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Braun greeted with overwhelming support in Brewers' opener

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Brewers fans prove they still have plenty of love for Ryan Braun, who endured a very rough offseason. (AP)  
Brewers fans prove they still have plenty of love for Ryan Braun, who endured a very rough offseason. (AP)  

MILWAUKEE -- The box score says this was the worst opening day of Ryan Braun's career.

It wasn't.

The box score says plenty of people (me included) may have been right when they predicted that Braun's difficult winter would inevitably lead to a disappointing summer.

It might not.

One game into a season that will be like no other he's ever had, Ryan Braun is hitless. But he's far from hopeless.

If he wondered at all how he would be received, he now knows half the story. And he knows that for every fan around the country who may be against him, he has someone sitting in Miller Park who is fully behind him.

The ovations for Braun during Friday's 11-5 Brewers loss to the Cardinals weren't simply positive. They were overwhelming.

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They weren't simply, "OK, we accept you, no matter what." They were, "We love you, and don't you ever forget it."

"This city is completely behind him," Brewers teammate Corey Hart said. "He knows that. He's going to go out there and have a great year. He's going to have a great year because he's good, but also because this city won't let him have a bad year."

I'll admit, I was among the doubters, especially after I saw how Braun seemed to feel a need to hide from reporters during spring training, and after I heard Brewers manager Ron Roenicke talk about his long discussions with Braun.

But I saw a different Braun on Friday, before and after an 0-for-5 day that included one line drive to shortstop and another drive that John Jay turned into a great catch in center field.

I saw a Braun who, as he and his manager both said, seems to be in a much better place mentally than he was a few weeks back. I heard a Braun who has moved beyond throwing out accusations and suggestions of a "real story" about the drug test that nearly got him suspended.

I saw someone who knows he'll face more difficult days, and far more difficult crowds, but someone who seems far better prepared to handle them.

"It's not so much about proving anybody wrong, as proving everybody who has believed in me right," Braun said.

We know now, if we didn't before, that those who believe in him include at least enough people to fill Miller Park. They showed up Friday proudly wearing their Braun jerseys, and they cheered him loudly at every opportunity, many chanting "MVP! MVP!" during each of his five at-bats.

"It reminded me of the playoffs every time he came up," Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy said.

One local said it was even louder during Braun's first at-bat Friday than it ever was last October. And the ovation would have gone on even longer if Braun hadn't stepped fairly quickly into the box to begin his at-bat against Cardinals starter Jaime Garcia.

This opening day could well have been about the two teams that met in last year's National League Championship Series and then both lost a star first baseman to free agency. It could well have been about the Pujols-less Cardinals, who are off to a 2-0 start (their season began Wednesday night in Miami), and have scored 15 runs with a .377 batting average in this post-Pujols era.

But the minute we learned of Braun's failed test, and especially from the minute we learned that an arbitrator had overturned his possible 50-game suspension, this day and this game became about him.

He knows the reaction will be different on the road, beginning Monday night at Wrigley Field. But if Brewers fans are going to be as supportive as they were Friday -- and there's no reason now to think that they won't be -- then Braun will always have a refuge here.

"People like him here, and there's a reason they like him," Roenicke said. "He's a classy guy. He's a great ballplayer. He goes out of his way to sign autographs. He goes out of his way for the community.

"I understand why they feel the way they do about him."

Roenicke also has a great feel for his players, and enough honesty to admit during the spring that he was concerned about Braun. That's one reason it's easier to trust him now when he says things are much better.

"He's back to the guy he was that I saw last year," Roenicke said. "He's very confident. He knows he had a tough offseason mentally, but he's at a place right now where his focus is on having a repeat year, and even better.

"And it's hard to say that he wouldn't."

Even without the drug questions, this year would have been different for Braun. He would have had the questions of living up to the MVP season, the same ones Justin Verlander faces, the same ones any MVP faces.

And he would have had the questions of how he'll do without Prince Fielder batting behind him.

Braun dealt with the Fielder question by saying Thursday and again Friday that this is the best Brewers team he has played on, insisting that while Fielder isn't here, the overall team is better.

His teammates and manager agree with that sentiment, with Roenicke saying Friday, "Yes, we lost a great player. But we still have a great team."

That great team lost big on opening day. But if this was also a day that suggests that their MVP is going to be able to handle all that comes his way, then perhaps it wasn't so bad.

For now, the Brewers are winless, and Ryan Braun is hitless.

But hopeless?

No, far from it, and that goes for the Brewers and for Braun.

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