MESA, Ariz. – If it bothers Ryan Braun, he wouldn't show it. He couldn't. Not ever. Anyway, he probably likes it.
So he gets booed, like always, because he's usually the best player on the field, and whether you trust that or not doesn't change the reality of it or, presumably, matter to him in the least. If he's getting booed for the other reason, well, one sounds an awful lot like the other and, besides, it's not as though last summer's drug suspension brought a thunderbolt of insight. About as many folks believed Braun's denial as did his apology, so this has been out there a while.
He batted third and played right field for the Milwaukee Brewers on Sunday afternoon at Cubs Park. The public address announcer had barely gotten to “… number eight …” when Cubs fans recognized what was coming and set to their dutiful outrage. Braun got it again when he came up in the first inning. They called him a cheater. One dolt suggested, “Hit him!” Cubs right-hander Kyle Hendricks struck him out instead and everybody cheered, and if you're a Cubs fan and can't celebrate the misfortune of others, well, that doesn't leave much else to celebrate. So it all worked out fine.
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Braun, meanwhile, got another four innings of right field behind him. He looked fine, maybe a touch more squirrely than he does in left, but the sun was high and the breeze unpredictable and the spin on the baseball (and therefore its path) opposite. He'll be more than reasonable in right field.
What everyone wants to know is whether Braun can still hit. Or how long it will take him to hit again. Or if, as Braun said when he reported to camp, he really can be better than ever. At 30. Under increased testing. Having taken zero at-bats since July 21.
Hey, we'll all find out together. Probably about the same time he does.
I'm thinking he hits. He's a hitter. Always has been. He's too sure of himself, too sure of his bat speed, and too sure of his uncommon power, to fail. He has too much to prove to Brewers fans, and the game, and maybe himself, to fail. His thumb injury, which had something to do with him not hitting a home run after May 22 (or between May 22 and July 22 anyway), has healed.
And if his first at-bats of spring are any indication (and they're probably not), Braun looks pretty Braun-ish. He stood Sunday afternoon in the on-deck circle and twirled the bat over his head, took his high-fastball practice swings, danced his idiosyncratic twists and turns, and in the third inning lashed a ground ball past third base for a double. Bat pointed straight in the air, elbow taut, feet narrow, and a fastball on the inner half has no chance. The man does put the bat head on the ball.
When he was done after the fourth inning, he had seven hits in 11 spring at-bats over five games. He has homered twice, both against the Oakland A's, the first on his first swing of spring training. He hadn't struck out before Hendricks got him with what appeared to be a high fastball on a full count. He has walked three times. So he showed up after seven months and squared-up baseballs and recognized pitches and threaded out the strikes from the balls and went about learning a new position and got called a cheater a lot.
All of which has brought the typically Braun reaction of: What? Me? It's all good.
At the end (for him) of a typical Sunday afternoon here, Braun pushed his cap back on his head, dragged his duffel bag from under the Brewers' bench and loaded up his glove and bats. He hoisted the whole thing over his left shoulder, joined up with Rickie Weeks, and the two of them trotted to the left-field corner, where they found the door that would release them.
The clock – old-school, like the one at Wrigley – above the scoreboard said the time was 4:30. But it lied. Somebody had pushed it forward by an hour and the fact is Arizona does not observe daylight savings time. Except, apparently, at Cubs Park. So Braun, like everyone else, left the stadium and gained an hour, having lost an hour when they arrived.
Braun played straight through that, too.
There's more to come, of course. Bigger ballparks, more people, bigger stakes, more outraged people. And better pitching. I have a hunch none of that will change Braun, who has a talent for the game, and apparently for denial, and that brings us back to the bottom line.
He's gonna hit.