I'll never forget when I met Doug Glanville about a year ago. He was once a star outfielder for the Philadelphia Phillies, and came just two hits shy of beating the great Luis Gonzalez for the National League lead in 1999. I love baseball, and stood in awe as I spoke with one of the great athletes of our time.
Off the field, he was a hero, too. He attended the University of Pennsylvania, and served as a columnist for the New York Times and ESPN.com. Both in a Phillies uniform and in a tie, Mr. Glanville was my role model.
That's what sports is all about. It's about putting all sorts of people -- rich, poor, black, white, gay, straight, smart, and not so smart -- in the spotlight . It's about proving that you don't need a fancy degree or rich father to catapult yourself to fame -- you just need talent and a good attitude.
That unique power not only struck me, but it also has its place in history. Hank Aaron and Jackie Robinson crumbled racism and inspired millions of oppressed African Americans with their speed and power; Derek Jeter proved to millions of kids that you can succeed even when you are respectful and speak with good grammar.
Unfortunately, that priceless power is slowly degrading. Lockouts and positive drug tests are pushing sports away from the living rooms and kids' hearts where they belong, and into the labs and courtrooms.
There was no more disheartening display of this trend than the recent acquittal of Ryan Braun, the most recent National League MVP. After testing positive for an illegal substance, Braun appealed the decision and won. Not because there was contradicting evidence, but because the test was not delivered to a lab fast enough.
Braun was certainly within the limits of the law, and had every right to protest his decision. But questions still remain. The test sample was carefully sealed and preserved in a refrigerator, and there is virtually no evidence that it was tampered with.
Even so, it's questionable whether Braun's sample even could have been messed with. "You're not going to grow synthetic testosterone just because it sat in a refrigerator over the weekend," said Travis T. Tygart, the chief executive of the United States Anti-Doping Agency.
Ultimately, Braun got off on a technicality. That we know for sure. Braun may still be guilty, or he may not. We may never know. But the bottom line is this: we have lost sight of the true value of sports, and we risk losing it altogether.
After all, this is America, and it is good to see that we have such a strong devotion to justice and due process. The players' union fought hard to secure certain rights and ensure that no player would be subject to harsh, unfair treatment under the new drug-testing policies. Braun then brought in some of the best lawyers money can buy, and found his way out. You may disagree with it, but that's how justice works.
Then again, we aren't talking about murder or robbery -- we are talking about baseball. Braun and every other athlete are very lucky -- not only were they born with incredible talents, but they also happened to be born in a country that very much values and rewards those talents. I'm not saying those circumstances call for a lesser system of justice, but I am saying that there is a stronger sense of responsibility.
The players have a right to join together and ensure their protection. But they should not fight for such strict policies that would allow a player to be acquitted on such an insignificant technicality. They should work with Major League Baseball to ensure cheaters are punished, not fight to protect them. If Braun did, in fact, use an illegal substance, he should come forward about it immediately.
Due process is at the core of our strength as a nation. But when it comes to athletes who have such enormous responsibility and have been so greatly rewarded, it may not hurt to put values ahead of justice. If we ever want to see another Roberto Clemente or Hank Aaron, we better begin talking about this now.
Mr. Braun, it's all in your hands.
Follow Jess Coleman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@jesskcoleman