It’s Spring

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There is something magical about Spring Training. It is not like the games you see in the season. Everyone in the stands are full of laughter and hope. Families bring their kids who can crawl on the grass and not even know that the player a few feet away is Ryan Braun. Because that is not what is important.

For the players, it is another day when smiles are on their faces as well. It is time to get into the rhythm of the game. Catch up with the fastball. Fire the ball right where you want it. Get a feel for the ball. Work on catching up with the slider. Get that winning feeling back.

It is a time when you get to see the stars of the game in a relaxed mood. The pitchers are just warming up as they throw to their 48 pitch count which will now be expanded to get ready for Opening Day. For some, the form already appears to be there. Sergio Romo, was on fire as his slider this week was amazing, especially as he completely fooled Kris Davis with the winning runners on base retiring the side and taking the win for San Francisco, with slider, after slider.

Kris Davis, for those who have not seen him at the ballpark this season, is doffing a Mohawk. Which brings us to the question: how does that ‘Do’ fit into that hat?

The fans are here to enjoy. The ‘where are you from’ is inevitable. The guy to the right of us on Friday was form a town in Wisconsin that I had never heard of. He informed us all that it was near Richland Center. When asked if there was anyone left in town now that he and his three friends had made the journey down, he informed us that his wife was still there and that she would have loved the weather. The fellow on my left was from nearby but was a Dodger fan. He is still confused about letting Kemp go. A woman in front of us showed off her amble assets and gave us all an opportunity to see the Diamondbacks logo in a whole new light…repeatedly. Which brought out a stern warning for a guy behind us as his wife (not from near Richland Center) said, ‘Stop looking’! To which he responded ‘I’m at a ball game. What am I supposed to do?’. She then knocked him over his head with a bag of Krackle Korn. Yup…there were smiles all around. ‘Go Diamond…..backs. Go.’ Or at least we think that was what was printed on her sort of cut-off jersey. You just have to love Spring Training Cactus League games.

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As the game progressed, the regulars walked from the dugout to the clubhouse after the fifth inning. They’ve had their at-bats. They smile and wave to the fans who are applauding them all the way down the line to the dugout. Lucroy is looking sharp as he appears over his hamstring issue. Garza, Lohse and Fiers walk down with the other Brothers of the Mound at about the same time calling it a day and heading for the links as Nelson pitched a good Spring outing. Peralta must have been resting as he was not to be seen. Aarmis did the unbelievable as he gave one of his game bats to you young boy in the front row which drew a standing ovation. Been to a lot of baseball games in my life but I have never seen a player give one of his gamers away like that.

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Over in the other dugout, there are two legit players who looked as good as ever. First is The Babe of Chase, Paul Goldschmidt, who looked in mid-season form. If only his team could win, he might be the MVP of the League. And, Mark Trumbo, is also in top form, driving in Goldy for the tieing run.

In the end, on a day when the old ballpark was nearly filled, and thousands on the grass around the outfield in front of the long line at the Leinenkugel Beer House in left center, along with the fans in the stands, sun-filled and still with smiles on their faces, enjoyed the 5-3 score in the home team’s favor. For them the point was to make sure their hope is still intact. For them, it was a day with family and friends, one that goes in the scrapbook of life, more for the parents and grandparents than their kids. But then again, on a beautiful spring day, one is reminded that her favorite thing about the ballpark in spring, in a text wishing she was here stated, eating funnel cake. Perhaps next year. Perhaps next year.

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But on this beautiful spring day, as the crowd wandered out following the path of the Racing Sausages, the questions in the mind could be heard, ‘Is this the year?’

It’s Spring.

Play Ball!

#watchingattanasio

The air is filled with the perfume of jasmine in Arizona during this time of the year. Flowers blooming everywhere give new hope to life for the coming year. The sound of the bat hitting the ball and the scattered talk of the players indicates that this is spring and hope really is in the air. That cannot be said for the Milwaukee Brewers. This is a time of expected expectations. This is due to the leader of the Cream City Nine, one Ron Roenicke.

Since taking over for the disaster that was led by Ken Macha, in his four years in the Brewer dugout, Roenicke has been noted for being a nice guy and a very honest man. It does not speak to his ability to manage a baseball team except for Aarmis Ramirez who says Roenicke is the best manager he has ever had. But remember, the great veteran third baseman played for the Cubs before coming to Milwaukee.

