KANSAS CITY -- Yes, this All-Star Game means more to the Brewers' Ryan Braun, who spent his winter wondering if he'd be forced to sit out the season's first 50 games.
But there he was Monday, on the eve of his fifth appearance at an All-Star Game and his fourth start, owner of the same solid numbers -- or better -- that he's put up in every other year.
Braun was asked whether he feels vindication.
"Yeah, a little bit, honestly," he said. "Of course there is."
There's vindication for Braun because he entered the All-Star break batting .306 with a National League-best 24 home runs, and 61 RBIs. Essentially, he's the same productive player, even if he's been treated a bit differently around the league after a complicated offseason in which Braun won the NL Most Valuable Player Award in November, then had to win his appeal of a suspension in February.
Braun made the 2012 All-Star team via the player ballot and made the starting lineup after the Dodgers' Matt Kemp withdrew because of a hamstring injury. Braun is batting third as the left fielder in the starting lineup unveiled Monday by National League manager Tony La Russa.
"I've said from the beginning that the single best thing I could do to move on was to have success, go out there, do the same things I've done on the field," Braun said. "I think this has actually been the best first half that I've had in my six years in the league."
Braun, 28, and under contract with Milwaukee through at least 2020, tied a Brewers record by making his fifth All-Star Game roster. He shares that distinction with Cecil Cooper and Hall of Famer Paul Molitor.
"Any time you go to an All-Star Game, it's a tremendous honor," Braun said. "It's an extremely difficult thing to go, and obviously this year I dealt with some things that I hadn't dealt with before, which made it that much more challenging. It's definitely something I'm proud of, yeah."
Braun spoke Monday in a room of NL All-Stars, then took the field at Kauffman Stadium for batting practice ahead of the State Farm All-Star Home Run Derby. Braun was a happy onlooker -- NL Derby captain Kemp said he'd heard through the grapevine that Braun did not want to participate, so he never asked -- and, league allegiances aside, picked former teammate Prince Fielder as his favorite to win.
His fellow All-Stars have remained supportive, Braun said, including at least one division rival who told Braun so on Monday.
"I got a chance to speak with him a little bit before, and he's a professional, man," said Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan. "What he's had to go through this year, that can really test someone's character, and to go out and put up the numbers he's put up after dealing with all that stuff, dealing with all the parks on the road, he's a true professional with all of that.
"I just told him, 'I'm sorry for all that happened over the winter. I can't imagine what you've gone through, and congratulations on where you're at now.' I've always respected him as a competitor. He's kicked our butt a couple of times in Pittsburgh."
Adding to Braun's challenge was Fielder's departure for Detroit, ending a run of nearly five years during which Braun mostly batted third for the Brewers and Fielder fourth. Dodgers manager Don Mattingly was among those who said Braun would be pitched differently with Aramis Ramirez in the on-deck circle instead of Fielder.
If that has been the case, Braun's numbers have not shown it.
Manager Ron Roenicke dismisses the notion of "protection," saying it is too difficult to consistently pitch around a player. He raised the example of Fielder in 2011, when the Brewers struggled all year to find production in the five-hole, yet Fielder had one of his finest all-around seasons, finishing third in MVP balloting to Braun and Kemp.
Fielder said he's not surprised by Braun's strong start.
"He's doing what he normally does," Fielder said. "I just figured, Braun's a great player, and if he's healthy, he's going to be good. ... A good player is a good player."
That's not to say "protection" is completely overrated, Fielder cautioned.
"You want a stacked lineup because it helps everyone to do well," Fielder said.
The Brewers' lineup has sputtered at times this season, along with the starting rotation early in the season and the bullpen lately. Milwaukee entered the break at 40-45, eight games behind the NL Central-leading Pirates.
Braun is realistic about the potential for trades to brew if the Brewers do not get on a winning streak, but he still has hope.
"We still believe in ourselves," Braun said. "We still truly believe that we have an opportunity to get back to the postseason."
The 83rd Major League Baseball All-Star Game will be televised nationally by FOX Sports, in Canada by Rogers Sportsnet and RDS, and worldwide by partners in more than 200 countries via MLB International's independent feed. Pregame ceremonies begin at 6:30 p.m. CT. ESPN Radio and ESPN Radio Deportes will provide exclusive national radio coverage. MLB Network, MLB.com and Sirius XM also will provide comprehensive All-Star Game coverage.
Fans will also have the opportunity to participate in the official voting for the Ted Williams Most Valuable Player presented by Chevrolet via the 2012 MLB.com All-Star Game MVP Vote during the All-Star Game on MLB.com.