GLENDALE, Ariz. — If Ryan Braun hits a walk-off home run to win the World Baseball Classic for Team USA, how will you feel?
Will you leap off the couch, exult in your country’s first WBC title and wipe away a patriotic tear?
Or will you dispassionately reach for your iPhone and fire off a snarky tweet about the Biogenesis investigation?
We might as well put our collective conscience through the wringer now, because that moment is coming. Well, maybe not that specific moment, but something like it. Braun isn’t just playing for Team USA. He’s probably going to be the No. 3 hitter, if Tuesday’s dress rehearsal against the Chicago White Sox was any indication. He went 3 for 4, scored two runs and proved, again, that he possesses some of the best bat speed in baseball.
USA manager Joe Torre said afterward that Braun looked “great.” Torre remarked about how much “fun” it is to watch him hit. And here is where it gets interesting. Torre’s day job is as the executive vice president of baseball operations with Major League Baseball. And MLB is investigating the extent of Braun’s link to the Miami-area Biogenesis clinic, which is suspected of supplying performance-enhancing drugs to big-league players.
Awkward? I suppose it could be. But if any two baseball men could make this work, Torre and Braun are that pair. Torre’s presence has been the ultimate thermostat for any number of stars in the midst of controversies, A-Rod notwithstanding, and Braun exhibited extraordinary (and effective) tunnel vision last season after his successful appeal of a positive PED test. Even as the credibility of his alibi was justifiably questioned, Braun led the National League with 41 home runs and finished second in the MVP voting.
“Speaking as an American, let’s not be too quick convicting people,” Torre told FOXSports.com Tuesday, rather poignantly wearing a red USA jersey. “That’s our American way.
“I’m with Major League Baseball, and he’s not suspended. So, evidently, he’s entitled to do what everybody else is, and hopefully we can benefit by his presence here.”
Torre and Braun believe the team will. Otherwise Torre wouldn’t have invited Braun, and Braun wouldn’t have said yes. (Torre, it should be noted, has taken leave of his day-to-day responsibilities with the commissioner’s office for the duration of the tournament.) Braun, as a holdover from 2009, has the chance to emerge as a leader for Team USA. At the very least, he’s an eager spokesperson for a tournament that needs more exposure in the United States.
Braun acknowledged before Tuesday’s game that the U.S. has something to prove after failing to win the first two Classics. He said the tournament’s timing — which isn’t ideal for North American players — can’t be used as “an excuse or a crutch.” He agrees that two-time defending champion Japan is the favorite, to the extent that there is one, but he added: “I like our chances as well as anybody else’s.”
“When I called him about doing this, he was all over it,” Torre said. “Ever since he’s been here, he’s been a real bright light for us.”
But the questions remain: Will American fans embrace Braun as the WBC unfolds? Do they care about the PED suspicions? Are they willing to set aside any misgivings and go berserk when Braun crushes a huge home run for Team USA — as Yankees fans did for Alex Rodriguez in 2009?
And if there are skeptics, what is Braun’s message to them?
“For me, I focus on the things I can control,” Braun said, when I posed that question to him Tuesday. “I try to be the same person every day, try to play the game the same way every day, focus on the things I can control and not really worry about anything going on outside that. Obviously, there’s been a lot of things I’ve dealt with over the last year and a half. But I’m able to focus on the things I can control.
“The longer you deal with something, the easier it becomes to deal with — regardless of what the circumstances are. I’ve kind of lived this for the last year and a half. I’m able to focus when I get on the baseball field and try my best not to allow any outside distractions — whether it’s personal issues, family issues, or a situation like this — to come into play.”
During the last WBC, Braun looked like the emerging face of baseball in this country — a 26-year-old with the chance to be the best American player of his generation. Now he’s 29, coming off consecutive top-two finishes in the MVP vote, but without the squeaky-clean image of, say, Team USA catcher Joe Mauer. Still, virtually all of Braun’s endorsement partners have remained with him through the tumult, one member of his camp said Tuesday.
And if Tuesday’s smallish crowd (an announced 4,771) was any indication, U.S. fans are willing to accept Braun — at least as long as the WBC lasts. Tuesday was Braun’s first game for USA since last month’s reports by Yahoo! Sports and ESPN about his appearance in documents obtained from the Biogenesis. When his name was announced prior to his first at-bat, there were plenty of cheers and no discernible boos. One man hollered, “LET’S GO BRAUNIE!” Even more applause came after he battered a Gavin Floyd pitch up the middle for a clean single.
Braun plays in one of baseball’s smallest media markets (Milwaukee), for a team that didn’t reach the postseason last year. So, it’s entirely possible that many Americans don’t have a fully formed opinion about Braun’s guilt or innocence. Me? I don’t buy some of the statements made by Braun and his representatives. They offered different arguments to the arbitrator and general public after his 2011 positive test, a fact that has gnawed at me ever since. But he shouldn’t be shunned while wearing his nation’s colors because of that.
Braun could have pulled out after the Yahoo! and ESPN stories broke last month. He didn’t, which I find commendable. Now he’s representing his country — our country — and we don’t need to believe he’s innocent in order to support that. Besides, all of us love a great American story. Flaws are fine, as long as the character involved has the constitution to overcome them. The noise surrounding Braun is of his own creation. But the sound of his bat is louder.
“Our game is conducive to blocking stuff out,” Torre said. “Don’t think guys don’t come to the ballpark with a kid sick at home. It’s really a conditioning. And this kid’s pretty special.”