to develop. Ainge banked on healthy returns for the unrelated O’Neals (Shaq and Jermaine) to provide size in Perkins’ absence. It didn’t work.

In the weird, lockout shortened year that followed, they made their third and final deep run. The last great moment of the New Big 3 era came when Pierce hit this shot in Game 5 against Miami to seal the game. It was the old guard having a laugh at the expense of the punk upstarts. But that shot maybe was the spark  LeBron James needed. He eviscerated the Celtics in Game 6, and the Heat ran away with Game 7 late to get the last laugh.

This year? Well, Ainge decided to go for one last run, adding pieces like Jason Terry and Courtney Lee while hoping for bigger contributions from Green, Bradley and rookie Jared Sullinger. But Rondo blew out his knee, Sullinger blew out his back, Terry and Lee flatlined and Pierce finally appeared weary from all the mileage in an ultimately disappointing season.

The way this team would tend to coast in the regular season then turn it on come playoff time was tough to take as a fan. It directly hurt them in ‘10 and ‘12, when having home court in the playoffs may have made a difference.

The second-guesses, wouldas, couldas and shouldas aren’t as important as the tremendous basketball we saw watching this team over six years. There was, after all, the first year, when it all came together.

***

A few things stand out to me about that championship year. I’m not sure the expectation was a title right out of the gate. Real questions existed about Rivers’ wherewithal to coach a championship team and if they could get by with a young Rondo at point guard.

But they blew through the regular season, compiling a 66-16 record, their best since the legendary ‘85-’86 team was one game better.

I knew they were for real when they made a Texas trip for three games in March and dispatched each of the defending-champion Spurs and the playoff-bound Rockets and Mavericks in succession.

The Hawks were a much tougher than expected opponent in Round 1, taking the Celtics to the wall, but the better team prevailed.

Next was the classic series against Cleveland, where LeBron proved he once again wasn’t quite ready to be the best. That Game 7 showdown with Pierce was the stuff of legend. So were those improbable shots hit by Brown.

Beating the Pistons in six in the conference finals was something of an Eastern Conference torch-passing, with one memorable team surpassing another in a hard-fought contest.

You could not have drawn up a better dream matchup for the Finals. Celtics-Lakers. Finally, Pierce and Kobe Bryant could etch their names next to the past greats who’d duelled on the biggest stage in sport, with Wilt and Russell, West and Jones, Bird, McHale and Parish vs. Kareem, Magic and Worthy.

The Lakers were the favorites. Sure, the Celtics had a lot going for them, but Kobe was the best player in the series and the Celtics didn’t have enough offensive firepower to outlast them. That’s what conventional wisdom said.

Mid-way through Game 4, it looked like a lengthy series was afoot. Down 24 points, the Celtics looked beaten, downtrodden. But then they came alive and staged an astounding comeback, silencing the Lakers crowd and taking what proved to be an insurmountable series lead.

Game 6 in the Garden proved to be among the most satisfying experiences I’ve had as a sports fan, alongside the Red Sox drubbing the Yankees in Game 7 of the ‘04 ALCS and the Bruins shutting out the Canucks to win the ‘11 Stanley Cup.

And to believe the Celtics were only up by four at the end of the first quarter. From there the lead grew, and grew and grew…to the final whistle, when the scoreboard showed a 39-point victory for the men in green.

It wasn’t just a win. It was, in one fell swoop, an erasing of the myriad disappointments of the franchise dating back to the sudden, tragic death of Len Bias in 1986. For Pierce, Allen and Garnett, they were vanquishing their own career disappointments that night. For Celtics fans, it was a three-hour long exhale after a so many years of holding their breaths.

They dumped Gatorade on the coach. They yelled completely incomprehensible things on live TV. They sprayed each other in the eyes with alcohol. But most importantly, they raised the Larry O’Brien Trophy and a 17th championship banner for the city where they came together.

***

And that’s what I choose to remember as it all comes to an end.

It will be so hard next year to watch Pierce and Garnett, Pierce in particular, play in something other than green. To put this in context, Pierce was drafted by the Celtics around the time I was finishing up 5th grade. I was 12! And now he’s gone.

Right now this Celtics team, as currently composed, is too good to be a bottom feeder trying to get a top pick in a loaded ‘14 draft. Rondo has to go, Green too if Ainge can find a taker. They need to go all-in on this rebuild. Right now they’re only half-in.

