People used to ask me (and sometimes still do) where I got my column ideas. We in the business know that’s no mystery. God always provides.
The last several weeks have been a case in point. Before February the only people who’d heard of Jeremy Lin were Harvard basketball fans and members of his immediate family, a group you could count on your fingers and toes. Now, just like that, everybody has.
And until last week the common wisdom had it that Ryan Braun, the Milwaukee Brewers’ strongboy, was going down for steroids use, the latest in a dreary line of baseballers to suffer that fate. But what do you know, he beat the rap! How’d he do that?
First things first, so let’s start with young Jeremy. His is a heart-warming tale if there ever was one, that of a modest-appearing, Chinese-American kid from California who suddenly—magically!—blossoms into an NBA star, kind of like the guy who turned into Spiderman. And in New York, no less. That’s astonishing in an era when kids are cataloged nationally for athletic ability starting at about age 10.
For my money, Lin’s emergence is only the second-best recent-year story of its sort, ranking behind that of the football quarterback Kurt Warner. Lin was a three-year starter at Harvard and All-Ivy twice, while Warner never cracked the lineup at far-more-obscure Northern Iowa U. until he was a senior. Further, Lin went right from college to the top pro level (albeit as an undrafted free agent), while Warner worked as a grocery-store stock clerk and labored for years in his sport’s basements before getting his break. That’s a quibble, though.
The more one reads up on Lin, the more sense his success makes. He was a good athlete from the start—an all-state guard as a high schooler in his populous state—and probably was passed over by the top-echelon basketball schools only because of the stereotypes that attach to his ethnicity. Although he was undrafted he made the Golden State Warriors’ roster out of school. He played little in SF last year but made the best of his Development League assignments there, and early this season with the New York Knicks. An inveterate and maybe obsessive gym rat and game-film watcher, he worked diligently to improve every facet of his game, all the while adding weight and strength. Withal, he was a player whose whole exceeded the sum of its parts, and when his prime-time opportunity came he was ready for it.
The other day on the radio I heard Frank Deford, the Sports Illustrated and NPR wiseman, say that Lin’s story makes the sad point that there are other benchwarmers in great number who will go to their graves undiscovered for lack of a chance to shine. I disagree. In this land athletics and the performing arts are about as thoroughly meritocratic as can be imagined, and talent will out. But not often, however, with the splash that Lin’s has.
Ryan Braun’s saga has been quite different from Lin’s. He’s been the can’t-miss kid who didn’t miss—the fifth choice overall in the 2005 Major League Baseball draft, National League rookie-of-the-year in 2007, the NL’s most-valuable player last season, and a reputed nice guy to boot. He appeared almost too good to be true, and when word leaked last fall that he’d flunked an MLB test for performance-enhancing drugs, it seemed that he was.
Braun appealed the ruling. Lo and behold he won, thanks to a lawyer who discovered a hole in the game’s handling of his client’s drug sample (it sat around a courier’s home for two days before being sent to the lab) and convinced an arbitrator that that alone was grounds for overturning a positive test result. No player had won such an appeal in a dozen previous cases in baseball.
Back on the field without penalty last week, Braun might have greeted his acquittal with a wink and a nod, but he went further, full-voicedly declaring his innocence of ever doping even though his appeal succeeded on purely technical ground. That’s what athletes say even after they’ve been nailed beyond doubt, so his denial rang hollow. But some aspects of his case give cause for doubt.
Braun flunks none of the smell tests for steroids use. He doesn’t have the perennially pissed-off personality of, say, Roger Clemens, and his listed weight of 210 pounds (he stands 6-foot-1) was the same last season as it was in his rookie year, meaning that he hasn’t turned into the Michelin Man the way Barry Bonds did. Braun has declared—so far without contradiction—that Brewers’ records show that his speed afoot and weight-room stats also haven’t changed much since he broke in, meaning either that he’s clean or that he’s always used, something that’s doubtful because he’d passed some two dozen official drug tests since 2005 before coming up short last fall.
Finally, Braun’s performance signature has been consistency, not the sudden surges one sees from drug users. With a .332 batting average, 33 home runs and 111 runs batted in, 2011 was his best year overall, but he hit more home runs in 2008 (37) and had more RBIs (114) in 2009, and on a per-game basis his power numbers last year weren’t as good as those of his first season. Contrast that with the stats of Luis Gonzalez, ex of the Arizona Diamondbacks, who averaged 15 home runs a year over a dozen Major League seasons before up and hitting 57 in 1998.
Now that was amazing—almost as amazing as Jeremy Lin’s debut. Hey, maybe it’s Lin who should be drug tested.
NOTE: You might check out ChicagoSideSports.com, which, as its title suggests, is a new web site devoted to athletic doings in the Windy City, where I’m from. Already up and running, and scheduled to go daily on April 1, it will feature bright sports writing from a number of sources, including me. Its editor is Jonathan Eig, an ex-Wall Street Journal reporter and the author of excellent biographies of Lou Gehrig and Jackie Robinson. You should check those out, too.