Ryan Braun made it official yesterday, announcing that he was retiring as an active player. Although the announcement was long-expected, it did put an emotional cap on the career of one of the most important figures in Milwaukee sports history.
Braun joined the Brewers as a wunderkind on a team loaded with potential. He burst out in 2007, the first time the Brewers had topped .500 in 15 years. He led the team that busted a generation-long playoff slump in 2008 and won an MVP award in 2011 while nearly leading the Brewers to the World Series, gapping both seasons with dramatic, playoff-clinching home runs. During his peak, he was one of baseball’s elite hitters. Between 2007 and 2012, he ranked fifth in all of baseball in both wins above replacement (WAR) and adjusted on-base plus slugging. During that same period, he won the Rookie of the Year award and an MVP, to go along with five All Star Game nods and five Silver Sluggers.
Today, more than 14 years after I first took the field as a Milwaukee Brewer, I’ve decided to retire. While it’s impossible to summarize my emotions, what I feel most is one, simple thing – gratitude.— Milwaukee Brewers (@Brewers) September 14, 2021
I just wanted to take a moment to say ‘thank you’.
– Ryan Braun pic.twitter.com/pQxuW9qk1z
As his role passed from MVP to elder statesman, he became a more subdued offensive force while running up his career totals to earn a lot of ink in the team record books. He holds the Brewers’ all-time home run record by more than 100 dingers, and ranks in the top three in WAR, runs, hits, total bases, steals and bases on balls. He also played on a lot of good teams, playing in seven of the 10 playoff series in which the Brewers have ever appeared. When considering his place in franchise history, consider that, prior to 2021, the Brewers had never fielded a winning team that did not feature either Braun or Robin Yount as regular players. For fans that have no active memories of the 1982 season, as the Franchise, he is the man who has always been at the heart of any Brewers team worth watching.
Then there is, of course, the “Other Thing.” Braun failed a performance-enhancing drug test in 2011 and – briefly – beat the rap in an effort that allegedly included a nasty smear campaign against the sample collector who handled Braun’s test (although the actual substance of this effort was never made clear). After very loudly proclaiming his innocence in the matter (and in the meantime putting together a 2012 season that was just as good as his 2011 MVP effort) Braun eventually admitted that he’d cheated and offered a seemingly sincere apology to all those he’d wronged. He later made amends with the sample collector and his family, who even invited Braun and his then-fiancée to their home for dinner.
While Brewers Nation was mostly quick to forgive all of this, the rest of the sporting world never really did. He was forever and loudly booed on the road (worth noting here that hit 81 homers on the road after his suspension compared to just 61 at home) and was generally regarded with contempt across social media. The ire was understandable and tiresome all at once. Sure, he’d done the bad things, but other players cheated and fans got over it and other players were accused of far worse things that don’t come up every time their name is mentioned. But so it went for Ryan Braun.
His post-suspension career was quiet (no restaurateurism or fashion design) and workmanlike. He struggled with injuries, but made an All-Star team in 2015 and got MVP votes in 2016. But he could still show that old MVP form at times. In 2019, after reigning MVP Christian Yelich was lost for the season, Braun paid tribute by batting .325 with four homers and an insane .725 slugging percentage over the last two weeks of the season as the Brewers sealed another incredible September run to again win a playoff spot.
But the lasting image of the humbled, late-career Braun was the one of him at Wrigley Field – where had long been Public Enemy #1 – in the 2018 NL Central tie-breaker game. He has just delivered the hit to put the Brewers up 3-1, which would be the final that afternoon. Braun points towards the Brewers dugout, mouth agape in a joyous scream. Behind him, a sea of the Cubs’ most faithful stand with vacant expressions. By this moment, the booing from the hometown fans has given way to grim silence and a low roar emerges from the Brewers contingent in the park that afternoon. It’s the muffled noise of a legacy taking hold.