Milwaukee Brewers star Ryan Braun is a cheater. After being caught in the Biogenesis scandal last year, the former National League MVP admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs and accepted a season-ending suspension.
Yet in Monday's season-opener, Brewers fans gave Braun a standing ovation in his first plate appearance since coming clean. Predictably, some took umbrage with the applause:
Standing ovation for Ryan Braun in Milwaukee is about the least surprising thing on Opening Day. Great message. Lie and we love you anyway.
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) March 31, 2014
I had a feeling #Brewers fans were idiots, but a standing ovation for Lyin' Ryan Braun is a whole new level of stupidity.
— Sarah Spain (@SarahSpain) March 31, 2014
Are Brewers fans really a bunch of cheater-loving dummies? Of course not. There are a couple of problems with this kind of moral pooh-poohing, which manages to run right over some basic notions of fandom and justice.
There is absolutely no reason to be surprised Brewers fans would cheer for their hometown hero, even though he cheated and lied. Fandom is a form of tribalism, which means loyalty lies with the team, not the players. Transgressions by someone on the team can be forgiven, while transgressions by someone against the team cannot. It's why Cavaliers fans turned on LeBron James when he ditched them for Miami, and why Red Sox fans still hate Roger Clemens.
As Jerry Seinfeld astutely joked, fans are in the end "rooting for the clothes."
There's a lot of precedent for this. San Francisco swooned over Barry Bonds as he chased the home run record; the Cardinals welcomed Mark McGwire back despite his tainted past; Dodgers fans cheered Manny Ramirez when he returned from a PED suspension. Heck, the Yankees faithful gave MLB's greatest villain and centaur enthusiast Alex Rodriguez a big ol' bear hug even as he was facing an unprecedented suspension for being a lying, PED-using jerk.
So yes, it's okay for fans to forgive their own guys. And that forgiveness should extend to other players as well. To do otherwise is not only hypocritical, but unjust.
A basic premise underlying our criminal justice system is that people be punished in accordance with their crime, no more, no less. They shouldn't be turned into permanent outcasts incapable of redemption. There are gradations of criminality, of course, and some crimes are so horrific their perpetrators don't warrant forgiveness. But no one would suggest that a low-level criminal be blacklisted from employment and vilified for life for a single offense.
In the case of Braun and others, the offense is incredibly mild: using a banned substance to cheat at a game. And the cheaters have already been punished under the terms of a joint drug agreement between the league and players. In other words, they've done their time. To say they should be ostracized everywhere they go and booed by even their own team's fans is ridiculous.
The Cardinals' Matt Holliday nailed it this offseason when he welcomed new teammate Jhonny Peralta — who was suspended last year for using PEDs — despite his personal objections to steroid use. "I am against PEDs and always will be,'' he said, "But I also am a forgiving person and he served his suspension. That's the rules of the game."
I get it. To some, baseball is a sacred sport, and affronts to the game or its hallowed record books are damnable offenses.
But there is a distinct difference between forgiving and forgetting, and you can do one without also doing the other. Players can and should be forgiven for screwing up, but their accomplishments will always come with an asterisk. And perhaps that's punishment enough.