Braun ready for another fresh start
In the two separate sessions in which Ryan Braun met the media in Milwaukee since he was suspended in late July, he fielded many of the same questions about when, why and how he was connected to Biogenesis, as well as many of the same queries about the reaction he expects to receive from fans here and on the road.
The answers to all of those questions were uniform, if not somewhat evasive, but it was interesting that Braun had to remind everyone that he's played under this type of cloud before.
And he did it well.
After the overturned suspension in the winter of 2011 and the now-infamous spring training rant, Braun arguably put up a better season than his MVP-winning campaign the year before.
Now, some will point to last year's underwhelming performance through 61 games before his suspension – without question the worst output of his seven-year career – as a "real" predictor for how 2014 will go for Braun.
I'm not sure about that. He was placed on the disabled list in early June with a thumb injury, and wasn't activated until a month later. This came after he suffered a neck injury right at the start of the season that forced him to miss games.
It's fair to wonder if Braun's body will hold up, or why it's breaking down in his late 20s. He's had his share of nagging injuries throughout his career, and his statement explaining why he used performance enhancing drugs said he did so to overcome one late in 2011.
But he said he used his "extended offseason" to get healthy, and so far so good in spring training.
"I think I'll be better than I've ever been," he said about his return to the field in 2014. "I'm very confident in that."
If his early production in Arizona is true indication of his health, and his ability, it's fair for Brewers fans to expect numbers similar to 2012. Braun led the league in runs, home runs, OPS and total bases that year while recording the second highest hit total of his career (191), the second most RBI (112), stolen bases (30) while also walking the most times in his career (63).
As for the suspension, and being caught in a lie, Braun's message has been pretty consistent. And he aims for his play to be consistent in 2014, too.
"I deeply regret it. I wish I can change it," he said. "I recognize I don't have that opportunity to do that so all I can do is focus on the present, focus on the future, look forward to this year and go out there and do the things that I've done in the past and hopefully be one of the best players in the game and show them that I learned from my mistake, that I've grown from it, that I've learned from it and that hopefully I've become a better person because of it."
He got married this offseason, and says that "I don't think I've ever been happier. I don't think I've ever enjoyed life more. I don't think I've ever been in a better place. So from that perspective, it's been beautiful."
I can't begin to tell you how important that is to a professional athlete.
These guys are real people with real people issues – the illnesses and deaths of family and friends, the birth of children, personal and professional squabbles that can put you in a bad mood. The difference is their job is for all of us to see and judge. And, depending on their status on the team, any carryover can cost them not only their job, but their career.
The fact that Braun feels this good mentally, and seems to be healthy physically, are good predictors for a return to his norm on the field.
That's not to say there won't be challenges, specifically on defense. Sort of lost in all of the news around his extended break was the fact the team asked him to change positions.
"They just asked if I would be open to it and I said absolutely," Braun said of his move to right field. "I told them I'd play anywhere other than third base because third base and I didn't go very well together. I don't expect it to be easy. In left field you get used to the ball coming off the bat a certain way, a certain direction, right-handers and left-handers, the ball slices a specific direction and in right field it'll be completely opposite. In Arizona I'll have plenty of time to get my work in and it's something I look forward to. I expect it to be challenging for sure."
Braun believes tracking fly balls in Miller Park will be easier in right with fewer shadows and lighting issues through the glass panes around the ballpark, but sometimes a player can have troubles at the plate, or in the field, crossover to other parts of their game.
Even if he misplays some fly balls or line drives, I doubt that will be the case with Braun – but it bears watching. Even the most confident of players can press if things go poorly.
But as he's often said, not much about the rest of "this" – the fans booing and the media questioning – is new for him. He performed once before with that pressure. You have to expect that he will again.
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