Was there really a violation of chain of custody protocol in Ryan Braun’s PED case?

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Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun had his 50-game performance-enhancing drug suspension overturned Thursday after independent arbitrator Shyam Das ruled that there were legitimate chain of custody issues with the urine sample that eventually tested positive for elevated levels of synthetic testosterone.

After a thorough review of the joint drug agreement between Major League Baseball and its Players Association — a document that is conveniently available in PDF form on MLB.com — I’m not so sure that Das came to the right conclusion.

Braun’s argument during his January appeal in New York City was that the courier who collected his urine made a number of against-protocol moves after leaving the testing area. But were mistakes really made?

  • The courier did not immediately head to a FedEx Office after collecting Braun’s sample following an early-October game because it was late on a Saturday night and he figured the store would be closed. Braun (or, rather, his lawyers) argued in January that the courier’s action was against policy, but the MLB-MLBPA joint drug agreement states that “specimens cannot be placed in a FedEx Drop Box” and the five FedEx Office locations closest to Miller Park are all closed before 9 p.m. on Saturdays. In fact, the location closest to Miller Park — just 3.28 miles away — isn’t open at all on Saturdays.
  • Also, none of the FedEx Office locations in the Milwaukee area ship items out on Sundays. So instead of giving the sealed cup of urine to a FedEx Office employee at some point Sunday and hoping for proper handling, the courier followed the terms of the MLB-MLBPA joint drug agreement (see pages 37-39) by storing Braun’s urine sample in a secure refrigerator at his residence until Monday morning, when FedEx could finally get the shipment to the appropriate testing lab in Montreal.
  • The MLB-MLBPA joint drug agreement fully allows for temporary storage by couriers — people who are trained and paid to handle drug test samples, and do so as a profession — as long as the specimen can be “appropriately safeguarded,” kept in a “cool and secure location,” with “chain of custody intact.” A refrigerator in the private residence of a trained doping officer would seem to fit those guidelines.

So if the courier is allowed to temporarily store samples on his own, and he did so in his own residence, where exactly is the chain of custody issue? And why did Das rule to have the suspension overturned?

Furthermore, consider this series of tweets from Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports:

Passan also notes in his latest column that the courier testified in person at Braun’s January appeal hearing in Manhattan and assured those present that the urine sample was packaged into two tamper-resistant containers with security seals. Both seals were unbroken upon their arrival at the testing lab in Montreal.

Tommy La Stella talks about his refusal to report to the minors in 2016

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In late July of 2016, Cubs infielder Tommy La Stella was demoted to Triple-A. It wasn’t personal. It was a roster crunch situation and La Stella had options left so, despite the fact that he had been an effective player to that point of the season, it made sense to send him down.

La Stella didn’t take the demotion well. In fact he refused to report to Iowa and went home to New Jersey instead. It was not until August 17 that he finally reported and then only after prolonged discussions with the Cubs and the assurance that he’d be back in the majors once rosters opened up. Which he was, after spending just over a week down on the farm.

Such a move by a player would, normally speaking, make him persona non-grata. His teammates would shun him and the organization would, eventually, cut bait, with the press characterizing him as a me-first player as he walked out the door. That did not happen with La Stella, however, who remains with the Cubs two years later and, by all accounts, is a popular and important guy in the Cubs’ clubhouse, even if he’s not one of the team’s big stars.

Today Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic has an in-depth story about La Stella, what went down in 2016 and how he and the Cubs have proceeded since then. The story is subscription only, but the short version is that there was a lot of understanding and empathy on the part of the Cubs organization and their players about what was going on in La Stella’s head at the time and how everyone allowed everyone else the space to work through it.

I’m happy to read this story, because all too often we only hear about such incidents as they occur, with little followup. To the extent the story is told, most of the time its completely one-sided, with the player who acts out being treated like a bad seed with little if any explanation of his side of things. And, yes, there are always two sides to the story. Sometimes even more.

Kudos to Rosenthal for telling this story. Here’s hoping the next time a player is involved in a controversy that, in the moment, makes him appear to be a bad seed or have a bad attitude, we hear more about it then too.