For seven years, I covered the Milwaukee sports scene. A significant and influential stretch that exposed me to some of the most rewarding experiences of my professional career: Spring trainings. Sweet Sixteens. A Super Bowl and October baseball. State and national championships, not to mention the friendships made. And the learning. Oh my goodness — the things I learned.
I fell into the welcomed redundancy of a sports conveyor belt that taxied me seamlessly from one season to the next. Now when memories of my Milwaukee journey begin to blur, it is often the championship pursuits or the spotlight-worthy individuals that distinguish one year from the next.
That's part of the reason I will never misremember the Ryan Braun scandal that enveloped the Brewers for the 2012 season — my last covering the team. The MVP with the model girlfriend and quarterback best friend turned out to be a cheater and miscreant. Eventually we’d learn he was also a liar and a manipulator. It was a national story developing right in our own roofed yard.
But it’s not the only reason it remains featured in my mind. In my entire time in Milwaukee sports media, no experience made me more self-conscious about my ability to judge and defend character than the Braun saga.
Having covered Braun since he entered the league, I foolishly believed I knew him. So naturally, when the failed drug test was unveiled and he defended himself against the reports, I bought it. All his lines, the explanations and even the hilarious defenses of a tainted sample. Braun would look me and the other reporters in the eyes so earnestly and deliver a polished declaration of innocence so convincing, I’d shake my head and staunchly say, “He didn’t do it. No way. He’s too smart to cheat”
But he did.
I, like others, was wrong and embarrassed. He was punished, served his time and — according to reports — began making amends to the fans and even those his lies had harmed.
So here comes Opening Day 2014 and Braun’s return to the diamond. The Miller Park crowd ensures it is triumphant, greeting him with a standing ovation. Meanwhile, the nation looks on with disapproving tsks: "How could you?" they wonder. "He’s a cheater, after all."
I certainly understand the criticism. I don’t know if I would have stood and applauded Braun. But here’s what I do know — what I’ve learned:
I’ve learned that each individual athlete is a piece of the machine. Some more notable or valuable than others but all necessary for the machine to function. Fans also know this. They know that Ryan Braun in the Brewers' lineup is likely better than whomever the brass might get to replace him. And they certainly don’t want to see the face of their franchise suiting up for someone else. I think they cheer to convey that to Braun.
I’ve learned that fans genuinely believe their actions are linked to their team’s success. It’s why they handcuff themselves to odd and sometimes disgusting superstitions and why they never talk about a no-no. They cheer because booing a star — even the fallen variety — on the first day of the season is very bad juju.
I’ve learned that fans will get behind almost anything that represents their team. It explains the embrace of foam cheeseheads, decaying stadiums and even adorable stray dogs. So long as Braun is wearing the Brewers blue, hitting home runs and making highlight-reel catches he’ll be included in the love-fest. They cheer because he’s in the club.
I’ve learned that fans believe it’s their duty to create a home-field advantage. Eighty one games at Miller Park means 81 opportunities to usher the Brewers to 81 W’s. They want Braun to know they have his back here even if no one anywhere else does. They cheer to show that in Milwaukee, he’s safe and welcome and hopefully comfortable enough to resume his dominance.
But most of all, I’ve learned that our hometown athletes are extensions of our families. When our kids misbehave, break the rules, even lie to us repeatedly, we're disappointed, even hurt on some level. But we don’t disown them. We root for them to be better. And, eventually applaud, their efforts and achievements again. Braun is family. For these fans, he's forgiven.
It’s all a little flawed. But I’ve learned that’s what makes it wonderful. It’s almost inexplicable. It mostly just is.
I don’t know why each person stood and cheered. I’m simply guessing. But I believe this universal reaction was more than just mass-hypnosis, so I’m not going to admonish an entire stadium full of people — many whom are my friends and former neighbors — for their decision to do so. I might not have known Braun the way I thought, but I know Milwaukeeans and they are not stupid saps. They are sharp, thoughtful and exceedingly hard-working. Loyal and honest people who adore their sports teams and support their athletes. Unabashedly.
And that — in this increasingly apathetic world — is worth applauding.