When I heard the news on Monday that Ryan Braun had decided to retire from professional baseball, my initial thought was, “Ryan Braun is still playing baseball?” I probably should have kept better tabs on Braun considering I was a big fan throughout his career, but with all the excitement that baseball’s young stars provide nowadays, it’s easy to forget about the guys that made us love the game in the first place.
As a fan of an NL East team, it was easy for me to root for the Brewers teams of the early 2010s without feeling too badly about it. Their 2011 squad is one of my favorite non-Phillies teams of all time, and Braun was the centerpiece. His three-run homer against the Cardinals to clinch the Brewers’ spot in the playoffs is one of my favorite baseball moments ever, and it capped off a phenomenal MVP campaign. That season, Ryan Braun slashed .332/.397/.597, posted a 171 wRC+, and accumulated 7.1 fWAR. 2011 featured one of the most exciting MVP races of the past decade, and although hindsight tells us it was probably Matt Kemp’s award, it was still a ton of fun to see play out. Braun’s MVP season was not a one-off either. A .379 career wOBA, 135 wRC+, 43.9 fWAR, and a Rookie of the Year award placed him very solidly in the Hall of Very Good and make him a surefire member of the Brewers Hall of Fame.
However, the story of Ryan Braun’s career can not be told solely by what he accomplished on the field. When it came out in 2013 that Braun was connected to the Biogenesis clinic and had used performance-enhancing drugs throughout his MVP season, I was crushed. Not only had he cheated, but he had lied about it repeatedly as well. As a young baseball fan who hated the use of PEDs, I felt like I had been deceived by someone I looked up to. Ever since then, I have always asked myself how I would react to potentially finding out that my favorite players were taking steroids. Although I was a big fan of Braun, he wasn’t my favorite player, and there are definitely others such as Bryce Harper and Aaron Nola whose cheating would elicit a much bigger reaction from me.
Oddly enough, I have had to deal with this question a bit in the past couple of years due to the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal. I am a huge fan of Alex Bregman, and all the evidence points to the fact that Bregman was very much aware of what was going on, let alone the fact that he might have been active in it himself. Dealing with this has been bothersome, but honestly, it has not made me much less of a fan. Contrast this with the Braun situation where 12 year old me wanted nothing to do with him after the news of his steroid use broke. I am in no way condoning what the Astros did, but an entire team using technology to get an edge seems to diffuse the blame somewhat equally among each player rather than just one. This is simply not the case when an individual player is taking PEDs.
I think a takeaway from all of this is that we do not view all cheating the same. There are some players we choose to vilify more than others, and as baseball fans, I do think that is our right. However, in a lot of cases, I think we could do a better job of appreciating the game’s best as much as we can, assuming their worst transgressions are nothing more than a positive PED test. I am in no way advocating for PED use, and I am still very much against players using it. But Ryan Braun’s cheating does not erase the incredibly fond memories I have of him in his prime. MLB players are human beings who make mistakes just like the rest of us, and I hope Braun is remembered for his longtime prowess at the plate more than he is as a cheater whose career was mired in scandal.