Standing in a corner of Miller Park on Wednesday not far from slugger Ryan Braun’s regular perch in left field, little league player John Francis said he was disappointed in the Brewers’ leftfielder — not just for using performance-enhancing drugs but for lying about it.
Yet his attire belied his expressed dismay: Francis was still sporting a Braun T-shirt, as were many of his friends and others in the Menomonee Falls Little League who gathered Wednesday in the baseball stadium for an event sponsored by the National Play campaign, an initiative that seeks to educate young people about the importance of leading healthy, active lives and about the dangers of using steroids.
The irony of the timing of that message — two days after Braun accepted a season-ending suspension for violating the league’s drug program — was not lost on the event’s sponsors, or on Francis.
Acknowledging the name of the player on the back of his Brewers shirt, he clarified: “I hope he comes back. I’ll still support him when he comes back.”
His friend, fellow little leaguer Logan Hipps, chimed in, “Everyone makes mistakes.”
“He should come back,” Hipps said. “He should learn his consequences, but he should come back.”
The roughly 75 little leaguers were ushered through stations — pitching technique with Brewers pitcher John Axford, agility exercises and stretching on the baseball field, as well as a discussion about healthy eating habits in the Brewers’ dugout — before they went inside the stadium to hear from Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, the official who mandated Braun’s suspension after evidence of his drug use was uncovered during a probe into the former Biogenesis clinic in Miami.
After representatives of the Play Campaign and the Brewers publicized the event with Selig, the commissioner’s office barred the news media from attending his remarks to the little leaguers.
Afterward, Selig told reporters he was proud that his sport had the toughest drug testing program in the country and that the program would be “aggressively enforced.”
“Obviously, if you have a tough testing program you have to do that,” Selig said.
Selig declined to discuss the specifics of the Braun case.
He said the process of investigating performance enhancing drugs is working.
“People have been thorough,” Selig said. “I said last week that the process would be comprehensive and it would be thorough and it would be fair, and we have spent thousands of hours doing these things.”
Selig also said he appreciated “all the players from all over the big leagues who have been very complimentary because they know we’re doing this in a very thorough, fair and sensitive manner.”
Don Hooton of the Taylor Hooton Foundation — an organization dedicated to raising awareness about the dangers of steroid abuse founded in the wake of Taylor’s death from anabolic steroids when he was 17 — addressed the youth baseball players and their parents in the bleachers at the opening of the event, emphasizing the young age at which athletes are exposed to performance-enhancing drugs.
“Your kids are exposed,” he said. “We’re not just talking about Ryan Braun; we’re talking about 11/2 million kids between sixth and 12th grade who admitted to using anabolic steroids, according to a University of Minnesota study.”
In hindsight, he said, the signs were clear that his son was using steroids: Taylor put on 30 pounds in 90 days and began experiencing severe mood swings. At the time, he was playing on his high school baseball team in Plano, Texas. Six weeks later in July 2013, Hooton said, his son died.
Hooton said Braun’s suspension forces people to take the issue of steroid abuse seriously. When it’s “not on TV in relation to a celebrity,” he said, it’s hard to get people’s attention.
Axford, who spent the morning playing catch with the little league players in center field, said he learned early on to stay “in line” and to “play the game right” from his father, who was his coach when he was a kid.
Promoting healthy practices in athletics has taken on new importance in light of Monday’s news about his teammate, Axford said.
“You want to keep this game clean,” he said. “That’s part of MLB, that’s part of the players and that’s part of the agreements we have. That’s not only MLB’s stance, but it’s the players’ stance.”
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