The conventional wisdom on Ryan Braun's overturned doping suspension is that it was a triumph of cautious proceduralism over substantive justice—a victory for protocol and a rare (and for my money not entirely unwelcome) defeat for the drug cops. Baseball's testing program caught a juicer, the thinking goes, but the testers were unacceptably sloppy about it. Over the weekend, however, I spoke with someone familiar with the arbitration process in general. He had another theory: Ryan Braun didn't get off because of the merits of his case; he got off because the arbitrator who cast the decisive vote in Braun's favor—the vote with which baseball "vehemently disagrees"—was thinking about his own future.
That arbitrator was Shyam Das. According to his resume, Das has been a labor arbitrator since 1977, and he has served as chairman of baseball's arbitration panel since 1999. In the latter capacity, he is paid by both Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association. According to the union's filings with the U.S. Department of Labor, Das clocked in on four occasions in 2010 and received $32,000 from the MLBPA; MLB pays him the same amount. It's good work, and for an arbitrator it can't hurt business to be known widely as the Solomon of baseball grievances. But Das serves at the will of both parties and can be fired at any moment by either side. That makes him a neutral third party, but not exactly independent.
Why is that significant? In recent big cases, Das has come down against the players. In 2010, he denied Shawn Chacon's grievance against the Astros (who had ripped up his contract after Chacon assaulted general manager Ed Wade), and last year he stoned Yorvit Torrealba's case against the Mets (who had backed out of a three-year, $14.4 million contract agreement when a physical raised concerns about the catcher's throwing shoulder). More importantly, Das has never ruled in favor of a player in a drug case—handing at least eight consecutive losses to the MLBPA. That record says less about Das than it does about baseball's testing system, which, while heavyhanded, at least has the virtue of being unambiguously heavyhanded. You expect the players to lose in a strict-liability regime.
The Braun grievance had perhaps the highest stakes of any that Das had worked. This was a reigning MVP in the prime of his playing years. We don't know Das's reasoning. But we do know that Braun's camp never disputed the results of the test, the 30-to-1 testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio. And we know that many weekend drug tests have been handled under the same slightly screwball protocol that Braun's was—i.e., the tester stashing the piss cup somewhere between the milk and the legumes until a FedEx/Kinkos opens up—and that no one had previously contested their legitimacy. (After getting the sample on Saturday, the collector went to FedEx on Monday afternoon. Braun's team most likely argued the case narrowly and purely on procedural grounds—that protocol had required the collector to ship the sample first thing Monday morning, not Monday afternoon. In his subsequent comments, Braun has strayed well beyond what his lawyers were arguing in his hearing, to the point of claiming that the sample went missing for a time. As far as we know, that's not true.)
By all appearances, this was an easy decision. The sample was sealed, and there was no evidence of any tampering. Nobody—not even Braun's camp—has offered any theory of how the testosterone got into it.
But put yourself in Das's position last week. If he rules against the players, the union will almost certainly fire him. But a ruling against the league? Maybe, with his history, MLB will give him a pass. And if it doesn't—and I'm guessing now that it won't—Das will at least leave the job having balanced out the scales a little. Nobody wants to hire an arbitrator who looks like a management stooge. If ever there were a case for Das to throw to the players, it was this one.
As I said, we don't know what was going through Das's mind, and we probably never will. But the arbitration process creates an incentive for an arbitrator to worry about his own record above all else, even the particulars of the case at hand. This isn't necessarily a bad thing—the process tilts toward fairness in a macro sense instead of justice in the micro. Braun escaped the latter not because the drug-punishment system failed Bud Selig, as some people have said. The arbitrator let Braun off because, in a sense, that system works too well.