MIAMI — With Team USA competing in the second round of the World Baseball Classic at Marlins Park last week, a roster full of Major Leaguers could’ve tricked fans into thinking they were watching batting practice before the Midsummer Classic.
Local guys like Team Italy and Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo, Team USA and Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer and Team USA and Nationals left-hander Gio Gonzalez returned to South Florida to play in front of family and friends.
Milwaukee Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun, who won the National League MVP in 2011, was selected fifth overall in the 2005 amateur draft out of the University of Miami. The 29-year-old has a .313 batting average with 202 home runs and 643 RBIs in six big league seasons.
The five-time All-Star and 2007 Rookie of the Year answered random questions about being a Hurricane, winning the NL Central Division title and living in the moment.
Q: You’re not from the area — you came from California — but what is it about Florida being this hotbed for talent?
RB: I think the weather’s a huge advantage being able to play year-round, and beyond that just the talent. When you’re playing against good players it makes you a better player. For anyone who grows up in California or Florida or Texas as well it seems you get a chance to play against a lot of good players. It helps in the development phase.
Q: How did UM, playing as an independent and then in the ACC, prepare you for what was to come?
RB: Playing in the ACC, you get the chance to play against a lot of the best teams and players in the country, and it helps to make you a better player. Competing against the best pitchers helps prepare you for the Minor Leagues and eventually for the Major Leagues. Getting to play in front of crowds with some energy and some enthusiasm — I think just that atmosphere and environment is something that’s conducive to success at that level and helps you with the transition into pro ball.
Q: You made the trip down last year, what did you learn from that weekend series about this ballpark and how it plays? Obviously most would call it a pitcher’s park.
RB: When we were here it definitely played big. It was on the big side — a lot of room in the gaps for extra-base hits. I didn’t get the chance to play here with the roof open, so this is a unique experience today to get to practice with it open. I’m not sure what the plan is for tomorrow night. Either way it’s a beautiful ballpark and hopefully we get a lot of fans out here.
[Note: The roof was open for Team USA’s 7-1 victory over Team Puerto Rico.]
Q: It’s nice, isn’t it?
RB: It’s incredible. March 11 and it’s 75 and sunny. What more can you ask for?
Q: Did you have a favorite milkshake back at UM’s ballpark?
RB: You couldn’t go wrong with any milkshake. They were all my favorites. I miss them all dearly, and I hope I get over there and have one.
[Note: Braun and his fiancée went to UM’s game against Illinois State on March 12. No word on what milkshake he ordered, though I recommended he try the new chocolate bacon flavor.]
Q: How close is the UM baseball fraternity?
RB: Everyone stays in touch. I got a chance to meet some guys I know are going to be part of my life forever, some of my best friends, and I feel so fortunate to have met them while I was in college.
Q: Most memorable baseball moment?
RB: In college, I would say getting to play in two College World Series was pretty special. In the Major Leagues so far, when we clinched the division in 2011 was really special. It just meant so much to the entire organization. The Brewers hadn’t won the division in 26 years. We made the playoffs in ’08 but as the wild card team, so getting a chance to do that and celebrate together was something that was really memorable.
Q: Most surreal moment for you?
RB: I don’t know. Hopefully it’s still to come. Hopefully we win a World Series and that’ll eventually be my most surreal moment.
Q: Best advice you were ever given?
RB: Be where you are when you’re there. By that it means be completely focused on the moment and whatever you’re doing at that time.