What has Roenicke done? He has won 22 more games than he has lost. He had his team blow a huge lead last year after leading the Central Division for over 4 months last year and dropping completely out of the playoff picture beginning on Labor Day. It may have been the biggest disappointment in Brewer history. And, oh yes….he was not fired by the owner. Nor was his third base coach released. But that’s another story. And during the entire first week of Spring Training, his team continued the slide until this week.

The Brewers did little to improve his chances of improving because, according to the owner, ‘it is a good team’ and he expects them to win. Let’s look at this team that is so good few changes were made.

At catching, no need to improve here as Martin Maldonado is one of the best back-ups in the game. Jonathan Lucroy is a terrific hitter but much has been said of his hamstring problem. He finally played in his first single Spring Training game on Saturday.

First base is always a problem. Adam Lind was brought in and he has been virtually a no-show as he has only played in two games. Nobody backs him up because both of the players that rotated in this position have left.

Second base has Scooter Gannett who is now full-time at the keystone sack. But he has not proven that he can hit left handers.

Shortstop has a gem. Jean Segura is the real deal. He went through a lot of problems last season but he has looked terrific in Spring Training both on the field and at bat.

Third base is Aarmis Ramirez who is as good as any in the league in the Hot Corner. But it is his last season. There is no replacement sight.

Left field is a mystery. Kris Davis has never looked good since being named Braun’s heir apparent two seasons ago. Gerardo Parra is terrific but he may be needed to fill the hole at first. And there is always Logan Schafer who has looked brilliant in the field during Spring Training. He has made a personal highlight reel this spring with his fielding. But can he hit?

Center is home to one of the most underrated outfielders in baseball. Carlos Gomez IS the face of the Brewers. There is none better.

Right belongs to the former face of the team. Ryan Braun looks strong but still has no home runs in the spring. In fact, he has no hits so far this spring. With all the talk that his thumb is OK, don’t forget that is not all one has to worry about with this form All-Star. There is still the head problem that no one is talking about. Can he play under the cloud he created as the face of baseball to the shadow of a ballplayer he is today?

Pitching is the key to making it into the playoffs and winning the World Series. The Brewers traded their #1 pitcher to Houston for nobody. They do have a solid performer in Kyle Lohse and the real-deal, Wily Peralta. But after that is a wing and a prayer. Can Jimmy Nelson become the major league performer everyone thinks he will become? Can Fiers paint more corners than Gallardo and actually not bore all of us to death? And, can we unload the weight around this team’s neck, Matt Garza, and get someone in return?

As for relief pitching, we have what could be a pretty good bullpen. A-Rod, Henderson and the Hulk from Cincinnati. It could be a potent 7th, 8th and 9th inning trio. But can they perform in 162 games?

The team continues to play poorly in the field. Mental mistakes in handling the ball, which are fundamental for most clubs, is a lost art in Maryvale. This is what extends losing streaks. There was a feeling among fans at the ballpark this spring that Roenicke could be fired before the season began. Then the team went on a three game winning streak before being clobbered by Seattle on Friday and totally outplayed by a split-squad Cub team on Saturday. In an interview watching Jimmy Nelson pitch, Roenicke argued that while Nelson had worked on a curve ball in the off-season for a third pitch in his arsenal, the skipper felt that he should be reverting back to the good slider he had last season. What? Who monitors these guys? Is there no communication between the pitching staff and their players during the off-season? Why do we have to wait until his second outing to discover that the manager and pitcher are not on the same wave length? Lets see…the pitcher thinks he needs a curve ball. The manager thinks he should have a slider. Yikes!

We are all #watchingattanasio and hope that someone, namely the General Manger, gives up on this Macha re-do and bring us someone who can finally turn this franchise around. But the problem with that thinking is that since the GM came aboard, the Brewers have continued their losing streak with 956 wins and 987 losses under Doug Melvin’s leadership. In their history, the Milwaukee Brewers have won 3,419 games and lost 3,739 games. Nearly 26.4% of all losses have come under his leadership. That is not a legacy to be proud of. #watchingattanasio

So it is another spring when the air of hope is eternal. There is no bright hopeful in the wings…no Prince…no Braun…no Hart who can give us all the lift our spirit needs. The farm system is bare. The proud days of 1982 are still visions in every Brewer fan’s head. Pauly is now that old-looking manager of the Minnesota Twins and Robin is that old-looking guy in the Crew’s dugout who is getting bigger ovations at the ballpark than most of the players for just for showing up. Rollie, Simba, Gantner, Coop and Oglivie don’t bother to show up any more. Harvey is watching from above.

