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!

Improvement?

It was a team that drew a solid attendance of 2,797,384 or 34,535 per game, 82.4% of capacity. It was the 8th highest in baseball and the fourth best in the National League. And, they were the seventh best draw in baseball on the road. In baseball you make money both home and away. And the Cream City 9 were big draws.

2013 record was 74-88. 2014 record was 82-80.

So, what went wrong? Who is to blame?
2013 Brewers .252..2014 Brewers .251
RF Aoki .286…………Braun .266 – .020
CF Gomez .284…….Gomez .284 even .020
LF Braun .298……….Davis .244 – .054 .074
3B Ramirez .283……Ramirez.285 + .002 .072
SS Segura .294…….Segura .246 – .048 .120
2B Weeks .209……..Gennett .289 + .080 .040
1B Francisco .221….Overbay .233 + .012 .028
C Lucroy .280………..Lucroy .300 + .020 .008

2013: 23 BlownSV….2014: 20 Blown Saves
Fielding: .981…. .984
HR: 157 ……….. 150
RBI: 610 ………. 616
ERA: 3.84 ……… 3.67
Errors 114 …….. 98
Francisco/? 14….. Overbay/Reynolds 13
Weeks/Gennett 10/5=15.. Gennett/Weeks 9/7=16
Segura=15………… Segura=16
Ramirez=7…………. Ramirez=10
Braun/Davis-2……. Davis/Parra=6
Gomez=5 …………. Gomez=5
Aoki=3………………. Braun=3
Lucroy/Meldonado 10-4=14.. Lucroy/Meldonado 4/7=11
Pitchers: 7………… Pitchers 4

2013…………………….. 2014
Gallardo 12-10 4.18.. Gallardo 8-11 3.51 -4W +3L – 0.67
Lohse 11-10 3.35…… Lohse 13-9 3.54 +2W -1L +0.19
Peralta 11-15 4.37…. Peralta 17-11 3.53 +6W -4L – 0.84
Estrada 7- 4 3.87…… Garza 8-8 3.64 -1W +4L – 0.23
Gorzelanny 3 -6 3.90. Nelson 2-9 4.93 – 1W +3L +1.03
Relief +2W……………. +5L -0.53

2013…………………………….. 2014
Henderson 5-5 2.70 28 SV.. K-Rod 5-5 3.04 44 SV
Axford 6-7 4.45 0 SV……….. Smith 1-3 3.76 1 SV

So, what is the difference between a Pennant Winner and an average team?
a) Better General Manager
b) Better Manager
c) Better Players

Of not, it is on the owner? Who has won a World Series?
With current ownership of their teams in the 21st Century:
New York Yankees (2x) 2000; 2009
Philadelphia Phillies 2008
St. Louis Cardinals (2x) 2006; 2011
Boston Red Sox (3X) 2004; 2007; 2013
San Francisco Giants (2X) 2010; 2012
Chicago White Sox 2005
Miami Marlins (Florida Marlins) 2003

Remember, the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks were owned by a partnership headed up by Jerry Colangelo. And the 2002 Anaheim Angels were owned by the Walt Disney Company.

The general manager has to take some of the heat. One can only look at the Kansas City Royals and their top hitters…the center fielder; the right fielder and the short stop. Even their manager and hitting coach were integral to the success of rebuilding the Crew. Look in the other dugout. It all began with the trade of the rising star shortstop, JJ Hardy to the Twins for Carlos Gomez. Gomez potential success led to the trading of Escobar AND Cain to the Royals for Greinke who was traded to the Angels for Segura. Question: who is a better center fielder, Gomez or Cain? Who is a better shortstop, Hardy, Escobar or Segura? And, who is a better manager, Yost or Roenicke? Who is a better hitting coach, Sveum or Narron?

The manager is judged by winning championships. The Milwaukee Brewers has had only one manager in their history who won a championship.

The players have to be placed in a position to succeed. And if, as the above stats are any indication, they have not been placed in that position. The manager is not doing what he is expected to do. If he doesn’t have the players to accomplish winning a championship, he has to press the GM to acquire them. The GM has to press the owner to acquire them.

Now it is up to the owner to prove he is a champion. He has made his course. He kept the general manager. The general manager has kept the manager.

How can this be an improvement?

Play Ball!

There Was Still A Chance.



The chance was still there and it was in their hands. But as the manager made the decision to insert a rookie in his first Major League start, brought up in the September call-up from Huntsville in AA ball, to play first, it seems as though it was not in their hands. On one of the easiest 5-4-3 double play opportunities, the newbie could not catch the very catchable throw from second. Error on the 1st baseman for dropping the ball. It was discovered that his glove did not work. Thus the reason he is called a minor leaguer. The door opened for the Cincinnati Reds to pull ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers in the fourth-to-last game of the season and they took a 3-2 lead which they never relinquished.

This was an important game.

In fact, it was one of the most important games of the year.

The manager again did something that has eluded him from past mistakes. When this team has more veteran first basemen than any other team, why start someone who isn’t even #5 on the depth chart? The manager continues to make moves to lose, not to win. But it isn’t just the manager and his coaching staff that are less than adequate.

The veteran second baseman committed yet another fielding error when he failed to field a pop up.

Again, the veteran second baseman committed his second error, and the team’s third in the game, by making a wild throw to second.

The second year shortstop who brought us so much hope before this year, stayed on the ground rather than rush to the ball to control the game. A mental error.

The season ended at Great American ballpark on the banks of the Ohio River.

The catcher was left in the game to see if he could hit some sort of record double, again leaving the backup catcher sitting on the bench. The catcher, who has been attempting to get this double for a week, would break an existing record of a catcher leading his league in doubles. Hasn’t been done for quite a while. Let’s go after some records rather than try to win a game that could keep you in the hunt.

