2012 Ryan Braun vs. 2011 Ryan Braun

This could have been the most important weekend of Ryan Braun's entire baseball career.

In a different world, in a what-if parallel universe, this could have been the weekend (starting Thursday night, actually) when Braun finally was allowed to play baseball again, after the expiration of his 50-game suspension for You-Know-What.
Imagine that.

OK, now stop imagining that, because that isn't how it all worked out, of course. That isn't the world, that isn't the universe, that Braun has spent his 2012 season playing baseball in.

Instead, he's been out there from Day One -- Achilles tendons permitting. And it's been fascinating to watch him.

His suspension may have been overturned, his positive test erased from his permanent record. But if the reviews that come wafting down on him from the left-field seats mean anything, America doesn't believe his pleas of innocence.

I understand the reasons for that. I'm sure he does, too. But here's a question for all of us to ponder:

If he's so guilty, if the recipe for his MVP season was fueled by artificial ingredients, wouldn't we be seeing the evidence on the field, here in his post-positive-test life?

That would be a logical conclusion. Wouldn't it?

Well, it sure is interesting, then, that the Braun of 2012 has been a virtually identical player to the Braun of 2011. Take a look at his first 49 games in each of the last two seasons:

First 49 games:

If there's a different player in there this year than last, I haven't detected it. And I'm not alone.

"I haven't seen anything about this guy change," one NL scout said. "I don't see any difference in his swing. I don't see any difference in the effort in his swing. I don't see any difference in his speed. I don't see any difference in his gait. I don't see any difference in his size. I saw him as a 20-year-old, as a 22-year-old and now. And I don't see anything different."

Now I know what lots of you are thinking: He's taking something undetectable.

OK, maybe he is. But it sure was detectable last October, right? So did he take something undetectable all of last season, then switch to something more detectable (reportedly, a synthetic testosterone) in the postseason? You've got me.

The point of this is, none of us have any way of knowing all the details of Braun's case. We know he's been screaming, from the beginning, that he's innocent. We know a bunch of his friends have said stuff to the effect that "If you knew the real story, you'd believe him."

But we also know the powers that be at Major League Baseball believe none of it, that they fired their longtime arbitrator, Shyam Das, over his ruling on this affair, and that they're infuriated that Braun has been allowed to play baseball these last two months.

So you're free to think whatever you want to think about Ryan Braun. This is America. And that's the American way.

But whatever happened or didn't happen last year after his test came back positive, the facts of 2012 are there for all of us to see. And those facts say this is exactly the same player now as the guy we were watching before that test.

And I'm betting that's a development most people never saw coming.

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