The conflicting attitudes of MLB Network, ESPN on the Ryan Braun story

Andy Lyons

While ESPN won on journalism, MLB Network kept up the far more tolerable chatter.

Steroid fatigue is a real thing, I think, among baseball fans. We've been doing this -- with the hunting down and the testifying before Congress and the lying and eventual suspensions -- for nearly 10 years. Given that, it's hard to blame any fans who cannot work up any outrage about Ryan Braun's "admission" and suspension for what MLB called "violations of the Basic Agreement and its Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program" in a press release for their apathy.

I think that very real fatigue is where you might see some of the criticism of various media personalities in their reaction to the suspension. I believe it's really, really difficult for the average fan to be as disgusted and indignant as Buster Olney or Curt Schilling or Kevin Millar were on Monday night. And that's probably appropriate, because those three men (and various others) have a stake in the industry of baseball. We don't; we're just the followers who support it and enjoy it. There should be a disparity between how I feel about Ryan Braun and how Barry Larkin does.

That's a shame, though, because there is something in this story worth being angry about for the common fan: Ryan Braun's statement. You've all seen it 100 times on the news already, but let's post it here just for reference.

"As I have acknowledged in the past, I am not perfect. I realize now that I have made some mistakes. I am willing to accept the consequences of those actions. This situation has taken a toll on me and my entire family, and it has been a distraction to my teammates and the Brewers organization. I am very grateful for the support I have received from players, ownership and the fans in Milwaukee and around the country. Finally, I wish to apologize to anyone I may have disappointed - all of the baseball fans especially those in Milwaukee, the great Brewers organization, and my teammates. I am glad to have this matter behind me once and for all, and I cannot wait to get back to the game I love."

This statement, in which Braun never actually admits to being "not perfect" and never any actual wrongdoing, is an astonishing amount of workshopped, lawyered bullshit. He should be ashamed of himself for no other reason than allowing this statement to be his lone public representation in the matter. I have a hard time getting too aggravated over steroid use, but the least Braun could have done was meet fans and the media halfway, or at least face to face.

The statement, however, took a backseat in the media's coverage of the story to what was more or less its face value: Ryan Braun clearly took steroids, lied about it, and made a deal with MLB after investigators discovered his connection to Biogenesis. While Fox Sports 1 waits to get on the air, and NBC Sports Network's lone sports talk show (The Crossover with Michelle Beadle) was on hiatus, it largely left ESPN and MLB Network as the lone sources capable of sorting this whole thing out.

Both networks can come away with a measure of victory, but the MLB Network came out ahead of The Worldwide Leader overall in this one. The league-owned channel came out with some heavy hitters (Brian Kenny, slowly morphing into baseball's version of the fictional Newsroom character Will McAvoy, hosted) and talked about it in a manner that was reasonable and measured. It was often an uncomfortable discussion -- naturally, it had to be -- but never for the reason's sports television is often uncomfortable (i.e. yelling).

Kenny, Tom Verducci, John Hart, and Al Leiter went through not just the present, but the past of steroid use and investigation. Leiter's revelation that MLB's testing policy essentially ignored guys who didn't appear obvious users was stunning for a network owned by a league. Verducci brought journalistic credibility to the proceedings, and Hart brought an executive perspective. They also had an edge over ESPN in that they sent a reporter -- Jon Morosi -- to the ballpark. MLB Network has its foibles, and it still trips and falls over a lot of this "old school vs. new school" debate nonsense, but I felt like MLB Net was speaking to me like not only a baseball fan, but a reasonable adult.

Conversely, there was ESPN. Now, there are parts of this story that ESPN is to be commended on, particularly the work of reporter TJ Quinn. ESPN's journalistic credentials -- often so expertly showcased on the soon-to-be-dumped-to-ESPN2 Outside the Lines -- were on full display Monday. However, much of ESPN's faux-outrage, "Embrace Debate" worst was also there for all to see.

The network spent much of the night (which was already fully staffed due to a Yankees-Rangers broadcast) channeling what I can only imagine is the rage they assumed everyone had about it. Karl Ravech is as good as Kenny when it comes to hosting and presenting the facts clearly, but it was almost as if analyst Barry Larkin wasn't listening to him.

Larkin, a Hall of Famer in his third season at ESPN, took a somewhat similar position to the one I espoused earlier -- that Braun's statement was not satisfactory -- but went about it in the wrong way. He demanded "answers" and "specifics" seemingly dozens of times. He seemed completely baffled by the entire situation, and he sounded in over his head. Curt Schilling similarly was gasping for air, but spent much of his time railing against Braun for his misdeeds. One man repeatedly calling for specifics, and another just being angry, doesn't make for good or compelling television.

Then, perhaps worst of all, you had Ravech's one-on-one with ESPN reporter Buster Olney, who more or less spent his time on the air making a laundry list of people and entities that Braun needs to apologize to. Everyone from the Arizona Diamondbacks (whom Braun, it appears, performed against in the 2011 NLDS while on PEDs) to people in Milwaukee who had eaten at Braun's restaurant.

Olney was going for the kill and it was the wrong approach. To just yell about various sources that Ryan Braun should apologize to is an inappropriate response insofar as engaging the viewer. If you're just going to name things and people he should apologize to, you're going down an endless rabbit hole of slippery slope arguments. It's things like this that get ESPN compared, unfavorably, to the worst of cable television's political punditry.

A more reasoned opinion that expressed anger came from analyst Rick Sutcliffe. Sutcliffe, calling the Yankees-Rangers game for ESPN, was emotional, but never rose his voice to the point of shouting. He had spoken to Braun face-to-face in the offseason and had been flat-out lied to. He had every right to call Braun out for not being forthright, because he had been lied to on a personal level. He, perhaps as much as anyone Olney listed, deserved an apology.

There will be more of these postmortem broadcasts in the days to come. Alex Rodriguez's penalties are going to be a whole 'nother can of worms. I hope both networks will stick to the best of their instincts (MLB Network's approach from the studio and on-site analysts, mixed with ESPN's journalistic integrity) when that -- and supposedly more and more of these cases -- are revealed. Steroid fatigue is a real thing, but it doesn't mean that this subject can't be covered the right way.

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