Photo by Ben Smidt
Inside the Milwaukee Brewers clubhouse, you could still picture the champagne stains, still remember how it stung the eyes, still recall the celebratory cacophony.
Ryan Braun was at the center of it all back in 2008 and 2011, spraying and hugging and whooping with those teams that brought so much joy to Brewers fans. You don’t get such episodes of jubilation without him, the onetime Rookie of the Year, the onetime National League MVP, the onetime universally beloved Brewer.
So yes, on Monday night, the contrast was striking. In the wake of Braun’s seasonlong suspension (and you don’t need me to tell you why), the clubhouse had no room for happy.
Braun was nowhere to be found, so all of the questions, rather unfairly, fell to his teammates. Now, instead of spraying booze on him, they were spraying answers for him. The sequence provided clues about who leads this team now, as the main men facing the music were Jonathan Lucroy, Rickie Weeks, John Axford and Yovani Gallardo. And their responses covered three general themes: acceptance of reality, ignorance of all the facts and forgiveness for Braun’s wrongs.
But as the interviews proceeded, mainly in the hushed tones reserved for libraries and funeral parlors, one particular scene from 2008 kept popping into my mind.
The Brewers had just clinched the NL wild-card playoff berth, their first postseason trip since 1982, thanks in large part to this moment:
And this moment:
And you’ll recall how those events were only part of the puzzle, how the Brewers and their fans had to wait out the conclusion of another game before punching their playoff tickets. So the players retreated to the clubhouse, the fans waited in the stands, and history happened.
Inside the clubhouse, champagne corks popped. Outside the clubhouse, fans lost their collective mind. Slowly, the players leaked outside onto the field, the two separate parties becoming one.
Braun was a good bit younger then, only 24 years old and in the midst of just his second big-league season. Beset by clubhouse revelers and interviews, he was a little late getting back outside. But once he realized where the action was, he wanted to join it. He quickly toweled off at his locker, wiping the sting from his eyes, and headed for the tunnel leading to the Brewers dugout, first at a walk, then a slow jog, then a fast one, as if the energy emanating from field was practically dragging him out the doorway.
When he emerged, and when fans recognized just who had shown up, they threw new effort into their cheers. Here was the guy they’d been waiting for. Here was their hero. Here was the model for a future Miller Park statue.
And now, here we are today, the day after the day after. The rage still seethes within Brewers Nation and beyond. In their eyes, Braun has gone from cheered to cheater, from lauded to liar, and it’s the latter part that really seems to be fueling the venom of his former fans.
But Braun remains a Brewer, and barring some turn of events even stranger than those that have already come to pass, he will still be one on Opening Day of 2014. He will again walk down that tunnel and again emerge from the Brewers dugout. He may even be cheered by most of those fans in the stands.
But no, it will not be the same. For him, for them, forever.
Feel free to follow me on Twitter, where I tweet as howiemag. And listen to me chat sports with Mitch Teich monthly on WUWM's "Lake Effect."