Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun watches the strangers come into their clubhouse, pulling teammate Eric Thames aside, taking him into a private area, where he is drug-tested.
Thames, who has hit 12 home runs this season after a three-year stint in Korea, has already been drug-tested five times by his count, proving his innocence to Major League Baseball.
He hears fans on the road chant “STER-OIDS!” when he walks to the plate, even though beer is the only foreign substance guaranteed to be found in his body.
“I’ve never been tested positive for anything in my life,” Thames says, “but I know that’s the way things are. I understand it. People have been so heartbroken over the years. They’ve had all of these heroes in their mind, and all of a sudden, they find out he’s cheating. It’s like, ‘Oh, he’s doing well, so he must be cheating.’ It sucks. But there’s really nothing I can do about it except keep playing.”
Braun, the 2011 National League MVP and one of the greatest players in Brewers history, faces that scrutiny, too, and no matter how many drug tests he passes, there will always be skepticism. His declarations of innocence following a 2011 positive test fell apart when he was ensnared in the Biogenesis investigation.
“It’s a logical part of the conversation,” Braun says, “and ultimately I put myself in that position. It’s my fault. I have nobody to blame but myself.
“I don’t let it motivate me. I don’t let it inspire me. I enjoy life too much to ever allow anybody else’s negativity or skepticism to have any impact in my life at any point.”
Baseball fans want to savor these wondrous achievements but remain skeptical. They were burned by the Steroid Era, angry that Hank Aaron and Roger Maris’ records were shattered, exhausted by the Biogenesis scandal that resulted in 14 suspensions, including Braun’s 65-game ban that ended his 2013 season.
Now, here they are, one man who continues to prove his innocence while trying to establish himself as an All-Star-caliber player, the other demonstrating he’s still one of the game’s elite players at 33.
Together, they need one another, forming a dynamic 1-2 punch last seen in the Brewers’ glory days of Braun and Prince Fielder, only this time with Braun as the lineup enforcer.
“He’s a big part of what I’ve done,” Thames says. “Pitchers don’t want to pitch around me because he’s an All-Star, MVP-caliber player. They’ll challenge me. So the better he does, the better pitches I’m going to get to hit.”
Indeed, in the last week that Braun was kept out of the starting lineup with a strained forearm, Thames hit just .150 (3-for-20) with one extra-base hit until going 3-for-5 on Sunday against the Pirates with a double and a homer.
Braun, who’s hitting .284 with seven homers and 18 RBI, is expected to return to the lineup Tuesday night in the first game of a six-game homestand with the Red Sox and Mets. Once again, Thames will have that valuable protection in the lineup.
“I was so fortunate for the first five years of my career having Prince Fielder hitting behind me,” Braun says, “so I can certainly relate to what it’s like when you have somebody behind you who teams really fear.”
Thames is hoping the two of them can stick around together just as long. And while Thames has no control over his future (his contract expires after the 2018 season) Braun is on the verge of having full control. This is the final week in which Braun can be traded without his permission. He gains 10-and-5 rights — 10 years in the major leagues, with at least five with the same team — on Sunday. Braun, whose contract expires after 2020, could spend his entire career in the Brewers organization unless he signs off on a deal.
Who would ever have imagined that after his 65-game suspension in 2013, going from the face of the franchise to an outcast, that Braun would be the last one standing?
“For the most part, I’ve always felt there was a higher likelihood that I’d be here than be traded,” he says. “And as long as we continue to stay competitive, I’m thrilled to stay here. That’s part of the equation that people forget.”
Once Sunday comes around, the only teams Braun likely would ever accept a trade to are the Dodgers and Angels, both close to his offseason home in Malibu. For Braun, the only significance of the date is the meaning. Ten years in one place, and the possibility of being there his entire career. It’s a milestone few achieve.
“It will be one of those moments that makes sense to take time to reflect upon it,” he says, “because it’s a really challenging thing to do. It’s something to be proud of.
“I don’t think it’s going to have any impact on any decisions I have moving forward, but at the same time, you never know what the future holds. Things can change, circumstances can change, so it’s nice to at least be in the position of power. If I’m fortunate to spend my whole career here, it’s something I’ll feel incredibly proud of.”
Yes, Milwaukee, a place where he became a star while perhaps grooming another.
“I know I’m going to continue to play well at a high level,” Braun says, “so this isn’t something about proving to anybody who doubts me. I think I have a chance to have a great year. Both of us do.”
Follow me on Twitter @BNightengale.
OTHER BASEBALL STORIES