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Welcome back: NL MVP Ryan Braun returns to field with Brewers after winter of suspicions
PHOENIX (AP) ' His 50-game suspension and months of anxiety lifted from his shoulders, Ryan Braun carried only an equipment bag containing his bat and glove.
No speeches or suspicions on this day.
Braun took batting practice, shagged fly balls in the outfield and ran the bases like a little kid, relishing every second in the sun.
Back on the field. Back where he belonged.
"It was a lot of fun," Milwaukee's outfielder said Saturday following the Brewers' first full-squad workout this spring. "I had a lot of fun today, just being around my teammates and being on the baseball field and getting to play baseball was nice. It was a lot of fun."
One day after he vehemently defended his innocence and integrity in the aftermath of his suspension for a positive drug test being overturned by an arbitrator, Braun was finally able to put the turmoil behind him.
It was business as usual. It was baseball ' at last.
Following a morning meeting during which manager Ron Roenicke laid out his expectations for the defending NL Central champions, Braun headed out of the clubhouse and was greeted on the sidewalk by a large contingent of Milwaukee fans, who cheered and applauded.
"Atta boy, MVP," yelled one.
"Keep your head up," said another.
Braun smiled and said thanks as he passed inside metal barricades keeping the fans at a safe distance and walked toward a field adjacent to Maryvale Ballpark to get ready for the 2012 season, one he and the Brewers weren't sure would begin with him in the lineup.
Following the two-hour workout, Braun was mobbed for autographs. With two security guards asking the crowd to give him room, he spent 20 minutes talking with fans and signing as many bats, balls and photos as he could before jogging back inside to more applause.
When he got his locker, a member of Milwaukee's media relations staff informed reporters the 28-year-old would answer a few "questions only about baseball."
Braun said he was touched by the reception.
"It felt incredible and I truly appreciate everybody's support, and it's one of the biggest reasons why I've been able to make it through this challenging situation," he said. "That truly meant a lot to me. It was really cool."
While others may have their doubts whether Braun cheated or believe his claims that "this substance never entered my body at any point," Milwaukee fans have always been in his corner.
"I certainly appreciate people who support me when you deal with adversity," he said. "Like I said yesterday, when you go through something like this you see who truly supports you, you see who your friends are and you see how they truly feel about you. It definitely meant a lot to me."
There's no doubt the gravity of the suspension had weighed on Braun, who called it a "nightmare" when he stood near home plate Friday and defiantly declared himself "the victim of a (testing) process that completely broke down and failed."
Braun had learned on Oct. 19 that a urine sample he gave following an Oct. 1 playoff game showed a high level of testosterone. From the outset, he insisted he was innocent and Thursday his appeal was upheld by a three-member panel, making him the first major leaguer to win a drug-related penalty in a grievance.
He wants to move forward, and he took his first steps Saturday while wearing cleats.
"I'm sure he feels like a kid again," said right fielder Corey Hart. "The pressure is off. He can go out there and play with his friends. We're a big team here, but we're a bunch of friends. He's like he's at a schoolyard, just hanging out. It's fun. He hasn't been able to relax and to come out here today, you could tell he had a load off and was just able to hang out and have fun with it."
Braun was at ease around the batting cage. When Japanese rookie Norichika Aoki finished a round, Braun asked if he could see his new teammate's bat and the two shared a laugh despite not speaking the same language.
As the Brewers went through their first workout, owner Mark Attanasio stood near the foul line in the left-field corner and spoke about Braun's ordeal, which hovered over the organization all winter.
Attanasio always thought Braun would be cleared of any wrongdoing.
"Obviously, it wasn't a case of him simply calling me and saying on Thursday afternoon, 'Hey, I didn't do anything. See you in Maryvale,'" Attanasio said. "Statements about his character, I stand behind. I always believed Ryan would win his appeal."
Attanasio, who bought the Brewers in 2005 from Commissioner Bud Selig, was asked if it was difficult to be caught between backing his player while upholding Major League's Baseball's policies.
"It's easy to balance in this case because Ryan has got such a high character and is so demonstratively been an exemplary athlete on this team and member of the Milwaukee community," he said. "So, I'm a big Ryan Braun supporter which extends well beyond his simply being the MVP in the league. And at the same time, I'm the supporter of a strong drug testing program. I believe that MLB does have a strong drug testing program.
"The corollary to everything that we've been talking about is the MVP went through an extremely difficult offseason because MLB has a strong drug testing program and needs to have one. So, the balance is you support both."