The Ryan Braun Debacle
As a lifetime Brewer fan and—until recently—a defender of Ryan Braun’s (yes, I was taken in by the ferocity of his public statement in February of 2012 . Call me an idiot, or, in the immortal words of Bugs Bunny, “What a gull-a-bull. What a nin-com-poop.”) I feel compelled to comment on the unfortunate situation the smallest metropolitan market in Major League Baseball now has to endure.
In early 2004, after Paul Molitor was elected to enter the Baseball Hall of Fame, and as the Brewers were limping along to win about 67 games a season, a friend of mine wrote: “THE BREWERS WILL NEVER HAVE MORE THAN 2 PLAYERS IN THE BASEBALL HALL OF FAME! EVER! THAT SUCKS!” And it was hard to argue with this sentiment. The Crew as a franchise was pathetic. They hadn’t finished above .500 since 1992, the year after which, by the way, they let said future Hall-of-Famer Molitor flee to the Blue Jays by offering him—get this—a pay cut of $900,000 (in pure stupidity, Sal Bando’s legacy in Milwaukee exceeds that of even Ernie Grunfeld, who let Ray Allen get away from the Bucks in 2003).
In short, there was little reason to be optimistic for baseball in Milwaukee.
In 2005, a 21-year-old who was blasted in Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball two years earlier, took his first at-bat as a major leaguer. Prince Fielder started making waves, and not just on his sizable gut. This kid could hit. Two years later Ryan Braun entered the picture, and suddenly, the idea of the Brewers having a winning season and—dare we jump the gun just a bit too quickly—a future Hall-of-Famer—didn’t seem so farfetched.
Fielder played six spectacular seasons for the Brewers and—barring a complete collapse of his skills—is a shoo-in at Cooperstown. But if that day ever comes, he’ll likely go in as a Tiger, not as a Brewer. Oh well. It was still fun while it lasted (and honestly, the Brewers may have the last laugh when the Tigers pay a 36-year-old Fielder $24 million in 2020). Fielder helped propel the Brewers into the playoffs in 2008 and 2011, and though he rejected a long-term contract with Milwaukee, fans can look back on his stint with fondness.
Braun did something no one expected. He decided to be The Man, the franchise player on a small-market team, taking less money than he could make elsewhere. In 2011 he signed a five-year extension on his contract, keeping him in Milwaukee through the 2020 season. It was a dream come true for Brewer fans. Finally—FINALLY—someone decided to take the high road. After enduring a host of other players rejecting long-term offers from the Crew, Milwaukee fans found someone who actually chose to stay with the Brewers. Sure, he’d make a little less money than he would with the Yankees or the Red Sox, but he’d be the biggest guy in town—something impossible on a large-market team. He’d open a few restaurants with another franchise player from a small-market team, Aaron Rodgers, and life would be great.
Which is why the recent scandal is so monstrously unfair. Finally a small market team reels in the perfect player with the perfect contract, only to find out that they were sold a bill of goods. In 2011, just eighteen games into the season, Braun said, “I truly believe I can get much better as a player. These first 18 games are probably the best baseball I’ve played in my career and I really believe that’s a sign of things to come.”
Well, sure. He was cheating! Of course it was a sign of things to come. Why contracts don’t have a clause that immediately makes them null and void if a player gets suspended is mind-boggling to me. But there you have it. Now the Brewers are stuck with a pathetic human being, and—very possibly—a mediocre ballplayer for the next seven seasons, an eternity in baseball. The Brewers will have to pay Braun a total of $117 million. This for a team whose total payroll in 2012 was $88 million.
What’s worse is that Milwaukee fans, who’ve had so little to celebrate these past 30 years, will no longer be able to look back on 2011 with any pride. The Brewers’ first division title in 29 years was a lie. The Brewers’ first MVP in 29 years was a lie. Braun hit .500 in the NLDS. If I were a Diamondback fan, I’d be fuming (Arizona manager Kirk Gibson is, and I don’t blame him).
Of course, Matt Kemp has a few reasons to be ticked off as well, having lost the MVP ballot to a cheater.
And not just a cheater, but a liar. A man willing to hurt other people’s reputations to further his own career. No one is perfect, but not everyone stoops to such inordinate lows as Braun has. And to play the Jew Card—accusing urine-collector Dino Laurenzi Jr of anti-Semitism (if the report is true)—is lower than the depths of any athlete I can think of, including A-Rod.
New York fans may be used to this sort of thing, but Milwaukee fans won’t be quick to forgive. Many may not even return to Miller Park until Braun is gone. If there’s a team willing to take on $117 million of tarnished goods, I’m sure Brewer GM Doug Melvin is all ears. Perhaps Braun can take part in this year’s High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. After all, he won’t be playing baseball, so he has no excuse not to participate in beginning the long, hard, arduous journey of contrition and, ultimately—if he’s very lucky—redemption.