The 50 home run seasons are down, the moonshots into the upper deck are less common, but if the allegations against Ryan Braun are true, Major League Baseball may not be as clean as once thought.

When ESPN reported Saturday afternoon that the Brewers star – one of the most respected and talented players in the game – tested positive for performance enhancing drugs, it came as a shock to most, myself included. With strict testing in place and a limited number of major leaguers ringing up positive, it appeared that the juicing that once dominated the sport in the late 1990s and early 2000s was now the practice of only a select few.

Braun is fighting to clear his name through arbitration, and according to an ESPN story, the Milwaukee leftfielder’s representatives say there are special circumstances regarding the increased levels of testosterone that they are confident will allow him to successfully prove the test wrong. The same story says Braun asked for another test after finding out in late October he failed a test, and he passed the second time around, strengthening his case.

However, if the surrounding circumstances fail to explain the positive test, Braun’s elevated testosterone levels are not simply a brutal disappointment to Brewers fans, but rather a major setback for professional baseball. This is about much more than a potential 50-game suspension for the 28-year-old slugger and four-time All-Star that could limit Milwaukee’s playoff chances in 2012.

MLB Commissioner Bud Selig wasn’t the only one who felt his heart drop when the news broke, as baseball fans around the country realized there was yet another pothole in the road to returning baseball to it’s fabled, drug-free past. Braun was one of the MLB’s shining young stars, a man who looked to be everything a professional team builds around – strong character, immense talent, commitment to the franchise – but if true, this is a disheartening sign for baseball.

When Milwaukee’s front office handed Braun a massive five-year, $105 million contract extension, they thought they had just hit the jackpot. After all, they had just guaranteed the team’s most popular and productive player would call Miller Park his home for the next nine years.

It’s certainly true that baseball hasn’t been entirely clean over the last two or three seasons. Most notably, former big hitter Manny Ramirez tested positive for the second time in his career in April, but he was the only active MLB player suspended for performance enhancers in the 2011 season. The 18 other players suspended under the league’s latest performance-enhancing drug policy, adopted in 2008, include a list of mostly unfamiliar names, with Ramirez being the only one with stature comparable to Braun’s.

This was a season in which Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista led the league with a reasonable 43 home runs and Dodgers centerfielder Matt Kemp led in runs batted in with 126, statistics that pale in comparison to those of just five years ago. With relatively modest numbers, there was no way the league’s biggest names were relying on human growth hormone or steroids for the extra power.

Only one player – Bautista last season – has broken the 50 home run plane over the last four seasons, and professional baseball’s image has increasingly become one of a pitcher-friendly league. As these hitting statistics slide, professional baseball has seen a resurgence of great pitching statistics, a trend capped by Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander taking home the American League MVP, the first pitcher to win the award since 1992.

These stats, along with much more stringent testing, had analysts and fans alike believing that Selig and company had cleaned up their game. The faces of the MLB, including a lengthy roster of stars like Albert Pujols, Ryan Howard and Braun, among others, were putting up impressive numbers thanks to a fair combination of hard work and talent.

A golden age for professional baseball was developing, one similar to that of the late 1990s, except this time without the eye-popping physiques and locker room syringes. Just as baseball was beginning to turn its image around and show it could attract fans without a regularly rotating single season home run record, the unthinkable happened.

Braun’s positive test brings up another inevitable question. If one of MLB’s golden boys is using PEDs, who else is relying on more than just natural talent and strength to put up impressive numbers?

It may not be fair, it may not be justified, but it’s the unavoidable product of the National League MVP finding himself embroiled in allegations involving performance-enhancing drugs. For the sake of the game and baseball junkies around the country, let’s hope that this is an isolated case, and that positive tests don’t await other stars who were helping clean up the league’s image.

I honestly hope – and assume most baseball fans feel the same way – that Braun’s positive test truly is just an anomaly as he says, that this is nothing more than a serious misunderstanding. It will likely take several weeks to figure out the validity of the claims and if the rightfielder has a legitimate excuse for increased levels of testosterone, and until then, I’ll be pleading that the steroid era has not made an unwelcomed return.

It’s not fair to assume Braun is guilty until all the facts come out, and until then – for the sake of Brewers fans and everyone else – let’s hope that he’s telling the truth.

Ian is a junior majoring in journalism. Do you agree that a positive test from Braun could wreck the league’s drug-free image? Or is the outfielder simply the victim of a misunderstanding? Let him know by emailing imccue@badgerherald.com or tweet @imccue.