By John Perrotto
PHOENIX -- The ground rules are set right at the start by Ryan Braun and they have nothing to do with a ball getting in the fence in front of the bullpen being ruled a double or anything else of the like.
"I'm not talking about any of that stuff that's happened in the past," the Milwaukee Brewers right fielder says politely but firmly. "I'll gladly talk about the team or anything else, but the other stuff is off limits."
Of course, it's "the other stuff" that makes Braun such an intriguing story going into the 2014 season.
There was the PED suspension following the 2012 season that was overturned by an arbitrator on a technicality. That was followed by Braun's vehement denial at the start of spring training last year in which he claimed he had never used steroids, human growth hormone, testosterone or any other drug that could boost his performance on a baseball field. And, of course, there was the 65-game suspension Braun received at the end of last season as a result of Major League Baseball's Biogenesis scandal.
"I don't think it does myself any good to bring that stuff back up," Braun said after a recent morning workout in the Brewers' spring training camp. "It's not good for the team. It's not good for the game. I don't want to be about a distraction to my teammates. I want the focus on this season because I think we have a good team that is going to surprise people."
Some might say Braun's insistence that he doesn't want to be a distraction is noble. Others will think it's nothing than a disingenuous way of avoiding the subject of his suspension.
In a perfect world, Braun would be forthcoming about exactly what happened. He would use his story as a cautionary tale to other players and young athletes who might be tempted to try PEDs to gain an advantage.
But Braun is only willing to talk about the present and the future. So, under those parameters, the story then is: What kind of player will the 30 year-old be moving forward? Braun has averaged a .312/.374/.564 slash line since making his major-league debut in 2007 and has hit 36 home runs per 162 games. Were those numbers fueled by PED use or is he naturally a great hitter?
The Brewers better hope Braun isn't a pharmaceutical creation. He is under contract for eight more seasons for a total of $115 million and a dramatic dip in production would be costly to the franchise, even though Mark Attanasio seems more willing to spend on payroll than most owners of small-market teams.
Spring training statistics usually don't mean much, but they are all there is to go in the early stages of Braun's comeback from his suspension. So far, he has been a Cactus League terror by going 7-for-11 (.636) with two doubles and two home runs.
"He's swinging the bat great but he always does that," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "He starts off like this every spring. He's one of those rare hitters who can step into the cage on the first day of spring training and square up every ball. He's a very special hitter and I don't think that's going to change."
Braun laughed when told of Roenicke's remark about squaring up balls.
"It's not that easy," he said. "Ron is being pretty kind about that."
Yet Braun makes it clear that he does not think his statistics will decline.
"I do have a swing that I've been able to keep consistent over the years through lot of hard work," Braun said. "It's something I've been pretty much obsessive about since I was a kid. I've believed good swing mechanics [are] the key to being a good hitter and I'm always trying to maintain them.
Braun is also switching positions this spring, moving to right field from left field to clear a spot for Khris Davis. The 26-year-old thrived in Braun's absence as a rookie last year, hitting .279/.353/.596 with 11 home runs in 56 games. Amateur psychologists have theorized the Brewers are having Braun switch positions in an effort to keep his mind off the suspension talk. However, Roenicke denies that.
"Braunie is a great athlete and we feel he is going to be a very good right fielder," Roenicke said. "He has the range to play the position and he has the arm, too. He's playing right field because we have a need here and he is a guy who could fill it well."
To the layman, there is seemingly no difference between playing one outfield corner position or the other. However, Braun laughs that idea off and says he is much more concerned about his defense than his offense with Opening Day just three weeks away.
"It's going to take a lot of work because the positions are really different," Braun said. "The ball comes at you at a different angle and the throws are more difficult. It's going to be a challenge but I'm up for it."
The biggest challenge of all for Braun, though, will be how he handles the negative reaction he'll receive in road cities. Like most superstar players, Braun gets booed by opposing fans but the jeers figure to be especially intense in the wake of his suspension.
"I've gotten booed my whole career," Braun said. "I've always tried to have fun with it. In some cities, especially in our division, the boos have been pretty loud. I know it's going to happen this year but I'm not going to let it get to me. I'm moving on from all the stuff that happened."
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John Perrotto has covered professional baseball since 1988 for such outlets as USA Today, The Sports Xchange, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and the Beaver County (Pa.) Times. You can find more of his work on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.