On Friday, when Braun came to bat for the first time this season, in the bottom of the first at Miller Park, he was greeted by a standing ovation and a roar of approval from the crowd of 46,086. The sound was deafening, on a decibel level with the sound that was created in Miller Park last October when the Milwaukee Brewers won Game 5 of the National League Division Series to advance to the NL Championship Series.
"It was great, man," Braun said. "I truly appreciate it. From the bottom of my heart, it meant a lot to me. It was definitely much appreciated."
This may have been the emotional high point of the day, particularly since the Brewers lost a dispiriting 11-5 decision to the defending World Series champion Cardinals. Braun was cheered loudly in the pregame introductions and in each of his five at-bats Friday, but the fan support for him before his first at-bat was world class. The applause and the cheers were interrupted only by chants of "MVP! MVP! MVP!" Along with being a positive sentiment, this had the virtue of accuracy, Braun being the 2011 National League Most Valuable Player.
Braun's offseason, on the other hand, had not exactly been filled with applause. The news that Braun had tested positive for a banned substance, in this case synthetic testosterone, was leaked. Braun subsequently went through the duly constituted appeal process and became the first Major League player to have a positive drug test result overturned on appeal. Faced with the possibility of a 50-game suspension, Braun won his appeal on a 2-1 vote of a special panel. Braun's primary argument was that proper protocol was not followed in the chain of custody regarding his urine sample.
Still, the process had exonerated Braun.
During Spring Training, Braun was routinely heckled when the Brewers played away games. The Brewers expect more of the same from crowds on the road during the regular season. At home, support was expected from the Milwaukee faithful, who fully recognize that Braun has been one of baseball's very best for five seasons with the Crew.
"People like him here and there's a reason they like him," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. ""He's a classy guy and a great ballplayer. ... He goes out of his way for the community."
In the case of this outpouring of affection and respect for Braun, the ovation showed no signs of stopping on its own. So Braun essentially stopped it himself by stepping into the batter's box.
"It was certainly something that I appreciated," Braun said of the prolonged ovation, "but it's a little uncomfortable, because you don't want to take away from the game, you never want to be disrespectful to an opponent or anything like that. It's not really something you can be prepared for or know what to do. So I just kind of wanted to get the at-bat under way."
Braun's at-bats were better than his 0-for-5 indicated. He lined to short in that first-inning at-bat. St. Louis center fielder Jon Jay robbed Braun of extra bases with a diving catch on the warning track in the third. Braun did contribute a nice defensive play in the sixth, throwing out Rafael Furcal, who was attempting to stretch a single.
In discussing what his performance this season would represent, Braun made a crucial distinction.
"It's not so much about proving anybody wrong as it is about proving the people who all believed in me and supported me right," Braun said. "I'm definitely excited. Very motivated."
The Brewers believe that Braun, supremely talented and supremely confident, will be able to withstand the difficulties.
"Right now, he's in a really good place," Roenicke said. "The first couple weeks of spring were a little different. He's back to the guy I saw last year. He's very confident. Everybody knows he had a tough offseason mentally, but I think he's at a place now where his focus is on having a repeat year, or even better. I know it's hard to believe, but that's the way he talks. And it's hard to say that he wouldn't.
"I think there will be challenges. But with his personality, I don't think that's going to affect the way he goes about this job."
Braun's track record clearly indicates that he has both the ability and the mental toughness to succeed. The unknown part of the equation is how much he will be affected by the fact that one of the game's most exciting hitters, Prince Fielder, will no longer be batting behind him. The Brewers replaced Fielder at the cleanup spot with third baseman Aramis Ramirez, a reputable run producer, but as general manager Doug Melvin said of Fielder:
"No one player replaces that kind of player."
That story will be told as the season unfolds. The story Friday for Braun was that, after the trials and tribulations of the winter, Brewers fans were still solidly, loyally, vocally in his corner.
"These fans here are great," said Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy, discussing the ovation for Braun. "You can't ask for anything better. Just the fact that they have your back means everything."
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.