Milwaukee Brewers position players report to spring training on Friday. That means Ryan Braun will be forced to face the music. He'll continue to face it throughout 2014. Maybe he'll let it get to him.
Or maybe not.
Braun giving in to all the negative attention he'll be facing this season would be a heck of a story, one that would definitely make my fingers find the nearest keyboard. But this is Ryan Braun we're talking about. He has plenty of experience in dealing with negative attention. It's really all he's done recently.
It was in late 2011 that Braun failed a test for performance-enhancing drugs. Early in 2012, he escaped punishment on a technicality. On the eve of spring training that year, he acted totally innocent anyway. He then found himself involved in the Biogenesis scandal early in 2013 and was the first major leaguer to bite the dust when he was suspended for the rest of the season in July.
All PED suspensions are bad. But since Braun's had the context of his past troubles...Yeah, it was worse. And with Alex Rodriguez officially out of the picture, Braun is Public Enemy No. 1 heading into 2014. To that end, history is already repeating itself.
But history will be repeating itself again if Braun makes like it's 2012 and has an outstanding season (read: NL-high .987 OPS) in the face of all the negative buzz coming from the media and the fans. And while it won't be as easy this time around, Braun can do it.
In particular, he seems ready for the media. The knights of the keyboard (as Ted Williams called them) will be after him in 2014, but they'll have trouble getting through the suit of armor he's crafted.
Think back to the first step in Braun's 2014 comeback tour: the lengthy statement he released in August 2013 that, summed up, basically said, "I'm really sorry, you guys."
Not a bad way to start, but Albert Chen of Sports Illustrated pointed out that Braun left the big question unanswered. Though he pledged to give a "specific account" of what got him in trouble, Braun only said:
Here is what happened. During the latter part of the 2011 season, I was dealing with a nagging injury and I turned to products for a short period of time that I shouldn’t have used. The products were a cream and a lozenge which I was told could help expedite my rehabilitation...
That's it. Braun didn't specify what kind of injury he had. He didn't specify exactly which products he took, or how said products were administered. Nor did he mention Biogenesis or Anthony Bosch.
Chen therefore had good reason to warn that Braun had better be ready for "demands for him to go further in explaining himself." But here's the thing about that: Judging from his two meetings with the media since his suspension, he is.
The first meeting was in November at a charity function outside Miller Park. The very first question he was asked was why he lied about being involved with PEDs, and Braun let it bounce off his armor.
"Obviously I’ve been through a lot and as I expressed in my statement that I felt was pretty lengthy and specific, I got into a lot of details at that point. I’m not really going to go into any further details," he said, via Todd Rosiak of the Journal Sentinel.
When pressed for additional information later in the session: "Again, I'm not going to get into the specifics and continue to go backward. I'm moving forward and I'm not going to get into too many specifics on that."
When Braun appeared at the Brewers' "On Deck" function in late January, it was the same old refrain. Once again via Rosiak of the Journal Sentinel:
Again, I appreciate there is still interest in this stuff, but I addressed everything in November when I was here for the charity event, and I think I addressed it pretty specifically in the statement that we gave.
There's honesty, and then there's diplomacy. Braun has been using the latter, and not just when it comes to the specifics about his troublemaking. He has canned answers for other hot topics:
- On Dino Laurenzi Jr., the sample collector he threw under the bus two years ago: "We’ve made amends and I think we’re both excited to be able to move forward and put this behind us."
- On the possibility of being selected to another All-Star Game: "I really haven’t thought about that kind stuff. My goal is always to go and be the best player that I can be. I’m not motivated by individual accolades."
- On the Hall of Fame: "I haven't even thought that far ahead, and I think it's almost disrespectful to even discuss the Hall of Fame. I've only played in the league for less than seven years."
- On the 2011 MVP: "Like I said, I'm continuing to move forward. I think that's all I can do. I'm not going to go back and discuss the things that have happened in the past."
One thing Braun said in January is that "there's no blueprint" for how to deal with a situation like his. But if you take his canned answers with how he apologizes at seemingly every turn, it's clear that he and some helpers spent some time trying to devise some sort of blueprint while the spotlight was elsewhere after his suspension. He's come back with his guns loaded and, indeed, has stuck to them.
Factor in how Braun has always been confident and articulate in his dealings with the media, and, well, you know what a guy like that becomes when armed with some coaching?
An anti-headline. That's what.
If Braun can continue to be that, 2014 will be a breeze. If he can handle the media, goodness knows he should also be able to handle the fans.
Sure, there was some griping among Brewers fans when Braun was first suspended—Kevin Massoth of MLB.com spoke to fans who used sentiments like "very disappointing," "bad example" and "tarnished"—but the slugger pulled off a deft maneuver when he started calling season ticket holders last fall to apologize directly, and there wasn't much ill will when he confronted fans at the "On Deck" function in late January.
The Associated Press (via ESPN) reported that there was a heckler, but only one. Apart from that, Dennis Punzel of the Wisconsin State Journal noted that Braun's autograph session "attracted by far the largest crowd" and that the fans were largely positive.
“I was talking to people in line, and people all seemed to be happy he’s back. And you look at the amount of people in line for him, that should make him feel good," said one fan.
File this under: "Well, shoot, what did you expect?"
Brewers fans had every right to feel betrayed when Braun's suspension came through, but mass forgiveness was inevitable. Maybe some will support him begrudgingly, but the Brewers fans supporting him will far outnumber the Brewers fans shunning him. Surely many of the shunners will come around once Braun starts producing.
Ah, but will Braun produce in 2014? He wasn't so great in 2013, after all, and maybe that's because he was off the juice!
No hitter likes having a bad neck, and we've seen injuries in the hand and wrist areas be particularly damaging for power hitters. Maybe that was the case with Braun, as power was really the only area where he wasn't himself at the plate last year:
|Ryan Braun's Numbers: Career vs. 2013|
In theory, a return to good health in 2014 will help fix this problem. It certainly doesn't hurt that Miller Park is one of the most power-friendly ballparks in baseball.
Ah yes, but what about when Braun plays on the road? The environment will be a lot tougher, and not just because of the ballparks. The fans will be on him too!
Yeah, Braun knows. And as you'd expect, he doesn't care.
"I really don’t think about stuff like that very much," he said in January. "I try not to focus on the things that are out of my control. With that being said I’ve already experienced this already in the past a couple times. Dealt with it in 2012, dealt with it for the majority of 2013, so I think I have an idea of what I’m getting myself into."
Braun is right. And if you go look at his splits (via FanGraphs) during his healthy season in 2012, you'll get the sense that he wasn't exactly intimidated by the general nastiness he encountered on the road:
|Ryan Braun's 2012 Splits|
Braun had a .396 Weighted On-Base Average on the road in 2012. That ranked sixth in MLB, making him one of the elite road warriors in the league that year. Not exactly the mark of a guy who can't handle boos.
Again, it would be a heck of a story if Braun folded under the weight of his critics in 2014. You can picture him there at the plate, bat quaking in his hands and choking back the tears as the boos come cascading down. And there, up in the press box, writers rubbing their palms together and saying, "Good, good."
But nah. Braun will have Brewers fans on his side, and he ought to be ready for everyone else.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.