Brewers delighted by Braun's return
PHOENIX -- The familiar "good morning" greeting among Milwaukee Brewers personnel on Friday seemed inadequate for the occasion.
"It's a Beautiful Morning," the Young Rascals' classic, should have been piped into their clubhouse.
Ryan Braun, No. 8 in your program and No. 1 in the 2011 National League Most Valuable Player Award balloting, was back in business, his looming 50-game suspension for an alleged violation of Major League Baseball's drug policy having been overturned by the appeal process.
Before Braun's stirringly emotional and detailed on-field presentation -- proclaiming his innocence and how he was wronged by a "fatally flawed" system in a press conference unlike any other -- teammates spoke glowingly of the man and why he matters so much to them.
"It's almost like a huge free-agent signing," right fielder Corey Hart said. "We'd have been a good team [without him]. We can be a great team with him.
"He's our franchise, our best player. He's been our best player for four or five years. If you don't have him, you still have hope; you have to have that. But it might be false hope.
"When you're missing someone like Ryan, you might try to overdo it. Now we can all settle into our roles -- and our management can concentrate on our team. We have our club now."
The defending NL Central champions knew they'd be moving on without Prince Fielder, the other half of the heartland's version of the "Bash Brothers" having relocated in Detroit as a free agent.
Even with the signing of former Cubs slugger Aramis Ramirez, Milwaukee looked to be in deep trouble before Thursday's ruling and the accompanying fallout.
Brewers manager Ron Roenicke, naturally elated by the liberation of his star, talked about Braun's impact on and off the field, his presence and leadership, following the left fielder's emotional meeting with teammates in the clubhouse.
"It's pretty hard to beat Braun and Prince," Roenicke said. "But I'm very happy with what we have 3-4 [in the lineup]. I think we compensated a lot in getting Aramis. He's a very accomplished professional."
Given the whole package he represents, Braun would have been virtually irreplaceable for those 50 games, likely putting the Brew Crew in an early hole.
With their main man in the fold, the Brewers clearly feel they're competitive with anyone in the division, including the post-Albert Pujols Cardinals and the upgraded Reds.
Little wonder the atmosphere was so chipper in the Milwaukee clubhouse even before Braun appeared to embrace and thank his teammates for their ongoing support.
"It's always upbeat in here," starter Shaun Marcum said, "but it's exciting for all of us coming in today, knowing Brauny is going to be with us.
"I don't think there's a person in here who doubted him. Brauny is a winner. Everyone knows the type of player he is. We know the type of person he is."
Marcum, like Roenicke, believes Braun's character and confidence will pull him through the rough times sure to come in the form of criticism and cynicism around the sport and in the stands.
"He blocks everything out," Marcum said. "Once we're at the park, he's focused as a professional to be the best in the game. He doesn't let anything get in the way of that.
"You don't become the special player he is without having that ability to handle distractions. Look at his numbers every year. They're consistent -- and clutch. He always seems to come through when you need him.
"It wouldn't surprise me if he goes out and has an even better year. He's that kind of player, highly motivated."
Hart was on the phone with Braun throughout a fitful winter that was nothing like what your league MVP normally experiences. "A four-month nightmare," Braun called it.
"I didn't really think about the ballclub as much as I was worried about one of my best friends, what he was going through," Hart said. "His offseason was ruined.
"It should never have gotten out [for public consumption]. It should have been taken care of a long time ago. There's the uncertainty of a [drug] system that should have been altered. The things that happened to him can't happen."
As much as Hart revels in Braun's multiple talents, he is even more impressed with his buddy's intelligence. It was on display, full force, as he articulated precisely why he "took the high road" throughout the process and resisted any impulse to lash back at those who'd "attacked" him.
"He's the most intellectual guy on our ballclub, by far," said Hart, pointing out that Braun respected confidentiality in the process. "He's a strong guy to keep it in the way he did. If there's somebody smarter in baseball, I don't know him. He's very smart in baseball and in life. He does things the right way.
"He could have come out a long time ago and told his story, that something's wrong with the system. But he stuck with it and let the system play out.
"A lot of guys would have come right out and said, `I didn't do it.' I know I probably would have. But I'm not nearly as smart as Ryan."
Support for a teammate is natural and expected. A team can't function any other way. But in Braun's case, it feels real.
"He's a guy who always comes up big in stressful situations," catcher George Kottaras said. "He's going to answer the questions and move forward, turn the page. I'm sure he'll handle this the way he handles everything. He's the MVP -- and he deserved it. Knowing Braun is in the lineup is a huge factor for us."
Marcum realizes it won't be a smooth ride for Braun as the Californian goes about repairing his once-golden image.
"People are still going to be critical," Marcum said. "They will say it's a technicality that he got out on. In baseball -- in sports in general -- you're guilty until proven innocent. That's not how it's supposed to be in our society, but that's how it is."
Outside the Brewers' clubhouse, it was apparent that support for Braun extended to four-legged creatures.
Margie Hazleton, a Phoenix resident and longtime Brewers fan with husband John, expressed relief as she held her Jack Russell-Chihuahua companion.
"Her name is Brauny, and she's three," Mrs. Hazleton said of the dog, whose Brewers sweater carried number 00 "because there were no No. 8s.
"She wants to meet Ryan. I've met him; he's always been accessible. He talks to us all the time. I believe if Ryan had done anything, he'd have come out and admitted it and said he made a mistake. I'm happy for him and the team -- very happy."
Brauny wagged her tail in agreement.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.