By TOM WITHERS, Associated Press
PHOENIX (AP) — His voice self-assured, Ryan Braun stood a few feet from the batter's box and hit back at those who he feels tarnished his name and image.
The NL MVP insisted Friday that he always believed his 50-game suspension for a positive drug test would be overturned and that he would be able to suit up opening day along with Milwaukee teammates who never doubted him.
"We won," he said with conviction, "because the truth is on my side. The truth is always relevant, and at the end of the day, the truth prevailed."
Less than 24 hours after Braun's suspension was overturned by an arbitrator, a decision that irritated Major League Baseball officials, the star outfielder was back with the Brewers. With many of his teammates, all in full uniform, sitting in the stands of Maryvale Baseball Park, Braun confidently professed his innocence while questioning the system that allowed him to be suspended for failing a test he took following a playoff game on Oct. 1.
Now he is the first major league player to successfully challenge a drug-related penalty in a grievance, ending a four-month personal "nightmare."
"There were a lot of times where I wanted to come out and tell the entire story, attack everybody as I've been attacked as my name has been dragged through the mud as everything in my entire life has been called into question. I wanted to come out and tell the entire story, but at the end of the day I recognize what is best for the game of baseball," Braun said.
"I can't ever get that time in my life back."
Smartly dressed in a blue pullover and jeans, the 28-year-old outfielder walked slowly down the right-field line to a podium set up near home plate to address the lifting of his suspension. With about 30 reporters on hand and the sun beating down, Braun spent 13 minutes recapping an episode he called "the biggest challenge I have faced in my life."
Braun rarely looked at his notes while laying out a detailed timeline of events that led to his suspension. He was poised and prepared as he took the first steps in trying to repair his reputation.
Soon after thanking teammates and fans, Braun expressed disappointment that the confidentiality of his urine test was broken and information leaked. ESPN first reported his failed test for a high testosterone level in October. Braun, who batted .332 with 33 homers and 111 RBIs last year while leading the Brewers to the Central Division title, called some reports he did not single out "inaccurate, erroneous and completely fabricated."
Braun learned on Oct. 19 that his sample tested "three times" the level of any previous specimen, a fact that both startled and confused him. He said he began "a humanistic" defense by showing documentation he never gained a pound, his running times did not improve and he didn't get any stronger.
"I truly believe in my heart and I would bet my life that this substance never entered my body at any point," he said. Braun cited a possible "chain of custody" problem with his sample. He said the urine test he provided on Oct. 1, when the Brewers opened the playoffs, was not delivered to Federal Express until Oct. 3. Baseball's drug agreement calls for samples to be delivered to FedEx on the same day they are collected.
Braun did not rule out the chance that someone may have tampered with his sample.
"I honestly don't know what happened to it for that 44-hour period," he said. "There are a lot of different things that could have possibly happened. There are a lot of things that we heard about the collection process, the collector and some other people involved in the process that have been concerning to us. But as I've dealt with the situation, I know what it's like to be wrongly accused of something, so for me to wrongly accuse somebody wouldn't help."
Braun said he was a "victim" of a "fatally flawed" testing system and that there is an inherent presumed guilt within the process.
"As players, we're held to a standard of 100 percent perfection regarding the program, and everybody else associated with that program should be held to the same standard," he said. "We're a part of a process where you're 100 percent guilty until proven innocent. It's the opposite of the American judicial system.
"This is my livelihood. This is my integrity. This is my character. This is everything I have ever worked for in my life being called into question. We need to make sure we get it right. If you're going to be in a position where you're 100 percent guilty until innocent, you can't mess up."
Soon after Braun's news conference, MLB and the players' association each released statements defending the testing program. And the head of the World Anti-Doping Agency, David Howman, said that under his agency's rules, Braun still would have had to show that the departure from the rules was related to the test result.
"Our program is not 'fatally flawed,'" MLB executive vice president Rob Manfred said. "Changes will be made promptly to clarify the instructions provided to collectors regarding when samples should be delivered to FedEx based on the arbitrator's decision. Neither Mr. Braun nor the MLBPA contended in the grievance that his sample had been tampered with or produced any evidence of tampering."
Arbitrator Shyam Das threw out Braun's ban on Thursday. Das, who has been baseball's independent arbitrator since 2000, informed the sides of his decision but did not give them a written opinion. He has 30 days to do so.
Braun arrived at Milwaukee's facility Friday morning, walking through the complex's glass front doors to avoid reporters and camera crews waiting for him around back at the clubhouse entrance. Braun kissed his girlfriend, Larisa Fraser, before seeing his teammates for the first time this spring.
Braun first met with manager Ron Roenicke, who suggested that the star outfielder also meet privately with Milwaukee's players. The team meeting was "emotional," Braun said.
Moments before Braun publicly addressed his situation, Roenicke, general manager Doug Melvin and 16 players took seats behind the first-base dugout to show their support.
Outfielder Corey Hart said Braun's case should be a signal for baseball to fix the testing process.
"For a bad system to screw that up is frustrating," he said. "They'll have to move forward and try to fix it. That should be a work in progress. It didn't get in his system. It was a bad circumstance."
Braun's s suspension hung over the NL Central champion Brewers all winter, and Roenicke was relieved to know he'll have Braun in the middle of his lineup. Milwaukee lost slugger Prince Fielder to free agency and couldn't be afford to be without their other big bat for too long.
"We got him back," said second baseman Rickie Weeks. "That's all that matters."
And Braun's glad to be back. "To say that I'm excited to get started would be a significant understatement," the MVP said.
After 25 minutes on the field, Braun headed toward Milwaukee's clubhouse, stopping to accept a few hugs and handshakes along the way.
There's a new season ahead, and he can play.
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