Will we ever see the hope…the dream of being the World Champion realized?

It’s all up to one guy who lives in Los Angeles.

Play Ball!

Great Day To Play Two

Running up the box seat steps behind the Brewers dugout at old County Stadium between innings to make a food run was always an adventure. Everyone seems to have the same idea at the same time so it takes a bit of bobbing and weaving. Up to the Grandstand level, to the right, then a quick left, down the ramp, a snap hook right and you are in front of the most wonderful aroma one can imagine…that sweet smell of fried onions and Secret Stadium Sauce mixing with the finished bratwurst in a tray on the grill more than ready for the hoards gathering behind me. Like in golf, that was the vision in my head as the top of the third was about to conclude.

It is always good to visualize what you want to do. Then you are sure to get there without too much disappointment.

Making the move as the pitcher was about to throw on a 3-2 pitch, it was clear to make the mad dash. But as I was about to hit the top step leading to my right turn on the grandstand level, appearing on the left, as some of the crowd was standing up to stretch their legs, was a man, much bigger than I had thought he would be. He was smiling and waving back to the crowd, as he was also probably heading in the same direction I was about to continue. But he was instantly identifiable with that same 1954 Topps picture now facing me in real-time. He hadn’t aged from when that card photo was taken. Without hesitation, I reached out to shake his hand and Ernie smiled and said, looking directly into my eyes, “Great day to play two, isn’t it.”

Ernie Banks was in the enemy’s camp and nearly everyone was giving him a wave, applauding, running up to get his autograph, all smiling and some of us lucky enough to just shake his hand. It was just a natural thing to do.

So much has been written and said about what he did on the playing field or in the City of Chicago. I had known about Ernie, since childhood when my next door neighbor, Snooky, a diehard Cubs fan, opened that pack of Topps on his front steps. All of us gathered around to see what he had gotten out of that fresh wrap of glory. Then, out popped the coveted Banks rookie card. On the back of card #94, this baseball Wikipedia of its day told us all we wanted to know. Obviously a rookie. Earnest Banks. Born in Dallas, TX, January 31, 1931. 6’1”, 180 lbs. “After gaining recognition as the top ranking player in the Negro National League, Ernie came to the Cubs from the Kansas City Monarchs in September 1953. Seeing only limited service with Chicago last year, the former Army Artillery man hit for 22 total bases and looks like a real hot prospect for a regular Bruin infield berth this season.” 10 games, 35 At Bats. 3 Runs. 11 Hits. 1 Double. 1 Triple. 2 H.R. 6 RBIs. .314 Batting Ave. 19 Put Outs. 33 Assists. 1 Error. .991 Fielding Percentage. And as the Inside Baseball cartoon at the bottom of the back of the card said, ‘Ernie was an all around athlete as a student at Booker T. Washington High in Dallas. He starred in track, basketball, football and of course baseball.”

We devoured every word as gospel on the back of those cards and in moments, Ernie’s stats were burned into our heads.

Now he was smiling at me and shaking my hand. Sputtering something like, ‘Great to see you, Ernie.’ in return and attempting to pull out of his two-handed immense grasp of my right hand, his magic words came out.

I now made the visioned journey with a quicker lift than previous, anxious to get back to the seats to tell the family who I had just met. Amongst the ‘Oh. Wow’s’ and a quick look over their shoulders to see the man I was talking about, he was no long there. But if you looked down just a couple of sections, there he was, still shaking hands…still smiling…and still looking every bit of the legendary hero of so many, including my friends, Snooky and Lenny.

It is a memory that will always be with me even as he has now passed to play two with the Big Guy.

You can imagine the conversation. ‘Not a bad start, Earnest. Now enjoy the rest of time.’

Play Ball!
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Looking For #13

Somewhere north of Pigsville, about a mile away across the freeway, they have been playing baseball below the bluffs of the Veteran’s Home for 45 of the 46 years of the franchise known as the Cream City Nine, better known as the Milwaukee Brewers. During that span they have had twelve winning seasons, one of which was shortened. Only three of their players have reached the coveted Baseball Hall of Fame, primarily because they have only won one League Championship, in a league they are no longer a member of. For those who have been living in the belief of the faith known as the True Blue Brew Crewism, only 26% of that time have the faithful lived during winning seasons. Now it takes an optimist to look at 26% within a lifetime of defeats.

