MILWAUKEE — Ryan Braun wants this badly.
Not so much for him. Though after a dozen years in the majors, closer to the end of his career than the start, he’s not going to deny what a thrill it would be to finally play in a World Series.
No, what makes this matter so much to Braun is what it would mean for everyone in the city and organization he’s represented for his entire major-league career. His teammates. The coaches. The front-office folks.The ushers and security guards at Miller Park. The fans he meets when he’s out and about in Milwaukee.
The people who stood by him when nobody else would.
“I have a special relationship with the fans, the whole community here,” Braun said Friday night after the Milwaukee Brewers routed the Los Angeles Dodgers 7-2 to force a Game 7 in the National League Championship Series.
“Just understanding how much that would mean to all of them is the thing that makes me most excited about hopefully making it to the second World Series in Brewers history.”
He’s not asking for absolution, but he deserves it anyway.
Braun’s career arc is well-documented. For the better part of a decade, he was the Brewers, an offensive machine who was as good as there was in baseball. He was Rookie of the Year in 2007 and NL MVP in 2011, only the third player in Brewers history to win the award. He led the majors with 41 home runs in 2012.
But on July 22, 2013, Braun tested positive for performance enhancing drugs and was banned for the rest of the season.
His reputation, his legacy – everything changed. He’s still booed in some ballparks. Some fans will never see him as anything more than a cheater, and believe he’s the last person who deserves a shot at baseball’s ultimate prize.
Fair enough. But say this for Braun: he stayed in the fish bowl that is Milwaukee when many other players — let’s be honest, most other players — would have fled.
He stayed through the criticism. He stayed through the questions. He even stayed through the rebuild that made him wonder if he’d ever get close to a postseason again.
“The conversation with (general manager) David Stearns and (owner) Mark Attanasio was whether we would get back to a point where we were contending while I was here,” Braun said of the 2016 season, when his name was permanently affixed to the trading block. “There were certainly times I questioned it.”
Braun has never been as good as he was before the bust, and the Brewers are no longer his team. Not soley his team, anyway.
Christian Yelich is all but assured of joining Braun as an MVP, Josh Hader has the makings of the game’s next dominant closer and the bullpen is a thing of wonder. For a time there in September, in fact, Braun was a bit part in the Brewers’ pursuit of the Chicago Cubs.
But on Sept. 24, when the Brewers were in St. Louis, Braun came into the clubhouse a different player.
“He told everybody, `I’m back.’ And it was really as simple as that,” manager Craig Counsell said. “He homered off (Jack) Flaherty that day, had a great series in St. Louis. And he’s been that middle-of-the-order bat to me since that last week of the season.”
Braun hit .346 over the last seven games of the regular season, with five homers and 10 RBI. Though he’s cooled off since the NL Division Series, when he batted .385, Braun has come up with some clutch at-bats against the Dodgers.
And none were bigger than his first two Friday night.
Drawing a walk in the first inning, Braun scored all the way from first base on Jesus Aguilar’s double into the deep right corner. In the second inning, he drove in Yelich with his own double, sliding into second base and immediately popping up, yelling and clapping his hands.
“He’s spent his whole career here,” said Counsell, who also was Braun’s teammate on that 2011 playoff team. “I think at one point … I don’t know if he thought his career would end in any more playoff games. So I think he’s enjoying this part of it as much as anybody because of that.”
Braun’s entitled to that. Regardless of his selfish actions in the past, it’s what he’s doing now, for the only team he’s played for and its fans, that matters.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour