How did MLB’s case against Braun fall apart?

I know what some of you are thinking:

Ryan Braun got off on a technicality. Baseball cut him a break. Braun should have been suspended 50 games for his positive drug test — period.

Here’s what I say:

• An independent arbitrator, appointed jointly by baseball and the players’ union, ruled that Braun should be cleared on at least one technicality and maybe more.

• Baseball indeed went after Braun, exhausting “all avenues in pursuit of the appropriate discipline,” according to executive vice-president Rob Manfred, who “vehemently” disagreed with the decision.

• Braun deserved to win his appeal when baseball, in the view of the independent arbitrator, failed to prove that his sample was properly obtained.

It’s called due process, folks. You might not like or even trust the result. But the rules were collectively bargained. And management and the players’ union jointly appointed the independent arbitrator, Shyam Das.

Don’t tell me that Braun got off because he is the National League MVP, because baseball is trying to protect his image, because he plays for commissioner Bud Selig’s former team.

Some people will form those perceptions, and there is nothing baseball can do about it. But the better questions concern how the sport’s case fell apart, how Braun became the first of 13 major leaguers to win an appeal.

The burden of proof no longer is on Braun, though some undoubtedly will view him skeptically for the rest of his career. No, the burden is on baseball to ensure that no player ever wins an appeal in such fashion again.

The chain-of-custody issue — the two-day delay between the collection of Braun’s sample and its delivery to FedEx — raised doubt for Das, sources said. So, perhaps, did the peculiar test result, which revealed that Braun’s testosterone level was three times higher than any previous player’s, according to one source.

Das’ exact thoughts are not yet known; he must issue a written decision within 30 days. Baseball contends that the delay in delivery did not affect the validity of Braun’s sample — the lab, upon receipt, deemed it appropriate for testing. But Braun’s side argued the procedure was flawed. The sample was taken on a Saturday and not sent until Monday afternoon, one source said.

Braun, then, could point to A) the bizarre result of the initial test; Braun said he has passed at least 25 tests in his career, including three in the past year and B) the collector who took his test home rather than simply drop it at FedEx for the next available delivery.

Baseball’s joint drug policy states, “Absent unusual circumstances, the specimens should be sent by FedEx to the laboratory on the same day they are collected.” The nearest FedEx store was still open, but no longer shipping that day, sources said.

Is it possible that Braun indeed tested positive? You bet it is. But one reason the players resisted drug testing for so long was a collective fear that their individual rights would get trampled. Their union, arguably the most powerful in America, exists to protect those rights. Braun had other lawyers, too — probably the best that money can buy, arguing his case.

Shortly after the decision was announced, I received a text from a prominent agent saying that many players were upset that Braun got off on a technicality. My question for those players — and any readers who share their sentiments — is this:

What if it was you?

What if you had never used performance-enhancing drugs, never been linked to them, never had your reputation questioned — and then suddenly, you felt wronged by a positive test?

You would fight. You would scream to the high heavens. You would say that the positive test was, “B.S.,” as Braun did from the outset, and then do everything possible to clear your name.

We will never know with absolute certainty that Braun or any other player is clean. But even if Braun is not innocent, that doesn’t mean he is guilty. Criminal prosecutors lose seemingly open-and-shut cases when investigators do not follow proper procedures. That’s how our legal system works.

In this case, we do know that the appeal process functioned as intended, except for the breach of confidentiality that allowed ESPN to report Braun’s initial positive test. The news would not have come out otherwise.

The lesson in all this is that baseball needs to tighten up. I find it difficult to believe that the leak to ESPN came from Braun’s camp; what would have been the motive? I also find it difficult to believe that the collection company handled Braun’s sample so sloppily; why give any player such an opening to challenge the result?

Crazy things can happen on appeal. In fact, this is hardly the first controversial decision by an independent arbitrator in the sport’s history.

In 1992, George Nicolau overturned a lifetime ban on Steve Howe after the pitcher’s seventh suspension for substance use.

In 2000, Das cut John Rocker’s 28-day suspension in half and reduced his fine from $20,000 to $500 after the reliever offended gays, minorities and foreigners.

You might think Das’ decision on Braun is a copout, and I can’t fault anyone who isn’t entirely convinced of Braun’s innocence.

I’ll just say this: Braun had every right to appeal, every right to make his case.

That’s how due process works.