Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun watches the strangers come into their clubhouse, pulling teammate Eric Thames aside, taking him into a private area, where he is drug tested.
He even hears fans on the road chant “Steroids,’’ when he walks to the plate, even though beer is the only foreign substance guaranteed to be found in his body.
“I’ve never been tested positive for anything in my life,’’ Thames says, “but I know that’s the way things are. I understand it. People have been so heartbroken over the years. They’ve had all of these heroes in their mind, and all of a sudden, they find out he’s cheating.
“It’s like, ‘Oh, he’s doing well, so he must be cheating.’
“It sucks. But there’s really nothing I can do about it except keep playing. That’s just life, you know.’’
Braun, the 2011 NL MVP and one of the greatest players in Brewers history, faces that scrutiny too, and no matter how many drug tests he passes, there will always be skepticism. His declarations of innocence after a 2011 positive test was revealed came apart when he was ensnared in the Biogenesis investigation.
“It’s a logical part of the conversation,’’ Braun tells USA TODAY Sports, “and ultimately I put myself in that position. It’s my fault. I have nobody to blame but myself.
“I don’t let it motivate me. I don’t let it inspire me. I enjoy life too much to ever allow anybody else’s negativity or skepticism to have any impact in my life at any point.’’
Baseball fans want to savor these wondrous achievements, but remain skeptical. They were burned by the steroid era, angry that Hank Aaron and Roger Maris’ records were shattered, and exhausted by the Biogenesis scandal that resulted in 14 suspensions, including Braun’s 65-game ban that ended his 2013 season.
Now, here they are, one man who continues to prove his innocence, while trying to establish himself as an All-Star caliber player at this level. The other, demonstrating that at the age of 33 he still is one of the game’s elite players.
Together, they need one another, forming a dynamic 1-2 punch last seen in the Brewers’ glory days of Braun and Prince Fielder, only this time with Braun as the lineup enforcer.
“He’s a big part of what I’ve done,’’ says Thames, who’s hitting .324 with 12 homers, 21 RBI and a 1.170 on base plus slugging. “Pitchers don’t want to pitch around me because he’s an All-Star, MVP-caliber player. They’ll challenge me. So the better he does, the better pitches I’m going to get to hit.’’
Indeed, in the past week that Braun was kept out of the starting lineup with a strained forearm, Thames hit just .150 (3 for 20) with one extra-base hit until going 3-for-5 Sunday against Pittsburgh with a double and a homer.
“When Braun is out of the lineup, you can see the difference,’’ Thames says. “It’s pretty obvious. Team just don’t give me anything to hit.’’
Braun, who’s hitting .284 with seven homers and 18 RBI, is expected to return to the lineup Tuesday night in the first game of a six-game home stand with the Boston Red Sox and New York Mets. Once again, Thames will have that valuable protection in the lineup.
“I was so fortunate for the first five years of my career having Prince Fielder hitting behind me,’’ Braun says, “so I can certainly relate to what it’s like when you have somebody behind you who teams really fear. For the most part I’ve swung the bat pretty well this year, so when I’m doing that, they’ll think twice before they pitch around Eric.’’
Thames is hoping that the two of them can stick around together just as long.
And while Thames has no control over his future with his contract expiring after the 2018 season, Braun is on the verge of having full control.
This is the final week of Braun’s Brewer career that he can traded without his permission. He gains 10-and-5 rights – 10 years in the major leagues with at least five with the same team – on Sunday. Braun, whose contract expires after 2020, could spend his entire career in the Brewers organization unless he signs off on a deal.
Who would ever have imagined that after his 65-game suspension in 2013, going from the face of the franchise, to an outcast, that Braun would be the last one standing?
“For the most part, I’ve always felt there was a higher likelihood that I’d be here,’’ Braun says, “than be traded. And as long as we continue to stay competitive, I’m thrilled to stay here. That’s part of the equation that people forget.
“I love Milwaukee and own a home here. Both of my children were born there. I thoroughly enjoy the city, and I’m deeply involved in the community.
“So obviously if I were to go somewhere else, there’s only a very, very small number of teams I’d be interested in going to.’’
There are only six teams that Braun can be traded to this last week without his permission – four teams in the NL West, the Los Angeles Angels and Miami Marlins.
And once Sunday comes around, the only teams he likely would ever accept a trade are the Los Angeles Dodgers and Angels, close to his off-season home in Malibu.
“I’ve been very forthcoming with the organization,’’ Braun says. “They know exactly what teams I’d be willing to be traded to, and that’s not going to change in any way when I have my 10-and-5 rights.
“I have no interest in more years. I have no interest in more dollars. No one of those things would be more appealing to me in any way. If there was a circumstance that came along that made sense for the organization, I would consider it.’’
The Dodgers, who nearly pulled off a deal for Braun at last year’s Aug. 31 trade deadline when they were sending outfielder Yasiel Puig and starter Brandon McCarthy and a prospect to the Brewers for Braun, reached out again just a few days before spring training. Again, they couldn’t agree. The Marlins and San Francisco Giants, and several teams that didn’t interest Braun, reached out over the past year, but nothing was seriously considered.
“Frankly, I don’t even know the date,’’ Brewers GM David Stearns says. “We’re not really paying any attention to it. For us, it’s kind of non-impactful.’’
For Braun, the only significance of the date is the meaning. Ten years in one place, and the possibility of being there his entire career. It’s a milestone few achieve.
“It will be one of those moments that makes sense to take time to reflect upon it,’’ says Braun, “because it’s a really challenging thing to do. It’s something to be proud of.
“I don’t think it’s going to have any impact on any decisions I have moving forward, but at the same time, you never know what the future holds. Things can change, circumstances can change, so it’s nice to at least be in the position of power.
“If I’m fortunate to spend my whole career here, it’s something I’ll feel incredibly proud of.
Yes, Milwaukee, a place he became a star, while perhaps grooming another in the making.
“I know I’m going to continue to play well at a high level,’’ Braun says, “so this isn’t something about proving to anybody who doubts me. If I stay relatively healthy, I’m going to have my best year.
“I think I have a chance to have a great year.
“Both of us do.’’
By Bob Nightengale