PHOENIX — If Ryan Braun took any special sense of satisfaction in homering on the second pitch he saw in the Milwaukee Brewers’ Cactus League opener Thursday, he certainly didn’t let on.
“It’s still the first day of spring training (games),” Braun said after an 11-3 victory over the Oakland A’s. “I’d rather hit the ball hard than strike out. The goal is just to have a gradual progression and prepare myself for the season.”
In his first game appearance since his 65-game suspension, Braun was welcomed by a mixture of cheers and boos by a smallish crowd of 3,649 at Phoenix Municipal Stadium as he strode to the plate for his first at-bat. The game was fairly well-attended by Brewers fans.
“I was encouraged by the amount of support I got,” Braun said when asked about the reaction. “I obviously appreciate that. Again, my only focus is on preparing for the season. I try not to think about or concern myself with things that are out of my control.”
One particularly vocal spectator chanted “M-V-P-E-D!” but didn’t get much reaction from those around him. Braun knows there’s much more to come as the venues become bigger and the games begin to count.
“I’ve dealt with it in the past,” he said. “I’ve always said I’ve never gotten to play in St. Louis or Chicago or Philadelphia and had them root for me. I’ve never experienced them not yelling at me. They have some new things to yell at me for, yell at me about.”
Facing left-hander Tommy Milone, Braun went to work in his first at-bat in a game since July 21. After swinging and missing at Milone’s first offering, Braun crushed the second way out to left field, scoring Jean Segura and giving the Brewers a 2-0 lead.
There were no histrionics by Braun after hitting the no-doubter, no standing and admiring the blast at home plate. He made an expeditious trip around the bases, slapped some hands and that was that.
“I’d much rather make solid contact than swing and miss,” said Braun, whose last homer in any sort of game came May 22 in a 9-2 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers at Miller Park.
“But you’ve got to get the swings and misses out of the way at some point, too. It’s inevitable — I will swing and miss.”
Braun bounced out to shortstop in his second at-bat before departing in favor of Caleb Gindl heading into the fourth inning.
In each of his previous three public appearances following his suspension for involvement in the Biogenesis scandal, Braun professed a forward-looking approach. Nothing had changed in that regard despite his seven-month absence.
“I try not to get caught up in the emotional aspect of any of that stuff,” he said. “I try to focus on the task at hand. I think if I focus on the bigger picture or get overly introspective or emotional about the situation I get myself in trouble and I take away from what I’m ultimately trying to accomplish, which is preparing myself for the season.
“Certainly it’s a little different than it’s been before. But aside from that, I really just try to not have peripheral vision. My goal is to focus on preparing myself for the season and going out there and being the best player I can be for our team.”
Defensively, Braun made his debut for the Brewers in right field and didn’t even see a fly ball. His transition from left will be an ongoing process.
“I felt myself a little bit more anxious on defense than I normally am just trying to make sure I’m in the right position, figuring out where the centerfielder is at,” he said. “Fortunately for us we have a centerfielder that covers so much ground that I think I’ll probably play a little closer to the line. Figuring out where to play on certain hitters. Reading the ball off the bat I think is a little bit different than it’s been.
“It took me I’d say a year or two to get to the point where I felt like I was an above-average defender, so I hope I’m able to make the transition smoothly. But I don’t anticipate it being easy.”
There will be 28 more opportunities for Braun to prepare before the Brewers’ opener at Miller Park on March 31. But does he feel happy to finally begin writing what he hopes will be a new, more positive, chapter in his life?
“I really don’t think about those things. I don’t,” he said. “I focus on the things that I need to do to prepare myself for the season physically, mentally and emotionally for playing hopefully 180-something games.”