MILWAUKEE — The main attraction at the Milwaukee Brewers’ annual winter fan festival Sunday was unquestionably, and not surprisingly, star right fielder Ryan Braun.
Braun met with reporters at the Wisconsin Center for nearly 10 minutes, but again refused to offer any more details on his suspension for use of performance-enhancing drugs. He made his first public comments since accepting 65-game suspension from Major League Baseball in November at a charity food drive at Miller Park.
"Again, I appreciate there is still interest in this stuff, but I addressed everything in November when I was here for the charity event, and I think I addressed it pretty specifically in the statement that we gave (in August)," Braun said Sunday. "I think that addressed it pretty specifically as far as exactly what it was and when it occurred."
As spring training and the regular season approaches, Braun’s return to the Brewers lineup willbe closely watched by many. The former National League Most Valuable Player will be needed to return to form if the Brewers expect to contend, and Braun feels his production will not drop off.
"I think I’ll be better than I’ve ever been," Braun said. "Very confident in that."
Not only will he face the challenge of returning to the field after an extended break, but the mental hurdle of fan reaction presents a unique situation.
Braun says his interaction with Brewers fans has been mostly positive, one of the things he was unsure of when he made his first public comments in November. He says everyone has been "incredibly supportive" during interactions he’s had.
Those interactions include placing personal phone calls to fans. Braun estimates he called every suite holder and a good number of season ticket holders. He stopped making the calls as soon as word of what he was doing leaked out.
"It was great," Braun said. "I think it was a really unique experience. There were a lot of people who really didn’t believe it was me initially. Actually I think everybody was really supportive, which was cool. It was something I had no idea what to expect or anticipate, but I enjoyed it. It was fun."
According to Braun, only one fan challenged him on the phone, as the rest of the recipients of the calls were responded well.
"It wasn’t surprising in any way," Braun said of the person who challenged him "I made a mistake, I made a big mistake. I don’t expect everybody to be supportive or everybody to be understanding or everybody to understand where I was coming from. Certainly I didn’t anticipate the amount of support I received."
While Brewers fans may welcome Braun back right away, fans around baseball are undoubtedly going to let their feelings be heard when he comes to the plate. Because he’s been through this before in 2012, Braun anticipates being able to handle the negative responses in stride.
"I really don’t think about stuff like that very much," Braun said. "I try not to focus on the things that are out of my control.
"I think I have an idea of what I’m getting myself into. As a competitor, in a really odd way I enjoy it. I think it’s fun. I think the more hostile an environment is the more enjoyable it is. I just enjoy that pressure. In a really unique way, I actually enjoy and look forward to it."
This has been a busy offseason for Braun due to a variety of different things. Aside from trying to work his way back into the good graces of fans and teammates, he was married to model Larisa Fraser and asked to shift from left field to right field to accommodate Khris Davis.
"Yeah, it’s been unique," Braun said. "Overall, it’s been extremely enjoyable. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier, I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed life more, I don’t think I’ve ever been in a better place. From that perspective it’s been beautiful. The wedding was amazing. I’m excited and looking forward to the next year while trying to learn from everything I went through this year."
Braun told the Brewers he was willing to make the move to right field, again joking he would play anywhere but third base.
"I don’t expect it to be easy," Braun said. "In left field you get used to the ball coming off the bat a certain way and a certain direction. In Arizona I’ll have plenty of time to get my work in. It’s something I look forward to, but I expect it to be challenging."
Participating in a game show later in the afternoon, Braun was heckled by one fan who yelled, "You know he’s lying."
He admitted Sunday’s appearance in front of the fans is likely another step in the process, but what happens next is still unclear.
"I think the whole experience has been challenging," Braun said. "I don’t think there’s any specific part of it that’s more challenging than another part. There’s no blueprint. There’s no specific, ‘This is how you deal with a situation like this.’ Not a lot of people have been through something like this. So, certainly, (this is) a unique and challenging set of circumstances, but I’ve never been afraid of a challenge. So I’m looking forward to everything the future holds."