Ryan Braun: Tragic Hero, Cult Icon

If there is baseball to be played in 2020, it will likely be the last for elder Milwaukee Brewers statesman Ryan Braun. With several career milestones in reach—and slipping away due to extenuating circumstances—Braun’s closing chapter could redefine his legacy.

Milwaukee Brewers Senior Director of Media Relations Mike Vassallo has been keeping the hot stove stoked well into spring, well into what should be baseball season. Vassallo’s Twitter feed has been a daily pitstop for facts from the 2020 Brewers media guide, ranging from trivia that might score you points in a bar league to the kinds of tidbits that only a player’s mother would know or care about.

On March 29, Vassallo noted that Ryan Braun is 67 hits away from 2000 in his career, third all-time in franchise history behind (of course) Robin Yount and Paul Molitor.

Ryan Braun has been many things, but what is undeniable is how good a player-citizen he has become in the back half of his career, and how well he has come to grips with the fact that he is approaching the end of the line. “Of course … I don’t take for granted the fact that this could be my last year playing baseball,” Braun told reporters at Brewers On Deck January 26th (three months ago, but might as well be 1842 for as much as the world has turned sideways since then).

Molitor, on the other hand, remains beloved by fans, despite the ’93 heel turn, signing with the Toronto Blue Jays and then garnering his 3,000th hit as a (Brewers’ long-time rival) Minnesota Twin. To this day, he seemingly still has an icy relationship with the club.

Let’s assume—perhaps unfairly, given current circumstances—that Braun gets to 2,000 hits, 425 doubles, 350 home runs and 225 stolen bases, all of which are attainable under regular conditions given Braun’s latter-day production.* And after which, it should be noted, Braun will have passed Molitor as a Brewer in nearly every way in terms of production.

*Braun also sits at 48 career triples, but triples are more of a bug in the game now rather than a feature. Getting 50 of those is like finding a quarter in the parking lot.

Only 11 players in baseball history attained that body of work: Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Alex Rodriguez, Willie Mays, Reggie Jackson, Gary Sheffield, Andre Dawson, Carlos Beltran, Alfonso Soriano, Joe Carter and Larry Walker.

Five of the 11 are Hall of Famers. Bonds, Rodriguez and Sheffield are figures with more or less stained legacies but Hall of Fame numbers. Beltran and Soriano are a mixed-bag of otherworldly talent that never fully-actualized and were clubhouse headaches. Joe Carter is still a folk hero in Toronto.

Whither Ryan Braun? He’s not a Hall of Famer with injuries and mid-career self-sabotage derailing those aspirations. He’s not a folk hero, not yet at least. There are Brewers fans who have sworn off Braun because of the scandal but still revere CC Sabathia, Prince Fielder, Rob Deer and Molitor, all of whom moved on from Milwaukee when convenient to do so. Braun might well be caught in that space with Beltran and Soriano: gifted, tainted superstars who flew too close to the sun.

Braun made significant mistakes, paid the price, served his sentence and resumed his career. Opposing fans will still razz him about what happened seven years ago. It wasn’t that long ago that the folks at Citizens Bank Park repeatedly displayed a backstop ad for ‘all-natural’ hot dogs when Braun was at bat. Cardinals fans forget that they pilloried Braun with Jhonny Peralta playing everyday.

It’s what happened after the scandal that should encapsulate who Ryan Braun is. He became a husband, father, mentor and absorbed a lot of the heat from those wavering years between 2011 and 2018. His production never fully recovered, not without the protection of Fielder, or the benefit of health or lost time when he doubled down on bad mistakes.

And this offseason, Braun was instrumental in convincing Christian Yelich to become a Milwaukee Brewer lifer. With that, Braun passed the torch, making a statement that is the hallmark of men of character: my legacy isn’t mine to define, but in those in whom I invested. In other words, the man is light years beyond the person he was before.

If Braun’s lasting impact is Yelich, then Braun’s number 8 should at the very least get the Jim Gantner treatment. But Braun ought not be merely the man in Yelich’s shadow: despite all that has surrounded and consumed him, he assembled a baseball career few have approached and will leave the Brewers better than they were when he arrived. He’ll leave the game better, as well. In every way, Braun is a textbook tragic hero. Our tragic hero.

Ryan Braun should go down in history as a Brewers cult icon, the enduring figure from the dark era between 1987 and 2008, a personality along the likes of Gantner, Cecil Cooper, Larry Hisle or Gorman Thomas.

Will fans let him?

Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.

Advertisements