On Baseball: Brewers’ Ryan Braun Still Holds a Special Place in Milwaukee’s Heart

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MILWAUKEE — Ryan Braun woke up energized before the opener of the Milwaukee Brewers’ final road series in the regular season. He was in St. Louis, home of the Cardinals, the team that always seems to block the Brewers from glory. The Brewers, at the time, held the top wild-card spot in the National League. But the Cardinals could overtake them with a sweep.

Braun would not let that happen. That afternoon, he strode into the visitors’ clubhouse at Busch Stadium and told his teammates he was ready to dominate — a bold statement for a player hitting .248 with one home run since mid-August. If you had not known any better, you might have gently teased Braun that very day during batting practice, while asking for insights on his teammate Christian Yelich.

Did Yelich remind Braun at all of his younger days, when he used to be the headlining superstar?

“By used to, do you now imply that I can’t do those things anymore?” countered Braun, who turns 35 in November. “I can still run. And look at all the Statcast numbers, too — I’ve swung the bat as well this year as any year. I’ve been unlucky, but I’ve swung the bat really well.”

Sure enough, the advanced metrics showed that Braun was right. He finished the regular season with a 23.1 percent line drive rate, the highest of his career. His hard contact rate, 43 percent, was his best mark since his rookie season in 2007. Yet his batting average on balls in play, .274, was his lowest ever — unlucky, indeed.

Braun’s prediction came true. He homered in his first at-bat against the Cardinals, raising his arm in triumph as he left the batter’s box. He slammed four more home runs across the next three games, and by then the Brewers had clinched a spot in the playoffs — a thrilling run that ended with a 5-1 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Saturday in Game 7 of the N.L. Championship Series at Miller Park.

It was the first Game 7 for the Brewers since 1982, when they lost to the Cardinals in their only World Series appearance. The Brewers lost again to St. Louis, in six games, in the 2011 N.L.C.S. That was their last time in the playoffs before this month.

Braun was hitting .316 in the postseason after going 2 for 4 with a double in Friday’s 7-2 victory in Game 6. It was a joyous night for him all around. Before the first pitch, his 4-year-old daughter, Celine, gave the “Play ball!” cry on the scoreboard. He scored from first on a double in the first inning — I can still run — and slid across the plate with a flourish, holding both hands above his head like a revival preacher. Later, Braun said it “means the world” to play in Game 7.

“Ryan is enjoying this as much as anybody on our team,” said Craig Counsell, the Brewers’ manager since 2015. “He’s spent his whole career here. I think at one point, probably when I took the job, I don’t know if he thought his career would end in any more playoff games.”

Braun would prefer to emphasize that type of adversity as the nadir of his career — not his 65-game drug suspension in 2013, the culmination of a long and seamy saga of cheating compounded by lies. Asked after Game 6 if he had ever doubted, at his low point in 2013, that he could have a night and an opportunity like this, Braun pivoted.

“I think, in 2016, when I was close to getting traded a couple of times, the conversation with David Stearns and Mark Attanasio was whether we would get back to a point where we were contending while I was here during the duration of my contract,” Braun said, referring to the Brewers’ general manager and to the owner.

From left, Braun, Cain and Christian Yelich celebrated after beating the Dodgers on Friday in Game 6 to force a Game 7 on Saturday night.CreditStacy Revere/Getty Images

“I obviously didn’t know that would happen. For any team that we’ve seen go through a rebuild phase, typically it takes longer than it took for us to get back to this position. There were certainly times when I questioned it.”

Attanasio, the owner, signed Braun to a five-year, $105 million contract extension in April 2011, the season in which Braun would win the N.L. Most Valuable Player Award — and test positive for elevated testosterone. His initial 50-game suspension was overturned after an arbitrator agreed with Braun’s vigorous defense that blamed the specimen collector.

A subsequent Major League Baseball investigation led to the 2013 suspension, which cost Braun about $3 million in salary. Attanasio essentially passed those savings back to the fans, giving everyone who attended a Brewers game in August 2013 a $10 voucher for food, merchandise or future tickets.

“When so many people around the country doubted Ryan’s story, the Milwaukee community stood behind him,” Attanasio said at the time. “The people who showed the most trust feel the most betrayed. As he attempts to work through all this, it’s going to take some time.”

By the time Braun returned the next season, though, the fans had moved on. They greeted Braun with a standing ovation on opening day in 2014, and have shown forgiveness to other Brewers for off-field transgressions.

They cheered this summer for the star reliever Josh Hader, after he apologized for the racist and homophobic tweets he wrote while in high school, which surfaced during the All-Star Game. The fans also adore reliever Jeremy Jeffress, who served a 100-game suspension in the minors after twice testing positive for marijuana use. Jeffress was also charged with drunken driving in 2016, when he played for the Texas Rangers, and the fans embraced him when the Brewers brought him back the next year.

“These people are not fake here; they know what’s going on,” Jeffress said. “If you admit what’s wrong or what happened, and then continue to be the same person you are — that’s what I’ve done. All the stuff that I’ve been through, I’m still the same guy. When I came back from Texas, they knew about the D.U.I. out there, but they knew what type of person I was. So for the fans to understand that, and understand each and every person in this clubhouse, you can’t ask for anywhere better to play.”

Milwaukee is the majors’ smallest market, yet the fans consistently flock to festive Miller Park, where the retractable roof mitigates the often-harsh weather. The Brewers have reached the playoffs just three times since 1982, yet attendance has topped 2.5 million 11 times in Braun’s 12 seasons.

Braun is from Southern California and went to college at the University of Miami. In signing the long-term contract, he chose to forgo the possibility of free agency until age 37, essentially committing his career to Milwaukee. He said then that it would mean more to win one championship here than multiple titles elsewhere, a charming sentiment that sounded sincere.

After the cheers had faded on Friday — after the game that brought him closer to the World Series than ever before — Braun was willing, at least, to reflect on that.

“It’s about the amount of time I’ve spent here, everything I’ve been through in my career playing here,” Braun said. “The relationships I have, not just with the players — the coaches, the strength coaches, the ushers, the security guards. I have such a special relationship with the fans, the whole community here, and just understanding how much that would mean to all of them is the thing that makes me most excited.”

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