Baseball proves to be right choice for Braun

Baseball proves to be right choice for Braun

MILWAUKEE -- Brewers star Ryan Braun kicked away soccer to pursue a life in baseball. Even in a World Cup year, it appears that he made the right choice.

Braun, who grew up near Los Angeles, knew early on that he wanted to be a professional athlete, but the hard part was choosing the sport. He was a standout in soccer (his best sport), basketball (his favorite) and baseball. By high school, he decided that baseball offered the best path to being a pro.

"That offered the best opportunity, even though I think soccer was always my best sport," Braun said. "I was a forward on U.S. development teams and did pretty well, but for the future, in this country, it made more sense to focus on baseball."

How far might he have made it in soccer?

"I could have played professionally, for sure," he said.

It's that kind of confidence, bordering on cockiness -- Braun is well aware that he sometimes toes the line -- that has put the 26-year-old on a near-historic path in Major League Baseball.

Consider that he's only played something like 2 2/3 seasons and already has 103 career home runs, 317 RBIs, a National League Rookie of the Year trophy, two Silver Slugger Awards and a pair of starts in the Major League All-Star Game.

In 2009, he led the NL with 203 hits (joining Hall of Famers Paul Molitor and Robin Yount as the only Brewers to lead his league in that category) while batting .320 with 32 homers, 114 RBIs and 20 stolen bases. Braun became only the eighth player in Major League history with at least 100 runs, 100 RBIs, 200 hits, 30 homers, 20 steals and a .300 average in a single season.

His home run rate is also near-historic. Only five players have hit more than Braun's 103 homers in their first three seasons: Albert Pujols (114), Ralph Kiner (114), Eddie Matthews (112), Joe DiMaggio (107) and Mark Teixeira (107).

Under contract in Milwaukee through 2015, Braun should have plenty of seasons in front of him. What's left to accomplish?

"My No. 1 goal is to stay healthy," he said. "I feel like as long as I do that, I'll be able to go out and compete, and the numbers and everything else will take care of themselves. Having an opportunity to get to the 2008 postseason, that was really special. Ultimately, the goal is to be part of a team that has a chance to get to the postseason every year. The opportunity to be on a winning team drives everything I do."

Family -- Braun's dad, Joe; mom, Diane; and little brother, Steve -- is at the root of his success. Braun may be entering just his third full season in the Majors, but it will be his 23rd summer of baseball, and the fact that it's not the 22nd is because of Joe.

Joe Braun lobbied his local Los Angeles-area T-ball league to accept the 4 1/2-year-old Ryan a year earlier than usual. The catch? He had to agree to coach the team, launching a career that would lead his son all the way to the Majors.

"It was cool," Braun said. "I can't thank both of my parents enough for their support and their involvement. That made everything more comfortable for me, more enjoyable.

"Because I had such a great relationship with my dad, I never hesitated to ask him a question. If the coach wasn't somebody I knew as well, maybe at that age I wouldn't have been confident enough to ask so many questions about the game. It probably led to me having a better understanding of what was going on."

Were there any drawbacks to having his father around so much?

"No, not at all, to be totally honest with you," Braun said. "I always appreciated it, and my dad is pretty cool, so all the guys liked him."

Braun wasn't the best player on his early teams, which produced some recognizable names. Baseball alumni from the North Valley Youth Baseball League in Southern California include 2005 All-Star right-hander Jon Garland and former Astros reliever Jack Cassell, who once surrendered a homer to Braun in the Majors. Cassell's brother, Matt, is the quarterback for the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs. The league also produced Jason and Jarron Collins, who went on to play in the NBA.

It also produced Braun's younger brother. The Brewers signed Steve Braun as an undrafted free agent out of the University of Maryland in 2008, and he was hitting .265 as an infielder for Milwaukee's Class A affiliate in Appleton, Wis., last season before he sustained a bad ankle injury.

The injury required surgery, but the downtime gave Steve an opportunity to spend some time in Milwaukee with his brother during the baseball season. It was a bit of a blast from the past.

"We would get to play together every other year because we are exactly a year and a half apart," Ryan Braun said. "I recognized at a young age how fortunate we were to get to play together in every sport every other year. It was awesome when he signed with the Brewers. Not too many brothers have an opportunity to get to play pro ball in any capacity, never mind to be with the same organization. It's something I'm proud of, and it would be amazing if we got to play together in the big leagues some day."

For now, Ryan will continue to carry the family mantle.

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.