I have confidence they’ll load up again, one way or another, under the cerebral, analytical Brad Stevens as head coach. By the time his six-year contract is up, I think there will be another run of success with new players. We just don’t know who they’ll be yet.

Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca are good owners. They won’t allow this franchise they’ve built up to wallow in the depths for too long. Reloading now is the right move.

It’s hard not to feel wistful about the end of this era. It’s hard to watch as a team goes into a rebuild. But what we’ve got are the memories of these past six years, when Boston was once again a great basketball city.

As a fan, what I’m left with are memories. And what memories they are.

LIST: My Favorite Songs of 2013 So Far

Each year on this date I bring you a list of my favorite songs of the year so far. This has been a terrific year for new music to this point, with great bands and artists releasing new work at a break-neck pace. These 10 songs have caught my attention the most of all. Here they are in alphabetical order by artist. Enjoy.

CYMBALS – “THE NATURAL WORLD”

The way we consume music in 2013 is a pretty cool thing. CYMBALS is a band I discovered through an indie music torrent and instantly fell in love with their world-beating synth-dance number released in January called “The Natural World.” They’re from London, aren’t famous at all, don’t have an album yet and you can find most of the music they’ve made through their Facebook page. But in this one song they’re able to conjure a sound all their own out of a genre considered by many to be played out at this point and leave an impression on a music fan half a world away. It’s exciting, danceable, enjoyable and memorable all at once. “We can hear the passing of time,” they sing, “And the sound of us in your mind.” You won’t want this sound out of your mind once you hear it.

FOALS – “BAD HABIT”

Foals has grown into one of the most reliable indie rock acts out there, drawing influence from hard rock, ambient and mathy styles alike. They’ve managed to cultivate a worldwide fanbase beyond their English homeland where they’re considered demi-gods. Holy Fire may wind up their most popular album, if not always their most consistent. The first four tracks on the February release are knockouts, culminating in the beauty of “Bad Habit.” It’s familiar territory for Yannis Philippakis and his cohorts as I’ve heard many comparisons to Total Life Forever’s “This Orient.” But “Bad Habit” goes further, taking Philippakis’ already-soaring voice to new heights of longing. And there’s so much to long for here: a wall of guitar sounds, complicated drumming patterns, mountains of arpeggios among the guitar licks. Philippakis wants his bad habit bad, and you can’t help but feel that longing with each listen.

HAIM – “FALLING”

If you haven’t heard of Haim yet, trust me, you will. Like CYMBALS, they don’t have an album to their credit, but the band comprised of three California sisters all aged 27 or younger has one of the most fully-formed, dramatic pop songs I’ve heard in years with “Falling.” This could be a hit in any era since the mid-’70s, and the one band I’ve heard them compared to most is Fleetwood Mac. If you’ve spent any length of time discussing music with me, you probably know I don’t care for Fleetwood Mac. While the similarities didn’t hit me at first, the way the Haim sisters sing is indeed consistent with the deep vocals of Christine McVie, whom I’ve always preferred to the other singer in that band. Haim would be lucky to have half the success of their ’70s predecessors. But with more songs like “Falling,” I wouldn’t rule it out.

JIMMY EAT WORLD – “APPRECIATION”

So, full disclosure for those who don’t know: Jimmy Eat World is one of few bands  I have difficulty writing about, or even thinking about, objectively. That’s because they’ve been my favorite band going on 11 years now. Every three years or so they come out with a new album and I love it without much condition. A few weeks ago they made my year by releasing Damage, their most stripped-down effort in recent history. The kick-off track, “Appreciation,” is my favorite of the 10 tracks on the album, at least right now, and represents so much of what I love about these four guys from Arizona. It contains their signature huge guitar riffs, power chord smashes, chime-like harmonic licks in the choruses, solid Zach Lind drumming and, of course, the heartfelt lyrics and vocals of Jim Adkins, the force that has kept Jimmy Eat World building, boxing and carrying on for two decades.

LOCAL NATIVES – “COLOMBIA”

I first got to know the music of California indie rockers Local Natives in 2010 when their debut Gorilla Manor and top track “Wide Eyes” consumed my summer. After their equally-tremendous follow-up Hummingbird was unleashed in January, I got to actually know the guys in Local Natives a little bit, spending time with them after their Boston show. They’re good dudes and their success continues to expand with more exposure. While Hummingbird doesn’t have a song as immediately memorable as “Wide Eyes,” it does have some great ones, none better than Kelcey Ayer’s gorgeous ballad “Colombia.” A streak of sadness permeates much of Hummingbird and it comes to a head on “Colombia,” a song Ayer wrote about losing his mother. His constant questioning (“Am I loving enough?”) and the ever-rising string arrangement give the song an extra emotional punch. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to write “Colombia.” The results are undeniably powerful.

