Ryan Braun hears the critics but gets last laugh

CHICAGO — Ryan Braun can thank ESPN later.

Because the network had the game moved to 6:05 p.m. from its original start an hour later, Wrigley Field was about half full Monday night when the Brewers slugger came to bat in the top of the first.

From my perch in the left-field bleachers, overrated as one of the black holes of baseball, the reaction was positively . . . benign.

The booing, predicted to cause tidal action a few blocks away on Lake Michigan for Braun’s first road game, was loud at times. But mostly it was sort of like former Cub Tyler Colvin’s swing last year. Kind of weak.

I couldn’t see some of the signs being held aloft near center, so an usher closer to the small protest faction filled us in on some of the words.

"Cheater," he said. "Nothing too clever."

How Chicago . . . straight up, nothing embellished.

By the less-than-over-the-top reaction, Braun has far, far less of a public-relations problem than Ozzie Guillen, the former south-side manager who has whipped up some kind of a political firestorm in south Florida.

Then, somebody in the bleachers sort of surprised me. "Testoster-Braun," he chanted a time or two. That got a couple of chuckles from a handful of hecklers who weren’t busy socializing, but they were soon drowned out by four Brewers fans who got the "MVP" thing going.

Braun doubled, and the bleacher creatures went back to their beer.

So, I’m thinking, the negative vibe has to pick up for Aramis Ramirez, the former Cub, right?

Actually, there was a smattering of . . . applause.

I get the whole Wrigley scene, generally more about in-stand schmoozing than the on-field proceedings. I also understand that the Brewers are not No. 1 on the Cubs’ public-enemy list. But this was Braun’s first appearance outside the warm embrace of Miller Park following his acquittal on the positive drug test.

Then Braun took his position in left. From out there in the bleachers, it’s easy to see how lonely the position can be. His closest human contact was Cubs fans, and beyond a few "cheater" catcalls and a solitary one-finger salute, they pretty much left the guy alone until the crowd began filling in.
"The crowd is always going to be on him," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "That’s because he’s a great player."

After Braun picked up a hot-dog wrapper and stuck it in his back pocket, he turned to face the crowd for a second and flashed something approaching a smile.

"MVP, MVP," the four Brewers fans responded to Braun’s brief recognition of the crowd. To that, a Cubs fan asked the Brewers contingent if professional basketball were played in Milwaukee anymore. Apparently, the verbal arsenal from the bleachers had been exhausted, so I moved to behind the Brewers’ dugout to assess the up-close-and-personal reaction.

Braun was on-deck in the top of the third as the ancient stadium began to fill with people who were either unaware of the early start time or just had a really hard time reaching the corner of Addison and Clark, an intersection that is maddening to access even in off-peak traffic.

Still, Braun was not verbally assaulted with anything approaching a zealot’s enthusiasm. The boos were much more audible because many of the crowd of 38,136 had settled into their seats, but it was far from the level that would cause a mentally tough guy like Braun to glance over his shoulder.

"MVP, MVP," four or five Brewers fans from behind the backstop screen chanted as Braun walked and then stole second.

"Being the kind of player he is, he’s always going to get some razzing by the fans," said Brewers closer John Axford, who finished the too-close-for-comfort victory against the Cubs. "That’s just the way it is. But here, it’s always going to be a little different."

Different, but not that bad, as it turned out.

"I have no expectations at all," Braun said afterward. "It’s all about the team."

He got in the last word Monday.

He struck out in the top of the ninth and what was left of the Wrigley crowd cheered, but by then it was too late. The Brewers won, 7-5, and Braun is batting .375 after four games.

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