Braun shows brain to handle spotlight
Brewers star deftly manages mental, athletic aspects of game
NEW YORK -- Ryan Braun does not exactly shrink from the spotlight. This is a valuable trait in his line of work, especially at the moment, the last All-Star Game at historic Yankee Stadium.
"The stage doesn't get any bigger, the lights don't get any brighter," Braun said of this situation, and there is a light in his eyes to match that statement.
The All-Star left fielder of the Milwaukee Brewers had a respectable showing in the State Farm Home Run Derby on Monday night, advancing to the second round, hitting a total of 14 home runs. The contest became largely a showcase for the record-setting, awe-inspiring power of the Rangers' Josh Hamilton and was eventually won by the Twins' Justin Morneau. But Braun clearly belonged in the competition.
"It was unbelievable. It was honestly one of the coolest things I've ever had the opportunity to do," Braun said after the Derby on Monday night. "Pretty good showing I felt like, getting to the second round. Extremely nervous from the get-go. People don't realize how difficult it is, not only to hit home runs, but there's no [batting] cage, and we hadn't taken batting practice in about an hour-and-a-half.
"But definitely one of the best experiences I've ever had. Phenomenal show by Josh Hamilton. As far as athletic displays go, it's one of the most impressive feats I've ever seen. There are so many great athletes here, but Josh Hamilton is on another level. And congratulations to Justin Morneau."
Braun is just 24, he is still in his first full season in the Majors, he is in his first season as an outfielder, and yet, the plaudits already have been plentiful. He was named National League Rookie of the Year in 2007, a season in which he had a .634 slugging percentage, a rookie record. Now, he has been elected as a National League starter for the 2008 All-Star Game, and for Monday night, given one of the eight spots in the Home Run Derby.
Yes, this spotlight thing works well for Braun.
"For me, I grew up in Los Angeles, I went to college at Miami, I've always been really comfortable in the spotlight," he said. "It's something that I definitely enjoy. This right here, it doesn't get any better than this, it doesn't get any bigger than this, it's pretty cool."
Braun is candid, witty, self-confident to the point of being brash but not obnoxiously so. These are traits that can work if the individual in question can play, which he obviously can.
And he can correctly evaluate a difficult situation. At the lowest ebb of the Brewers' season, after the team was seriously outplayed and swept in three games in Boston in May, it was Braun who spoke out, saying the Brewers' approach was lacking, that they did not fully expect to win. Coincidentally or not, the club has gone 32-19 since that episode.
"I think sometimes you have to experience failure to appreciate success," Braun said. "Our series in Boston, we pretty much got embarrassed. I don't know whether my comments had anything to do with the run that we went on, but I'm not afraid to say what is on my mind. I think there is a really fine line between being a good team and a great team and for us, we're just too talented to accept mediocrity."
This All-Star experience for Braun, who is well-versed in baseball history, is unique and easily appreciated.
"I appreciate the support that everybody has given me," Braun said. "It's unbelievable. The Milwaukee fans really got out there and voted. They're crazy for baseball right now.
"You rarely have an opportunity to reflect on what you've accomplished in this game because everything happens so fast. But when you get a chance to come here and be around all these great players, be a part of something this special, it just makes me really appreciate everything that I've worked for. For me, I really am a student of the game. I have so much respect for the history, for the tradition of this game. It's a tremendous honor for me."
As a Home Run Derby participant, Braun, listed at 6 feet, 1 inch and 201 pounds, does not look the part of a slugger. But he hit 34 homers in 113 games last season and he has 23 so far this year.
"I definitely don't think that I fit the prototype of a typical home run hitter," Braun said. "For me, I have to do a lot of things right to hit a home run. I do a lot of ab work, a lot of core work, a lot of rotational exercises, to try to maximize my strength, my power potential. I was always small. I was a leadoff hitter growing up, until I was 13 or 14 years old and had a little growth spurt and started hitting home runs."
Beyond the Derby, one other part of Braun's All-Star experience won't be experienced by many players. While he was doing his All-Star interview session on Monday afternoon, a reporter showed him a copy of a story in a New York tabloid, in which it was reported that Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson had made comments that could have been construed as anti-Semitic. The reporter suggested that this was a very bad situation and asked Braun what he thought about it.
Braun, who had been responding to questions about the Home Run Derby, the All-Star Game and the long-range chances of the Brewers, paused just long enough to do exactly the right thing with this circumstance.
"Obviously, it would be disappointing," he said, "but until I've actually had a chance to see the comments I couldn't really respond to it."
A player who wasn't Jewish would never get this kind of question. If some prominent person made, for instance, an anti-Protestant remark, the Presbyterian and Lutheran players would not be quizzed about it. But Braun gets the difference.
"I think that it's something that comes with the territory," he said later. "There aren't too many Jewish athletes at the highest level. It's something that I certainly embrace. But there are times when people expect me to be aware of issues, like that specific example. I didn't have any idea what he was talking about."
The overall impression that Ryan Braun leaves is one of a player, an individual who belongs at this level, baseball's highest level. Roughly 14 months into his big league career, he is an All-Star starter, a Home Run Derby contestant, a crucial player on a contending team and somebody who handles an impossible, arbitrary question in a highly public setting with mental agility. Very early in a career, this is a truly impressive combination.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.