MY BLOODY VALENTINE – “SHE FOUND NOW”

On a cold February Saturday night, My Bloody Valentine, the hugely influential Irish band responsible for 1991’s utterly perfect Loveless, awoke from a 22-year slumber and released m b v. What these shoegaze pioneers produced was worth the wait just for the first song on the record. “she found now” is the younger cousin of Loveless classic “Sometimes”  except “she found now” is more sparse, more ethereal, more breathless and airy and warm. So many of MBV’s hallmarks return: the soft/loud, light/heavy dynamics; unintelligible yet moving vocals from mastermind Kevin Shields and what could very well be dozens of guitar tracks making up the entirety of the music. Would it be surprising if this was one of the tracks Shields worked on for the better part of the last two decades? It’d be appropriate if it took so long, because I could certainly listen to it forever.

THE NATIONAL – “SEA OF LOVE”

While Jimmy Eat World is my favorite band, it’s key to make a distinction: I actually think the best band in the world right now is the National and I know I can’t be alone. They returned in May with Trouble Will Find Me, another terrific installment in their already rock-solid catalogue. It’s not easy to come up with one standout track, but I’m going with “Sea of Love,” which rocks incredibly hard and could possibly fit on their earlier albums like Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers and Alligator. (Confession: I had a very meta-moment recently where I listened to this song while driving through Harvard. I swear it wasn’t on purpose. Listen to the lyrics.) It’s one of few recent National songs that really chugs along, carried by the always-outstanding drumming of Bryan Devendorf and the shouts of Matt Berninger. It’s even got some call-and-response vocals from the Dessner twins and freakin’ harmonica! What more can you ask from the best band going?

PHOENIX – “TRYING TO BE COOL”

I considered writing this entire part in French, the native tongue of these indie rock superstars, but figured I’d spare you my rusty skills. Phoenix took a lengthy hiatus after 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix launched them into worldwide recognition but came back this year with Bankrupt!, a much different but still strong effort. More prevalent on this release are synthesizers and mechanized percussion, and that’s hugely evident on “Trying To Be Cool,” the centerpiece of Bankrupt! Considering how heavy the groove is here, I can’t imagine it takes much effort for Thomas Mars and his brethren to be cool as the title suggests. There’s a couple strong breakdowns, a very distinctive guitar sound and Mars’ deep croon keeping the mood set throughout. In short, c’est magnifique. OK, I guess I couldn’t help myself.

UNKNOWN MORTAL ORCHESTRA – “ONE AT A TIME”

The Ruban Nielson-led power trio Unknown Mortal Orchestra has come a long way in a short period of time, highlighting how rapidly the internet and word-of-mouth mediums can catapult a project to indie fame. From a truly unknown demo blowing up to the stage at Fallon under three years later, UMO have gained their notoriety on the back of Nielson’s badass, funky guitar style. And nowhere is that funk more present on their aptly-titled second album II than “One at a Time,” a short, energetic dynamo with a heavy groove and enough wah-wah guitar sounds to fill an entire album’s worth of material. That’s not taking anything away from the other elements of UMO, with inventive bass playing by Jake Portrait and a killer drum performance by the underrated Riley Geare. And those horns late in the action add a perfect touch to the throwback sensibility of “One at a Time.”

VAMPIRE WEEKEND – “HANNAH HUNT”

Speaking of bands that have come a long way, I submit for your consideration the case of Ezra Koenig and Rostam Batmanglij’s Vampire Weekend. The group many love to hate have kicked into another gear on this year’s Modern Vampires of the City. Gone are many of the treble-ish guitar licks and Afro-pop beats that sustained their signature sound. In their place are varied, more mature notes like those of Modern Vampire‘s show-stopping mid-album wonder “Hannah Hunt,” seemingly about the end of a relationship on a cross-country trip. There’s a shocking amount of restraint early as Koenig sings low amidst quiet bass and piano keys. Then about two-thirds through, drummer Chris Tomson bashes his snare and the song opens up, with Koenig doing something we’ve seldom heard to this point in his career. He yells. “If I can’t trust you then dammit Hannah / There’s no future, there’s no answer,” he belts in an explosion of emotion. This type of naked expression isn’t heard enough in the annals of popular indie these days.