MILWAUKEE — For Ryan Braun, winning an appeal of a 50-game suspension was only his first step toward redemption.
Now the Milwaukee Brewers slugger is out to show fans that he can shake off what became a tumultuous offseason after a failed drug test that tarnished his reputation, and regain the form that made him the NL’s MVP last season.
Speaking Friday before the Brewers’ opener against the St. Louis Cardinals, Braun said he’s looking forward to the chance to prove he can handle what transpired.
“Of course,” Braun said. “It’s not so much about proving anybody wrong as it much as it is proving the people who all believed in me and supported me right. So I’m definitely excited. Very motivated.”
Fans gave Braun a rousing ovation in pregame introductions and were even louder during his first few trips to the plate, cheering and chanting “M-V-P!”
After helping power the Brewers to the NL championship series and winning the league’s MVP award, Braun’s achievements came under suspicion when ESPN reported that he failed a drug test with a high testosterone level.
Braun went on to win his appeal and avoid a 50-game suspension. Then he made his case to the fans upon his arrival in spring training, saying that chain of custody issues with his urine sample cast doubt on the validity of the test.
That didn’t end the controversy; baseball officials were unhappy with the arbitrator’s decision, and a urine sample collector issued a statement saying he followed proper protocols and that there was no evidence of tampering. Braun also has hinted that there’s more to the story than he’s letting on, refusing to share those details.
And Braun struggled for much of spring training.
But with the regular season set to start, Brewers manager Ron Roenicke likes what he has seen and heard from Braun.
“Right now, he’s in a really good place,” Roenicke said. “First couple weeks of spring? A little difficult. He’s back to the guy he was, I saw last year. He’s very confident. He knows he had a tough offseason mentally, and I think he’s in a place right now where his focus is on having another repeat year and even better — which is hard to believe, but that’s the way he talks. And it’s hard to say that he wouldn’t.”
But Roenicke acknowledged that Braun is likely to face adversity from opposing fans when he goes on the road.
“I think there’ll be challenges,” Roenicke said. “I think it’s just not going to be comfortable going to some different places. But I don’t think with his personality, I don’t think that’s going to affect the way that he goes about his job. It may not be quite as fun and relaxing as he usually is and when he goes to different cities and opposing (fans) that for whatever reason are going to get on him. What I’ve seen, especially the last couple weeks, there’s not any effects of what I thought … could be there mentally with him. And so he really is in a good place now.”
Braun has the support of Brewers principal owner Mark Attanasio.
“I’ll be giving him a standing ovation,” Attanasio said before the game. “I hope others will stand and cheer for him. It’s obviously huge for our club. Ryan does so many things well. Obviously, we really didn’t want to talk about it, but it would have been a big loss to have him out for 50 games.”
Now that he’s able to play a full season, Braun thinks the Brewers can contend again.
Even without Prince Fielder, who signed a free agent deal with Detroit in the offseason, Braun said this year’s team is the best he has been a part of.
“As an opposing pitcher, when you look at a lineup and you see the name Prince Fielder, it’s intimidating,” Braun said. “You know that’s a guy that can hit a home run at any point, that alters the way you approach the hitters before him and the hitters after him. So you don’t replace him with a single guy, but I think collectively, as a unit, we’re honestly better than we were last year.”