|Ryan Braun is struggling in the spring, but isn't concerned. (Getty Images)|
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Embattled Brewers slugger Ryan Braun smacked a bomb of a home run that nearly landed in Dodgers GM Ned Colletti's office here well past the Camelback Ranch stadium, and Braun was booed his entire way around the basepaths. Later, he took a misdirected pitch behind his back from ex-teammate Chris Capuano, inspiring the umpire to warn both benches in the spring game. The fans liked that much better.
Everywhere Braun goes, he will be followed by doubters, hecklers and suspicion as he is monitored closely to see whether he can perform to MVP levels the year after he beat the banned substance rap. He has a history of beating the odds and expectations. Only a fool would doubt him now.
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Braun wears a constant smile around Brewers camp, saying he doesn't worry too much about the omnipresent detractors. Understandably, he won't re-litigate a case he's already won. Shyam Das, the learned and experienced arbitrator who shocked by ruling against baseball and in Braun's favor, listened to the case, then studied it for more than a month before making his decision. Yet, fans who know only headlines and snippets think they know more. It has to be frustrating, but Braun isn't about to reopen a case that never should have become public.
"It's [messed] up. I swear to God, I didn't do it," Braun told CBSSports.com. "People judge a situation they don't know anything about."
Braun knows he can't clean up the mess with a few words, and he shouldn't have to. He doesn't need to speculate on any theories as to how his sample turned up dirty, and he's not about to. The opinions of many folks won't ever change, and that probably includes a lot of Dodgers fans, who believe their guy Matt Kemp is the rightful MVP. Braun is right; he shouldn't speculate.
"It's done, it's over with," Braun said. "My focus is the season. The best way to deal with it is to have a great year and help the team get to the World Series."
Braun's best argument isn't about sample collector Dino Laurenzi, Dino's son or even Dino's decision to store the sample in his basement for two days, which was within the rules of protocol even if it shouldn't be. Braun's best case was always about his body, which has never changed, and his stats which have always been near the best in the league, from the moment he stepped into the Brewers clubhouse. He has never had an OPS lower than .866, and his best argument is to keep that stat intact through the season.
Braun correctly figures he isn't going to change anyone's mind by offering ripe speculation. He doesn't know how his one test turned up dirty, probably any more than anyone else. He knows he passed all the tests before it, and one unsanctioned one after it, and he revealed he passed a lie detector. He surely is convincing.
No matter, all the key moments will come in the batter's box. That is why the pressure is squarely on his solid 202-pound frame to show he is the same slugger he always was. He has one year to prove he never needed extra help with his bat. He had his say his first day in spring, and now the swing is everything.
"It's over man," he said to the question of whether he'd one day reveal his suppositions about how his sample was judged. "It's not good for baseball, it's not good for me, it's not good for anyone." He admitted to being tempted, but that's about it.
The doubters were having field days here early when Braun couldn't buy a hit, when he started 3 for 25. His now 6-for-34 spring isn't indicative of how he feels or how he thinks he'll do. Braun said he's felt great for eight or nine games, even if the overall stats haven't quite caught up yet. He lined three shots to left today, the one that cleared the wall by a ton and two liners that were caught by ex-Brewers teammate Jerry Hairston Jr. A few outs in spring are meaningless to Braun, who always says March is about the process, not results.
"I'm good, man. As long as I'm seeing the ball good, and feeling good, it's inevitable I'm going to have success," he said.
The doubters are going to be severely disappointed this year. Braun said he's feeling better this spring than he's ever felt at this point, and his swings are starting to show that. He laughs off the little things now. About Capuano's pitch behind him, Braun said, "I like Chris. He's a really good dude." A really good one, yes, but an overmatched one in this case, unquestionably.
Braun is past the hard part now. He thanks his teammates and other friends throughout baseball, including another wunderkind, Troy Tulowitzki of the Rockies, who expressed his public concern the other day, and Kemp, the Dodgers hero who has refrained from claiming that he is the rightful winner of the MVP award. The Dodgers are the team of Braun's youth. He grew up in Granada Hills in the San Fernando Valley garbed in blue, a fan of the hometown team, the very team whose fans seem most offended by Braun. The crowd here was sparse, but harsh.
The worst part was this winter, though, when the results were told to him, and the leakage happened. He doesn't blame MLB (no chance anyone there leaked the results) but he faults the circumstance. He began to be convicted in public before he was ever even tried. That's why he said, "It's [messed] up,"
Following the bad news came the fight of his life. His reputation was on the line. The foe was the sport he loves and the commissioner he's close to.
"It's not something you could prepare yourself for," he said. "I've never been through anything like what I dealt with mentally and emotionally."
He looks anything but persecuted now. He talks excitedly about the season, his swing and his teammates. He figures the key is to offer at strikes and says that if he can keep his strikeout-to-walk ratio to one-to-one for the first time, he will "definitely'' have his best season. He said the loss of Prince Fielder was something he and the team figured for a long time was going to happen. Unlike in the case of the drug test, they prepared for the loss of Prince, he said. As for the loss of his lineup protection, Braun said, "The reality is, he was most likely going someplace else."
As for himself, he figures he's in a good place right now. In fact, he said exactly that. And when he did, you believed him.