By JIM LITKE, Associated Press
Of all the story lines threading their way across spring training, Ryan Braun's is the most delicate, not to mention the juiciest.
Braun is scheduled to report to Milwaukee Brewers camp Friday, coming off the best season of his career and still awaiting word on whether he'll be suspended for the first 50 games of this one. To say he's had an awkward offseason doesn't tell the half of it.
Braun learned about his positive test in October and, without breathing a word of it, was voted the National League MVP in November.
In December, he confirmed the positive test in response to an ESPN report, maintained his innocence and has done an admirable job of laying low ever since.
Last month alone, Braun filed his appeal, showed up at the baseball writers' dinner in New York to collect his MVP hardware and bowed out of the "Brewers On Deck" fan festival with little more than a peep. All that changes the day he reports to Maryvale Park in Phoenix.
Not surprising, Brewers manager Ron Roenicke was hoping for the best while at the same time bracing for an entirely different outcome.
"He's been doing good all winter through this," Roenicke said Monday. "He's excited to get going in spring training, and hopefully the outcome will be how we all want it.
"I know everybody thinks it's really hard but it's not something that I dwell on," the manager added a moment later. "I know it happens during the course of a season where you lose key players and you have to move on. It's part of baseball. Every year somebody goes down who you're not expecting, you miss them for months or you miss them for an entire season and you deal with it."
If it's any consolation to either man, there will be plenty of distractions available elsewhere. Around the same time as Braun shows up, 40-year-old, two-time offender Manny Ramirez is supposed to report to the A's camp some 10 miles away.
And the soap operas already unfolding on the other side of the country — one featuring new Boston manager Bobby Valentine and his truculent Red Sox team; the other pitting new Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen against his truculent superstar, Hanley Ramirez — are sure to siphon off their fair share of reporters.
Expect plenty of dispatches, too, heralding the American League West as the new center of power, now that Albert Pujols is an Angel and the Rangers handed over nearly $108 million for the right to talk to and then sign Yu Darvish, the latest Japanese import.
Bet Braun goes through the ringer first.
Nearly three dozen major leaguers have been suspended after testing positive since 2005 and not one has overturned the verdict on appeal.
All told, 11 MVPs from the past four decades have been linked to performance enhancers at one time or another during their careers, but only seven-time winner Barry Bonds has shown up at spring training the season after receiving one with a PED cloud hanging over his head.
And you probably remember how that went. One year, he scolded reporters for scaring his kids; another year he dismissed all the investigators from MLB looking into steroid use as Keystone cops.
"Let them investigate. Let them, they've been doing it this long," Bonds said." It doesn't weigh on me at all — at all. It's just you guys talking."
Braun is a different guy altogether. He says he's avoided giving his side of the story for fear of being a distraction, and his supporters hint that when the case becomes public, it will be different in both fact and substance than any one that's gone before it. Until then, they're asking everybody to withhold judgment.
In the meantime, it's left the field wide open to speculation. He's promised to address the matter thoroughly once the decision by baseball arbitrator Shyam Das is issued and then plans to be done with it.
Yet even if Braun is suspended, he can still train with the Brewers and play in Cactus League games, which opens him up to questions from fans who can be less deferential and a whole lot more insulting. Either way, it's likely to make for an interesting few weeks.
MLB likes to say the steroid era is effectively over because of its tightened-up drug testing program, but that's probably far from true, given the range of new drugs and masking substances that are constantly being developed to replace the old performance enhancers.
But the reaction to Braun, who came off as one of the good guys in baseball before the positive test, will tell us a lot about whether fans think the era is over, too. It means there's one less guy left to bust that would make most fans give a damn.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him on Twitter.com/JimLitke
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