In the Central Division of the National League, the St. Louis Cardinals have had 29 winning seasons in that period. The Cincinnati Reds have 23 winning seasons. The Pittsburgh Pirates have 19 winning seasons in that same period. But the ultimate insult is that even the Chicago Cubs have more winning seasons in that period (15).

This is particularly tough to swallow when one grows up in the Southern half of the State where so many Chicagoans reside during the summer months in and around Lake Geneva to Burlington. It is particularly brutal when your next door neighbor growing up was a diehard Chicago Cubs/Wrigley Field Forever fan and announced their journey to their little mecca on the North side of Chicago where vines grow on their outfield walls during the summer and all you hear about is the legend of Ernie Banks. That they have more winning season during the existence of the Crew is hard to swallow.

How do we change all of this? How do we jump over the Cubs and Pirates, even the Reds in the seasons ahead?

Change the color of the uniforms.

This might be seen as a sacrilege but perhaps the Crew could turn to the colors of the Packers. ‘Green and Growing’. Nope. That didn’t work for the Bucks who are now in red.

OK. How about changing the name of the stadium to the Great American PNC Busch Ballpark? The GAPNCBB doesn’t really have a ring to it but then we could sell Bud, Iron City, Yuengling and other tasteless brews. After all, its in the water, you know.

How about management?

We have had two basic family owners during this period. Neither seem to understand one thing that seems consistent in winning and that is winning begins with winners. We never have had a winning General Manager since the great Harry Dalton. We have never brought in a real winning manager. Wouldn’t Joe Torre bring a beautiful ring to the faithful in Miller Park? Or Joe Madden? Opps, the Cubs pulled that off.

Of course it takes a bunch of talented players, especially pitchers to make a winning course a tradition. The Brewers haven’t had much of that in their past. That last first round draft choice that made the club and contributed was Ryan Braun (2005) and the last pitcher to do so was Ben Sheets (1999). That’s a problem management has to address and has not in nearly a decade. Is the owner up to it? Is the general manager up to it?

Not a single pitcher has contributed to a top Brewer record since 2004 (Ben Sheets-strikeouts with 264) and 2011 (John Axford-Most Saves in A Season with 46). It should be noted he also won the coveted 2011 Robert Goulet Memorial Mustached American of the Year Award (although he is Canadian, as was his award honors namesake).

So, as we enter the 2015 edition of the least winning team in the past 46 years within the team’s existing division, what has Milwaukee done to improve its pitching staff? It lost K-Rod and Duke from the bullpen. It added no starters to last year’s lineup. With Lucroy and Gomez both having career years as the two top non-pitchers on the team last season, very little has been done except for longtime second baseman Rickie Weeks and one of the most reliable pinch hitters in the league, Lyle Overbay, departing.

But, the hope of spring is eternal in the provincial provence of Southeastern Wisconsin where cheese and beer along with sausage are the keys to any happy gathering. All eyes are now on Maryvale to see if the ‘standpat’ attitude of management will change the fortunes of the lowly Brewers as the desert flowers pop up across the Valley of the Sun. On these pewter gray days of winter in Wisconsin the only hope is that through sheer will the course of the past will change dramatically and all of the cheering of the beginning of last year will be repeated throughout the entire coming schedule.

Now that would be a miracle. And it would bring us all the #13 (winning season) we are looking for.

Play Ball!

A OK

It’s all quiet in the cathedrals of the sport. The last game of the season has been played. No more fans in the stands. No more vendors hawking things. The ball park is quiet today.

The sport of baseball is like that as we enter the period the Hotstove League. This is a time to look back but more importantly, look forward to the time with pitchers and catchers report to spring training. The GMs are down in Arizona soon for their annual meetings and it is a time when the Free Agent agents swarm around, kill bees finding new honey for themselves as their slice is big.

Some time things work out where fans and free agents find a satisfying conclusion. And none would be better than having Nori Aoki sign with his home town team, the Milwaukee Brewers. There is real benefit her. Aoki has a great consistency to his game. Look at this: he has batted .288, .286 and .285 in his three seasons in the big leagues, the first two with the Brewers. But it is his ability to get on base that is of great value. His OBPs of .355, .356 and .349 is remarkable. The man walks a lot. But his real hidden key is his ability to hit left handers. He has batted .363/.428/.435 against lefties in his first three years. Imagine, a left-handed hitter banging at that rate against left-handed pitching.

