Tuesday night, Ryan Braun pinch-hit against the Cubs with the Brewers trailing 4-1 in the 8th inning at Wrigley Field. Even though Braun represented the tying run, for much of the night the game hadn’t been in doubt. The fans who stayed through the cold and windy night managed to summon their energy once Braun was announced as a pinch-hitter, however, as the boos rained down until Braun eventually slapped a two-run double to right field, giving the Brewers a brief chance to win before the Cubs’ bullpen shut the door.
If Braun’s initial positive steroid test didn’t place him into the role of Sports Heel For Life™, his crowing after his exoneration and subsequent punishment in the Biogenesis scandal cemented him into it. Braun was never a particularly likable player before — his whole Hollywood persona, complete with shitty Ed Hardy-esque clothing line and aggro energy drink ads, made him an easy magnet for disdain, especially as he was destroying the National League from his call-up in 2007 through 2012. Adding lying and cheating to that mix made Braun the second most boo-able player in the league (albeit still a long, long way behind the GOAT himself, Alex Rodriguez).
At first, it bothered me, because I had too much of my identity tied up in how other people saw one of my sports idols. It pained me that Braun’s performances and accomplishments would be dismissed by so many when their favorites may very well be cheating under our noses and just won’t get caught — you know the whole thing about stones and glass houses. Who are they to judge? But one can only swim against the current so long, and it was one of Braun’s first huge games after his suspension that helped me embrace the role that Braun finds himself in — put himself into, if I’m being honest — that helped me let go of my own pride and start embracing the whole spectacle that is Ryan Braun’s “post-steroid” career.
It was April 8th, 2014, part of Milwaukee’s first road trip with Braun reinstated, and the Brewers were in Philadelphia to take on the Phillies. The Philadelphia fans, as ever, were prepared, and the boos rained down on Braun far harder than they had during Milwaukee’s previous road series in Boston, where you could tell the American League fans there didn’t really have their full hearts in it. As Kyle Kendrick unleashed a 1-2 pitch in Braun’s second at-bat in the top of the third inning, one particularly energetic Phillies fan right by Fox Sports Wisconsin’s microphones let out a hearty “BOOOOOO! CHEATER!” And then this happened:
The “BOOOOO! CHEATER!” guy was not stopped by Braun’s first homer, nor his second. He kept going through Braun’s third home run of the day, and you can bet if he and Braun are ever in the same stadium again, he’ll keep yelling it as loud as he can. If his shouting had any effect, it was to fuel Braun, who has truly perfected the disaffected, slow home run jog after launching a dinger into opposing bleacher sections.
That moment, and that whole day, prove how silly my offense at the “BOOOOO! CHEATER!” guys of the world was. His cathartic anger at Braun had nothing to do with me or my connection to Braun as the local sports hero. It’s about the sports stadium as one of the few places in our society where it’s OK to let loose like that. Maybe he wants to yell “BOOOOO! CHEATER!” at his boss, or his work rival, or an ex-lover, or somebody else he feels hasn’t deserved their station or their possessions or their friends. We’ve all felt like that sometimes. Braun’s steroid taint gave “BOOOOO! CHEATER!” guy a socially acceptable outlet to let that anger out. That’s one of the roles that the spectacle of sports has always served for us in one way or another. I still think it’s silly — hilarious, even — but I now realize for me to take offense at this kind of behavior was self-centered to an absurd level. And I thank “BOOOOO! CHEATER!” guy for helping me realize that and embrace the spectacle.
Braun is hitting almost as well as he ever has. His .303/.377/.546 line over the past calendar year (as of this writing on Thursday) is good for a 145 wRC+, 13th in the major leagues. It’s better than stars like Anthony Rizzo (140), Kris Bryant (136) and Buster Posey (139). Braun is truly one of the league’s best hitters again. But with the Brewers awful this season, the only role he’s going to be able to play is spoiler, lacing line drives and blasting majestic bombs as fans rain boos down upon him and maybe turning a couple of hum-drum Brewers losses into wins over playoff teams along the way.
It’s unfortunate, because I believe Braun is still one of the most exciting hitters to watch in the game. Especially the way he has adjusted to become an opposite field monster over the past few years, the way Braun approaches batting is almost artistic. I’d love to watch him play that role, the role of the amazing hitter appreciated for his talent. Baseball is a spectacle, and nobody on this team is more capable of the spectacular than Braun. But as long as we’re here, I’m going to make the most of what we’re going to get from Braun instead: the league’s most capable troll, a heel stunting on opponents, blasting dingers through a chorus of boos throughout the dog days of summer. And I’m going to eat up every second of it.