The right fielder looked tired. For the first time in his career, his bat looked too long…too big for him to catch up to a 95+ mph heater. In a season which greeted him with catcalls throughout the games wherever the team went, he progressively broke down physically at first with a hand injury and a hammy, a this or that which a season is made of. But this season, in an effort to blow all of the negative thoughts out of his head, it became clear to his loyal fans, he no longer was the player he used to be. The center fielder, playing with more heart and soul than anyone on the team gave his all, that Go Go spirit, played hurt down the stretch, and just hit pop ups, no more slashing singles turning into doubles as he had early in the season to bring him All-Star status. Scooter just hit shallow pop flys. Rickie, at bat, hit. In the field, he was not such a hit.

Why all the concern over a baseball team? When one follows a team and a home town with a team for most of their lives, an attachment grows. It boils in the blood. It reaches the heart. It possesses the soul. There is a bond of escape filled with moments of joy and wonder that are the adrenaline of the spot. But if you are a Milwaukee Brewers fan, if you are one of the faithful of the Cream City Nine, it has been 57 years since the City was presented with a World Champion in baseball from its team. Two owners. Fifty-Seven years. In dog years, that’s more than four dog lifetimes. It is almost incomprehensible that a team, outside of those hapless loveable Northsiders of Chicago, can go through such a drought with players like Joe Torre, Tony Cloninger, Roy McMillan of the old Braves and Cecil Cooper, Jim Gantner, Paul Molitor, Don Money, Robin Yount, Ben Oglivie, Teddy Higuera, Gorman Thomas, Ted Simmons, Rollie Fingers, Ken Sanders, Jerry Augustine, Sal Bando, Dante Bichette, Chris Bosio, Jeremy Burnitz, Mike Caldwell, Jeff Cirillo, Craig Counsell, Rob Deer, Billy Hall, Darryl Hamilton, JJ Hardy, Tommy Harper, Cory Hart, Mike Hegan, Larry Hisle, Trevor Hoffman, Geoff Jenkins, Sixto Lezcano, Mike Methany, Davey May, Bob McClure, Charlie Moore, Jaime Navarro, Juan Nieves, Lyle Overbay, Dan Plesac, Darrell Porter, Francisco Rodriguez, George Scott, Richie Sexson, Gary Sheffield, BJ Surhoff, Fernando Vina, Pete Vuckovich, Greg Vaughn, Ben Sheets, CC Sabathia, Prince Fielder, Yovani Gallardo, Aarmis Ramirez, Carlos Gomez, Zach Greinke, Ryan Braun, Jonathon Lucroy and a host of other fine players. Perhaps Fred Haney was the only real manager this City ever had. Most of the rest were losers. OK. Even if Bambi and Harvey didn’t bring us the World Championship, they did bring us near the pinnacle once. Once! That’s it. One League Pennant which was brought home when Coop did a Jeter.

There can only be one conclusion. And it is one that rips at the heart of everyone who cherishes Cream City.

It’s the water.

To many that is a sacrilege. ‘Go to the confessional immediately.’ they say. ‘Blastphemer’, they can be heard yelling. ‘Step on his face and twist’, they shouted. ‘Don’t say that. You’re making our city look bad’, others murmured under their breath honoring the guiding word of Sister Ramegia.

But consider this. When the Milwaukee Braves won the World Championship in 1957, Schlitz was the #1 beer. Enough said.

At one time the water in Milwaukee was great. Grandma would say, ‘Just drink from the tap. Its that good.’ City fathers would point with pride to their many beers brewed with the great water. There was Fox Head 400, Blatz, the city’s favorite (‘Blatz is Milwaukee’s finest beer.’), Pabst Blue Ribbon, Gettelman, Miller and many, many more.

But one should not forget what the native Potowatami’s called this special place, remembering that the Milwaukee area was originally inhabited by the Fox, Mascouten, Potawatomi, and Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) native American tribes. The name “Milwaukee” comes from an Algonquian word ‘Millioke’, meaning “Good”, “Beautiful” and “Pleasant Land”. That’s what many natives believe and they all follow the Chamber of Commerce pledge: ‘Never give St. Louis the opportunity to hold one over on us. They make rice beer…pretend beer.’

Yet there is a rumor, buried along side of Jacob Best in the Forest Home Cemetery that there is a piece of paper which says that when he talked to a native in Juneautown when he began to brew his first frothy drink, that the name ‘Millioke’ meant: land of stinking water.

Come on. Monks made beer because the water was bad. Boiled water with some wheat, barley and hops purified the drink. Have no idea what rice does to it. Never drank that stuff from the Mississippi River.

So kids, take heart. The former Brewers who make up a good number of the Kansas City Royals, escaped the plight of Cream City and are now in the playoffs. Congratulations to Nori Aoki, one of the best right fielders we ever had is tied for the second best hitter on the Royals. Congratulations to Alcides Escobar, one of the best young shortstops we ever had, is tied for the second best hitter on the Royals. Congratulations to Lorenzo Cain, one of the best outfield prospects we every had and is the best hitter on the Royals and the third best base stealer on the Royals. Congratulations to Dale Sveum, the Royals hitting coach, former Brewer and the best manager the Brewers ever had. Congratulations to Nedly Yost, a former player and manager of the Crew who almost did it, guiding the Crew to two winning seasons, their first in 11 years, before being relieved of his duties 16 games above .500. Sixteen games ABOVE .500. Oh, Mike Jirschele, the Royals third base coach, is from Clintonville. Doug Henry, the Royals bullpen coach, a former Brewer, lives in Hartland. They no longer have to drink the water. They are in the playoffs. The Brewers aren’t.

Play Ball.

But not in Milwaukee this post-season.