BY ZACH HAYES
Special to ESPN Wisconsin
Ryan Braun hopped out of his home dugout and waved to an adoring home crowd, that familiar movie star grin stretching from ear to ear, 2011 National League MVP trophy firmly in his grasp.
For one precious minute, nothing else mattered, not the tumultuous off-season filled with doubt and uncertainty, nor the constant chorus of boos he faces during every at-bat outside the friendly confines of Miller Park.
This type of affectionate serenade from the Brewer faithful is nothing new for a player who’s spent his entire professional career in the limelight. A generational talent who packs both punch and personality is a rare breed in a city that has seen their fair share of mega-stars depart for bigger and better markets.
Hank Aaron’s plague sits in Cooperstown donning an Atlanta Braves cap. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar opined that Milwaukee “has nothing to do with his roots” before being shipped off to Hollywood. Gary Sheffield went on to slug 488 home runs after his unceremonious exit in 1992.
Not since Robin Yount have diehard Brewers fans had a reason to commemorate a true face of the franchise. It was appropriate that Yount, who took home American League MVP honors in both 1982 and 1989, was on hand during the ceremony to hand Braun his trophy, a passing of the baton from superstar old to new in a town craving for an idol to embrace.
“(Yount) is the greatest player to ever play for this franchise,” Braun said. “Just his presence means a lot for us still I think. We take a lot of pride in having a guy who was that good be a member of our organization, so it was definitely special.”
Still, for many critics, this past winter’s bombshell of Braun testing positive for enhanced testosterone will forever serve as a black mark on his impressive resume. Ask the 42,611 screaming fans showering Braun with adulation on Sunday and they’ll tell you to abide by the facts, that Braun’s suspension was uplifted and he was properly cleared of all wrongdoing.
It’s hard to blame those fans for expressing some semblance of bias. They packed the house in droves for the Brewers’ postseason run in 2011, one made possible by Braun's brilliance in the batter’s box. Braun lost out on the batting title by mere percentage points, boomed 33 home runs and led the league in slugging percentage (.597) and extra-base hits (77). Memories like Braun’s game-winning three-run homer to beat the Marlins and clinch Milwaukee’s first division title since Yount’s 1982 squad don’t wash away easily.
“It was special to have an opportunity to share it with the fans," the Brewers left fielder said.
Braun is the product of the countless lean years that make Sunday’s ceremony an occasion to be cherished. Drafted with the fifth overall pick the year after Milwaukee wrapped up another season in the NL Central cellar, Braun quickly bolted up the minor league ranks and tortured opposing pitchers the moment he slipped on a Brewers uniform.
Braun’s Rookie of the Year season in 2007, home run against the Cubs to clinch the wild card in 2008 and the many All-Star appearances that followed all culminated in Sunday’s MVP presentation. He is truly the embodiment of the ideal small market superstar: draft, develop, cultivate and lock up long term.
Sure, his partner-in-crime in the middle of the lineup isn’t around anymore. And yes, you may not perceive him in the quite the same way after the off-season circus. But there’s no reason to believe Ryan Braun doesn’t care deeply about the city of Milwaukee and won’t be an integral part of the product on the field for the next decade. For Brewer fans, that’s more than enough.
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