Coming off a National League MVP award while leading Milwaukee to its first ever NLCS, Ryan Braun seemed to be the burgeoning face of the MLB following the 2011 season. A homegrown Milwaukee talent, Braun had just signed a contract extension in the spring that locked him up through 2020, essentially keeping him in the Cream City for the duration of his career.
Then, the unthinkable happened. News broke that Milwaukee’s baseball savior had been busted for PED use. I vividly remember sitting on the living room couch watching ESPN when suddenly the condemning “Breaking News” banner flashed across screen, and then subsequently reacting in disbelief. “There’s no way he did it. He’s one of the good guys,” I thought to myself. After numerous lies by Braun himself and a failed smear campaign against the testing sample collector, all my confidence in the to-be legend was obliterated. Braun officially joined the ranks of the “cheaters”, and no future accomplishments, no matter how great, could vindicate that from the baseball world’s collective memory.
However, what could have been if what I initially thought on that fateful December night was definitively true? What if Ryan Braun really had never used performance enhancing drugs during 2011? With no strings attached, no PEDs, no recurring injury concerns, what could have the future have looked like, for both Ryan Braun and the city of Milwaukee?
Braun had already established himself in Brewers’ lore prior to 2011. After winning the NL Rookie of the Year in 2007, Braun followed it up with an elite offensive season in 2008 that saw him finish third in MVP voting and lead the Brewers to the playoffs for the first time since 1982. His clutch home run against the Cubs on the final day of the season will forever be ingrained in the minds of all Brewers fans, as it provided a transformative breath of life into the fan base that caused many of them to realize the feeling of a playoff baseball team for the first time.
In Braun, Milwaukee had their first bona fide superstar since the days of Molitor and Yount.
2011 was a year of utter dominance. Braun’s 30/30 season coupled with his .332 batting average and 111 RBIs gave him one of the most historic seasons in Brewers history. It once again was a Ryan Braun home run that clinched the Brewers a spot in October. Although Prince Fielder’s departure would be hard, Braun being Milwaukee’s first MVP since Yount was enough of a reason to believe that this team could still compete annually going forward. Rather than 2011 being viewed as a year marred by illegitimacy, it would be the year that Braun made it clear on a national level that he could quite possibly turn into an icon of this era in baseball.
Braun effectively was the heir apparent to Derek Jeter as being the MLB’s golden boy. A level of sustained production at his 2011 level for the next 6-7 years would have made him a surefire Hall of Famer, and his dedication to a small market would have won over fans across the nation. The endorsements would have come running, and Braun could have transformed Milwaukee into a small market haven, into that unique economically inferior franchise that overcomes its demographic restrictions to put a competitive team on the field year after year. Braun was Milwaukee’s rallying symbol, a Hunger Games “mockingjay” of sorts that would lead Milwaukee out of the ashes of irrelevancy. The stage was set, and the path to a bright future gleamed on the horizon.
Would this utopic version of years past actually have happened if Ryan Braun had not used PEDs? Possibly. It certainly would have been on the table.
However, like numerous other “stars” of the last 20 years of baseball, Braun will always bear a figurative asterisk next to his name and accomplishments, and for that, he has only himself to blame.
What could’ve been? Unfortunately, we will never truly know.