Ryan Braun still has much to prove

Thursday, Ryan Braun won his appeal after testing positive for a banned substance.

Friday, he declared in a televised news conference that “the truth prevailed” while strongly implying his urine sample had become contaminated by an incompetent or rogue collector.

Braun won’t be suspended by Major League Baseball. He’s eligible to play Opening Day. He can help the Milwaukee Brewers defend their division title. Under the circumstances, he triumphed.

But the ordeal isn’t over — and may not end anytime soon. Braun’s reputation will remain on trial this season and perhaps for the remainder of his career. His explanation Friday, while cogent, wasn’t complete enough to make the steroid cloud dissipate entirely.

Braun maintained his innocence, saying, “I truly believe in my heart — and I would bet my life — this substance never entered my body at any point.” Braun didn’t mention the “substance” by name, but reports say it was synthetic testosterone.

Braun was believable to his supporters but probably not convincing to skeptics. In the court of public opinion, his performance this year will be more powerful than his words — for or against. He must continue performing at an MVP level, or else critics will claim he was juicing after all. And he needs to do it without the feared Prince Fielder hitting behind him.

Braun arrived at the Brewers’ spring headquarters Friday morning — with a smile — and first addressed his teammates in a players-only meeting. (“With the outcome of it, I don’t think he needed to explain anything, but he wanted to,” manager Ron Roenicke said.) Then Braun faced the media in a news conference near home plate at Maryvale Baseball Park.

Braun’s explanation was rooted in the notion that his urine sample could have been tampered with before being shipped to a Montreal laboratory for analysis. Braun said he submitted the sample after the Brewers’ first playoff game on Saturday, Oct. 1, but the collector didn’t leave it at the FedEx location until the afternoon of Oct. 3 — some 44 hours later.

Braun questioned why the man — who lives in the Milwaukee area — didn’t drop off the sample immediately, as stipulated by baseball’s drug-testing program. Since baseball players are held to an absolute standard in drug testing — one positive test means a 50-game suspension — Braun believes all those involved must be held to similarly rigorous criteria.

“After we provide our samples, typically the only two people in the world who know whose sample it is are the donor and the collector,” Braun said. “In my case, there was a third person — the son of the collector, who just happened to be my chaperone on the day I was tested.”

Later, Braun added: “There were a lot of things we learned about the collector, about the collection process, about the way the entire thing worked that made us very concerned and very suspicious about what actually happened.”

Rob Manfred, baseball’s executive vice president for labor relations, shot back later Friday with a statement in which he said, in part, “The extremely experienced collector in Mr. Braun’s case acted in a professional and appropriate manner.” Manfred said the employee’s actions were consistent with the guidelines of the collection agency — which is jointly retained by MLB and the players’ union.

Manfred acknowledged there were inconsistencies between the sport’s drug policy and the instructions of the independent agency. MLB and the union will clarify them now that Braun’s legal team drew attention to the discrepancy.

Manfred added that neither Braun nor the players’ union argued in the grievance process “that his sample had been tampered with or produced any evidence of tampering.” In other words, Braun’s camp used different rhetoric before the arbitrator than during Friday’s news conference.

In the hearing, it was about the time it took the collector to submit the sample.

In public, it was about the reliability of a faceless employee.

“To raise it now is a PR move,” said Travis Tygart, chief executive officer of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which has consulted with MLB on its testing program. “If that’s really the case (that the collector deliberately tampered with the sample), then we ought to open up a criminal investigation. That’s felonious assault.”

Tygart said the seal on Braun’s sample was intact, and that it’s “impossible” for sample to be contaminated without the seal being broken. Braun made no mention of over-the-counter supplements during the news conference — even though Tygart says a spiked supplement (when used by an unwitting player) is far more likely to cause a positive test than a deliberately tainted urine sample.

Braun said Friday the players’ union informed him the test result was “three times higher than any number in the history of drug testing,” without specifically mentioning the substance or measurement. ESPN reported Braun’s testosterone/epitestosterone ratio was 20-to-1. If true, Tygart said that result is “not off the charts but consistent with use or ingestion of testosterone.”

In sum: Did Braun raise doubts about how baseball obtains and transports its samples? Yes. Did he make a plausible argument? Yes. Did he make an airtight case that he’s innocent? No.

It wasn’t a tidy conclusion. It is, however, the new reality for Braun and the Brewers.

Braun now must live up to the numbers that earned him the NL MVP last year, at a time when even the slightest regression could be interpreted as guilt. In that sense, Braun’s reputation — along with his team’s fate — will be at stake every time he steps to the plate.

No pressure, right?

“He has a unique ability to separate things — that’s what makes him so good,” Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy said. “He doesn’t let outside distractions come into his head and mess with him. He’s able to block everything out, no matter what’s going on. He’s one of the very few guys who can do that. That’s why he’s so good. I think he’ll be just fine.”

He may be. But Friday’s news conference raised as many questions as it answered. Beginning in April, bat will speak louder than words.