When Doug Melvin faced the media following the announcement of Ryan Braun's suspension, he didn't talk about disappointment or shock. He talked about relief.
"As the general manager of the ballclub, we’re happy that decision has come to an end and we support the Commissioner’s drug program. The Commissioner’s Office, Ryan, the Union have all got together and finally put an end to this so we as a ballclub can move forward and concentrate on the 25 players on the field and move forward and try to win as many games as we can."
The issue that's been hanging over the Brewers' heads since December 2011 has been taken care of. The question now, of course, is where the Brewers (and Braun) go from here.
In a lot of ways, the suspension is the best possible result for both parties, at least short of there being no suspension at all. Braun's been battling a nerve issue in his hand for over a month and now has plenty of time to rest it. The Brewers entered Monday night with the 4th-worst record in baseball and can now officially declare this a lost season, selling pieces at the trade deadline and playing for draft position. And for all the talk about 100- or 150-game suspensions that would've bled into next season, the Brewers and Braun can essentially start with a clean slate at the start of next season, at least when it comes to the baseball side of things.
That, really, is the key here. On the field, the Brewers will be fine. This season, they get to find out if young players like Logan Schafer and Caleb Gindl can contribute at the big league level. The absence of Braun and anyone they happen to trade may push them up another spot or two in what’s expected to be a strong draft. Come Opening Day next year, their All-Star slugger will be back in left field and hitting third. With everyone healthy and a young pitching staff having another year of experience, perhaps they return to being factors in the NL Central.
Things won’t be as rosy, however, when you look at the off-field effects of Braun's suspension.
There are plenty of Brewers fans who will either continue to support Braun through thick and thin or just don't care all that much about PED use. But there are also many Brewers fans who may feel lied to or disillusioned about what was their favorite team. People were calling into Milwaukee sports talk radio stations wondering if the Brewers were going to do an Aaron Hernandez-style jersey swap, demanding the Brewers void his contract (they can’t), trade him (good luck, with $100 million+ owed), or release him (and eat every dollar for no production). Those are the fans the Brewers need to reach the attendance marks that have made expanded payrolls possible over the past few years.
What happens if those fans not only feel like they can't trust Braun now, but some of the other team's young stars? Is a prospect that bursts onto the scene the way Braun did in his rookie year going to be looked at with a little more suspicion? These aren’t fair scenarios, but they aren’t exactly far-fetched, either.
As easy as it is to roll your eyes at the plethora of “Braun needs to apologize to the following people” columns today (really, Braun doesn’t have to do anything, especially since anything he says at this point will just be scoffed at, anyway), it’d be just as dishonest to say the entire ordeal hasn’t hurt the franchise in the slightest. Anytime a small-market team’s star player does something to alienate a portion of your fanbase, it’s significant.
Braun was The Face Of The Franchise, owned a chain of restaurants in Wisconsin, was BFFs with state god Aaron Rodgers, and signed a contract that made him a Brewer for life. If those fans were going to trust anyone, put any athlete on a pedestal, it was going to be someone like Ryan Braun.
The Brewers’ PR staff now has one of the toughest jobs in sports, trying to rebuild any fractured relationships between the team and its fans. The Yankees may end up losing Alex Rodriguez for a hundred games or more, but in terms of a PR hit, this is like if they were losing Derek Jeter or Mariano Rivera instead. The Yankees, of course, also rake in hundreds of millions through various revenue streams that simply aren’t available in Milwaukee. The Brewers, playing in one of baseball’s smallest markets with one of baseball’s worst TV contracts, need people to keep showing up.
That’s why owner Mark Attanasio has been reluctant to sign off on a total rebuild, and that’s why when Melvin kept stressing there is “still plenty of talent on the field” when appeared on Fox Sports Wisconsin during Monday night’s game. They need people to keep showing up in the second half, keep buying t-shirts and keep watching the games on FSWI.
In the long run, this will all likely fade, even if it is slowly. For the Brewers, it helps that Braun will be out of the public eye until he reports to spring training next year. The issue will surely pop up again when that day comes, and again when he undoubtedly gets booed on the team’s first road trip. But everyone in Milwaukee went through this already in 2012. Brewers fans that are hurt now will eventually forgive and/or forget once he drives in a few game-winning runs or makes a solid defensive play.
After that, it will likely be smaller reminders every now and then — All-Star balloting snubs, award voting — but largely things that don’t matter when it comes to on-field results. If people can forget about David Ortiz and the 2004 Red Sox, they can forget about this, too.
At least until Braun comes up on Hall of Fame ballots. Then the fun starts again.