The battle of truths between Ryan Braun and Major League Baseball produced a profoundly unsatisfactory result Thursday, even if Braun pastes on a smile and his agent giggles while wagging a finger at MLB.
The arbitrator's decision -- he overturned the 50-game suspension that Braun faced in the wake of testing positive for a banned performance-enhancing substance -- means only that Braun beat the system.
The basis of the Milwaukee outfielder's grievance was not to dispute the test results but to question the chain of custody for the urine sample. Independent arbitrator Shyam Das ruled the grievance was valid.
So Braun walks, in short, on a technicality.
But Braun, the reigning National League MVP, still carries with him the scent of distrust, still toils under a cloud of suspicion. The black eye from the positive test does not go away, vanishing under some new discovery. Even though Braun considers himself cleared, his good name restored, this outcome alone does not make him a clear winner.
What it does is make MLB a clear loser.
What it also does is compel every clean player to wonder just how secure MLB's drug-testing procedures are, and, moreover, whether they can really be successful.
Regarding the usage of banned substances baseball has, after enduring what is commonly referred to as ``the steroid era,'' made attempts to recast itself as the ultimate self-policing sport. It has rolled out new policies. It has suspended players, some of them marquee names like Manny Ramirez.
And if you listen to commissioner Bud Selig for a second or three, long enough to get past the stream of palaver about how profitable the game is, you'll hear him crow about drugs and testing. It's as if he were operating some new federal agency, with platoons of uncompromising operatives blasting into clubhouses swinging billy clubs and hauling away those who dare violate the policies of the game.
And, really, baseball has worked hard to project a new image, one in which nobody is above the law and the game is as clean as a surgeon's fingertips.
It was to be quite the tale of the comeback, one Selig and his fellow caretakers had hoped would chase away the stench of steroids and 25 years during which sluggers and pitchers cultivated cartoon-like physiques while producing outrageous statistics.
And when Braun, one of the game's most popular players, was taken down, well, wasn't it obvious there were no sacred cows?
What are we to think now? How are we to digest the reality of Braun getting nabbed, only to walk?
This is someone Selig often has cited as a shining example of all that is right with today's game, linked to a dirty sample, only to challenge the case and wiggle out of trouble.
Again, this was not a challenge of the test result but of whether one of baseball's cops violated procedure.
We don't know if Braun took anything or not; we may never know. He says he didn't, but the test says he did. He also says he had passed more than 50 previous tests. It's entirely conceivable he is completely innocent, that his sample was tainted sometime in the days between his urine hitting the cup and reaching the lab in October.
Braun, by filing the grievance and winning, won't lose any part of his salary, with a reported $145.5 million due to reach his bank account between 2012 and 2020. He now gets a crack at playing a full season, 162 games. It should make the Brewers, a playoff team in 2011, a contender once again.
And that's the biggest winner in this fine mess. The Brewers became an interesting team last season and, as long as Braun is in the heart of the order, they will continue to be dangerous.
With him, they stand to be a force. Without him for one-third of the season — and having lost fellow slugger Prince Fielder during free agency — Milwaukee surely had to anticipate scrambling during the dog days.
Instead, it's baseball scrambling before the first pitch of the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues. One MLB spokesman, Rob Manfred, described their reaction to the Braun ruling as ``vehement'' disagreement.
Well, of course. MLB, even in its attempt to wise up, still got played for the fool.