He’ll be 32 this year, right in the prime of his career. With a two-year contract, probably at a $15 million for two-year agreement, the Brew Crew could once again have the kind of player that is perfect for the City of Milwaukee. Ron Roenicke said of Nori, ‘He fit in really well with the guys. We had fun with him. But he worked as hard as you could work. You can’t put more effort into the job than he did.’

This would be a perfect move as it would allow the team to trade a valuable Gerardo Parra, who is one of the best defensive players in the league as shown by his two Gold Gloves. But he simply cannot hit and get on base at the rate of Aoki. Every team wants and need a starting outfielder who is a good defensive player. But the Brewers do not. Use the value of Parra to trade for more pitching.

We know the heads of the management of Cream City’s Nine do not like Aoki for whatever reason. So this may be moot in thinking…in hoping such a player who gives his all would come back.

Milwaukee needs the kind of player Nori represents. That would be A OK.

Play Ball!

Still Quite On Wisconsin Avenue

The crowds have stopped cheering on Market Street and have dispersed from City Hall. The Champions of the World are putting on their third Championship ring in five years. For Madison Bumgarner, Jockey has distributed thousands of their new MadBum shorts to the crowd. To the victors go underwear and another ring.

Arguably, the San Francisco Giants have the best pitching staff on the planet. Hitting is for show. Pitching is for the dough and Championship rings.

It is a good thing for the owner and management of the Milwaukee Brewers to note. Used first basemen from Toronto will not fill the seats at playoff time. It takes pitching and a lot more pitching than exercising the contract for Vonnie. It will take better pitching than they have now.

The crowds haven’t cheered on Wisconsin Avenue since 1957.

Play Ball!

Dither Of Delusion

In nearly every winter, the one constant is that the Chicago Cubs are the front-runner for something or another. And this Fall, before winter comes, those lovable losers from the Northside, are at it again, maximizing on a hungry press corp of baseball delusionals and the pretend flexibility and depth of the Northsiders pocketbook. Losers are losers. Just look at the Brewers.

This year as we approach the 70th Anniversary of the last time the Chicago Cubs were in a World Series (of course they lost), the hilarious rumor machine indicates that the Wrigleyites are the front-runner for getting Joe Madden as their manager. Writers are insisting Madden is compatible with the Cubbies GM. They are writing that Madden will accept a #25 million, five-year contract. Writers are writing. But nobody is reading because ‘Nobody Reads The Newspaper Anymore’.

The Cubs got into the World Series in 1945 because most of the great players in the game were still serving in the military during World War II. And because of travel restrictions, the World Series of 1945 had the first three games in Detroit at Briggs Stadium and the remainder in Wrigley Field in Chicago. The Cubs came back from Detroit winning two of the first three games. And they still lost the World Series…at home! This is the very definition of a loser.

While some may claim bias, due in part that a Milwaukee Brewer fan is making this point, there is no fear to worry. The Milwaukee Brewers are losers as well. Their owner has never been in a World Series let along win one. Their General Manger has never been in a World Series but he has been named into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. Their Manager has never led his team to a World Series although he did play in one (1984) where he played in two games as an outfield and a pinch runner. His team lost. Their third base coach has never led his team into a World Series. He may have known someone who won in a World Series. The very best one can say about this group is that they are non-achievers at the highest level.

So one can see, Cub fans, that Milwaukee fans just don’t like your team. But, in reality, our team is no better except for the fact that we can actually go to all of our games and not have them postponed for bad weather. We even let Cleveland play in Miller Park when their weather is bad. And, we can park near our stadium for a game.

There is no dissolution in Milwaukee. The Brewers fortunes are tied to the men who lead them. If you lose, you are rewarded with an extension in your contract. But there has been a couple of exceptions. One of our managers, was leading his team to the playoffs and got fired a few games before the season ended. He now is managing in the World Series. Look over at the Kansas City dugout and you can catch a glimpse of him along with the guy who filled in for him by winning a play off spot for the Brewers and then was not giving him the managerial spot the next season. OK. That a lot of ‘hims’ but it is Sunday.

Play Ball!