Every professional baseball club loves to have one player that can be identified as the face of the franchise. It’s great for public relations, good for developing team identity, and it gives the fans a sense of stability to know that this guy is their guy and he’ll still be around next season. There are a lot of strong examples of face of the franchise players in the league today: Andrew McCutchen with the Pirates, Mike Trout with the Angels, Evan Longoria with the Rays, or Joey Votto with the Reds. The Milwaukee Brewers, however, currently have no one to fill the role, and the story of how they got to this point details one of the more brutal PR whiplashes experienced by any fan base.
Let’s start in 2007. Veteran outfielder Geoff Jenkins is in his last year with the Brewers. Beloved for his long-tenure with the team (including some pretty solid years around 1999-2000), durability, and good looks (for Wisconsin at least), he was the baseball version of Brett Favre at the time. He had been the face of the franchise for almost a decade as the Brewers slogged through some mostly mediocre seasons. But it was becoming clear in 2007 that his days of baseball relevance were numbered. Fortunately for the Brewers, there were some young stars waiting to pick up the baton and become the new face of the Brewers. A slugger named Prince Fielder was starting to come into his own, and a fresh kid named Ryan Braun had just been called up to man 3rd base.
Fielder was an exciting player, in part because he broke the mold of what a baseball star was supposed to look like in the modern era. He was big, which may have made him more relatable and popular in Wisconsin where the primary diet is beer and cheese. While he looked more like the five spot hitter on your slow-pitch softball team, Fielder was crushing the hard ball for the Brewers and earned silver sluggers and all-star nods during his peak with the team. But Prince’s time with the Brewers ended after the 2011 season when he left via free agency to join the Detroit Tigers. It was a loss for the Brewers to see half of their offensive dynamic duo walk, but they could rest easy knowing they still had Ryan Braun, the brightest star in the game in 2011.
But Braun did not pan out the way that anyone associated with the Brewers would have predicted at the end of the 2011 season. In fact, Braun’s portion of this saga is by far the most frustrating for Brewer fans. The story of his early career reads like that of an American folk hero: Rookie of the Year in 2007, multiple silver Sluggers, perennial all-star, 2011 NL MVP, and one of the game’s few Jewish players no less! From 2007 to 2011, Braun’s career trajectory was rising at an unbelievable clip. As it turned out, it really wasn’t to be believed. The first performance enhancing drug (PED) rumors started in 2011, and a positive drug test was charged against Braun in early 2012. Braun appealed and won on a ridiculous technicality that came down to the hours kept by FedEx offices in the greater Milwaukee area. He played the entire 2012 season with the PED cloud hovering over his head. Ultimately Braun could not escape the scandal and was implicated when the notorious Dr. Bosch’s Biogenesis laboratory was busted. As the walls came crumbling down around him, Braun’s reaction was deplorable, even in comparison to the now-abundant, use-and-deny PED crowd. In route to finally accepting and serving his 65 game suspension in the 2013 season, Braun lied about the initial testing results, attempted to defame the MLB’s PED testing program, and quite successfully defamed the test collector who, it appears, made every attempt to follow protocol. Braun’s attacks on the collector went so far as trying to rally other MLB players to label the collector as an anti-Semite.
Braun is back in baseball now, having quietly served his suspension (and apologizing, to his credit). But the player that looked like a sure-thing as the face of the franchise back in 2011 is now essentially a ghost in right field. He could have reclaimed a portion of the fan base that might have still been sympathetic to him if he’d come roaring back into the MLB as a clean player, effectively nullifying the belief that his other-worldly performance up to 2011 was the result of juicing. That didn’t happen. He returned to his worst season. From a PR standpoint Braun is now squarely marked in red letters “damaged-goods”.
In keeping with the sports world’s new favorite phrase “next man up”, attention shifted from Braun to a pair of young, hyper-talented Latino players: pitcher Yovanni Gallardo and outfielder Carlos Gomez. Each was a flawed player in their own right and probably should never have been looked at as being franchise types. Gallardo had electric stuff on the mound and on his good days looked unstoppable, but he struggled to control his pitches and never had the ability to string good performances together. Gomez just struggled to control himself, getting into all manner of on-field altercations, making stupid base running errors, and striking out far too often (this last link is kind of a two-for-one in that it includes both a strike out and antics). Each player was shipped off via trades as the Brewers continued their near complete dismantling of a roster that had been competitive not long before.
Which brings us to 2015 and Jonathan Lucroy. Now, Lucroy is a fine player, but not even close to the same caliber of talent as most other franchise-type guys. Yet in the post-Braun, post-Gomez and Gallardo Brewers, Lucroy was thrust into the spotlight to be the face of the franchise. He wasn’t a terrible choice. He was more popular with the fans than his talent would suggest, well spoken, and good-looking. It might have worked out, at least as a placeholder until the next star emerged. But now, even the fan favorite Lucroy wants out, expressing interest this spring in playing for a competitive team. And once a player has publicly expressed interest in leaving, it’s all over between them and the fan base. Nobody wants to be in that kind of one-sided relationship. With a very modest contract he should be pretty easy to move. Which leaves the Brewers with? Not much, as far as a face of the franchise in the near-future. It’s going to be a tough couple years for anyone working in the PR wing of the Brewer’s front office. Who do you even put on the cover of the 2015 program? Scooter Gennett? Kirk Nieuwenhuis? Maybe just go with Bernie for a while (side note: I’m sure the Brewers are kicking themselves for not coming up with #FeeltheBern).
It was a remarkably unlucky sequence of events that unfolded over the span of just a few years, which took the Brewers from a playoff contender with a bevy of the game’s brightest young stars to being non-competitive and with no face of the franchise or identity going forward. It makes you wonder how things might have been different if the PED rumors about Braun had come out just a few weeks earlier. Would the Brewers have let Prince Fielder walk away? We’ll never know. While these are the kinds of natural fluctuations that smaller market baseball teams go through, it’s rare to see a down-cycle that kicks the team’s faithful in the teeth as hard as this. Rebuilding years are tough, folks. Especially for the fans.