First came the news that Ryan Braun's partner in the middle of the Milwaukee lineup, Prince Fielder, had followed the free-agent path of riches to Detroit. Then came the confidentiality breech that made public the fact Braun was appealing a positive drug test. Then there was the reality that even though his appeal was upheld and suspension was lifted, Braun's reputation was tainted forever in the minds that feel an allegation is a fact.
Finally, the season began. And finally Ryan Braun is smiling again and talking again and producing runs like he always has, having handled the offseason turmoil professionally and productively. Braun knew there was only one way to answer the doubters. "I had to go out and put up the numbers I have put up in the past," he said. His answer has been resounding. Braun went into Wednesday leading the National League with 29 home runs, seven more than he had a year ago after 115 games. He is tied for fourth with 77 RBIs, six more than at this time last season. He even has 19 stolen bases, one shy of allowing him to enter the 20-20 club for the third time in his career, and 10th time in Brewers history. He's only hitting .299, 27 points behind a year ago, but he does rank 10th in the NL, and face it, without Fielder's left-handed power bat behind him, Braun is being pitched to much more carefully. Yes, Aramis Ramirez is having a nice year hitting fourth for the Brewers, but he's right-handed, so right-handed pitchers are less likely to work around Braun than they were a year ago when the alternative was Fielder. Bottom line: Braun has driven his offseason issues into the outfield seats. His mission is far from accomplished. The Brewers are not even in the mix to defend their NL Central title, facing a 17 1/2-game deficit. That, however, is more of a bullpen issue. The Brewers have, after all, suffered a league-leading 22 late losses, and lead the Majors with 22 blown saves. "That is what we play the game for -- to win, to help our team," said Braun. "We all think of things we could have done to be better." And there will be the haters who won't give up in their harassment of Braun for what happened. "Every year you deal with unique challenges," he said. Braun has handled the challenge well. He was, however, silent for the longest of times. Always in the middle of the clubhouse scene, and cooperative with the media, Braun was barely even seen in the Brewers' clubhouse during Spring Training, and was rarely heard from. And when he did speak, it was a very controlled environment. Once he initially responded to the fact he won the appeal, and made it clear he was unhappy to have been a media punching bag in the offseason, Braun declined interviews in general, speaking only about a day's game after it was over. "It wasn't going to do anybody any good to continue the debate," he said. "I felt I had said everything that needed to be said. I respect that people have a job to do, and [I] cooperated with the media and fans, but just felt that would be too big of a fuss. I needed to focus on taking care of business." After a season-opening stumble -- hitting .245 with one home run and five RBIs two weeks into the season -- Braun got into a comfort zone. Oh, there was hazing in ballparks in which he was a visiting player, but Braun said there was nothing overboard. "I was ready for that," he said. "When people brought up how fans might react, I knew they hadn't been to Wrigley Field or Philadelphia or Busch Stadium. "Truth is that [fan reaction] makes me play better. It keeps you focused. I've enjoyed that throughout my career. [Fans] can be creative." And Braun has proven that he can be every bit as productive on the baseball field this year as he has ever been in his career.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.