Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Brewers' Diva Distractions; Or, Can We Please Be Done with Crash Davis, Already?

Most talented ballplayers have a sizable dose of the diva in them. They're good, they think they're the best -- they know they are -- and they want to play. Finding suitable roles for all 25 on a ballclub that can only field 9 at a time is a management challenge. For a rookie manager to satisfy all of his star players' and role players' egos and ids simultaneously, especially on a team unaccustomed to success and loaded with personality, is impossible.

In the last two days, in the midst of the Milwaukee Brewers' best season in 29 years, the team's fans and followers have heard two potentially disruptive comments from two of their star players. Reliever Francisco Rodriguez, acquired for a song from the Mets in mid-season, spoke Tuesday of his disdain for the 8th-inning set-up role to which he has been relegated from his accustomed 9th-inning closer role. Yesterday, slugger Prince Fielder, whom the team had extended for one last, high-priced, "all in" season in anticipation of his upcoming free agency, had the temerity to reveal -- surprise, surprise -- that this is likely his last season with the small-market Brewers. It's no surprise at all, actually, just a very strange time for truth-telling as Prince and the rest of the team struggle to clinch a post-season berth.

Let's add to this list the ongoing Mr. Toad joy-ride that is the Brewers' charming centerfielder, Nyjer Morgan, a.k.a. Tony Plush, whose charisma, energy-level, aggression, and propensity for in-your-face outspokenness have repeatedly run him afoul of the Unwritten Rules of Serious Baseball as enforced by Serious Baseball Men.

The Brewers' stretch run has turned into a referendum on the Crash Davis School of Public Relations. In the media era's classic baseball comedy, Bull Durham, failed journeyman catcher Davis instructs hotshot pitching prospect "Nuke" LaLoosh on avoiding interview calamities: "You're gonna have to learn your clichés. You're gonna have to study them, you're gonna have to know them. They're your friends. Write this down: 'We gotta play it one day at a time.'"

The Crash Davis prescription -- keep your head down, play the game as it was meant to be played, and shut up around the media -- is the wrong prescription for this team. Maybe it works generally, but not for this Crew; not in this season. The Brewers are an unruly classroom with a substitute teacher in charge. They like to make trouble; they want to stand out; they need to rock the boat. We should celebrate, not cringe, when Prince talks about going out with a blast -- isn't that the very meaning of "all in"? Allow K-Rod to blast management in the media, then watch him strike out the side in the eighth to prove his point. Don't shame Nyjer Morgan into calling himself "Tony Hush"; instead, put a television camera on him, set him on fire, and watch him blaze around the basepaths.

Brewers' manager Ron Roenicke isn't a firey speechmaker. Unlike the Durham Bulls' inept mentor in Bull Durham, he probably won't throw the bats in the shower to get the team's attention. Right now, though, he needs to do everything he can in the clubhouse to burn an unshakable vision into the brains of his charges: the unfurling of a National League pennant at Miller Park -- not just a playoff slot -- and the rare opportunity to compete for a once-in-a-lifetime World Series trophy.

To borrow from another sports tradition, this is Roenicke's Herb Brooks moment. As Olympic hockey coach Brooks said to his struggling goalie, Jim Craig, I want the guy who refused to take the standardized test. Roenicke needs to say to K-Rod, to Prince, to Tony Plush: I demand your extraordinary talent, I want that diva, I embrace your highest ambition. Above all, he needs to tell them that they never, ever have to apologize for who they are.

This is their year, and what got them here is already the best of who they are. Let Prince be Prince, let T-Plush be T-Plush, and let Frankie Rodriguez be the angriest half-season rental player ever to win a World Series.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Special Sunday at Miller Park

Whenever I go to Miller Park for a Brewers game, I glance around the tailgating crowd in the parking lot and the pre-game crowd milling around the concourses to see if I know anyone. I rarely do.

My Beloved Spousal Unit and I know most of the Brewers’ players on the field by sight, of course, as well as the manager, the coaches, maybe half of the opposition, one or two of the umpires. From our perch in the Terrace Level, we can see the radio booth and catch a glimpse of Bob Uecker or Cory Provus calling the game, and Bernie Brewer in his chalet, and the Racing Sausages, and the right field ballgirl with the terrific throwing arm. We take note when Faux Paul, my late brother-in-law’s doppelganger, is in his customary seat next to the Brewers’ dugout. We give a nod to the old-timers who man the stadium parking lots on the way in and the saxophone-torturing busker on the way out.

We also recognize a half-dozen regular Terrace Box denizens. Talk Your Ears Off and Son Of Talk Your Ears Off sit behind us and narrate loudly during every pitch and every interval between pitches in great, gory detail and imagine that this is a public service welcomed by their neighbors. There’s Zoom Lens Couple, who’ve never seen a live ballgame except through his-and-her rangefinders. Looks Like Billionaire County Executive sits on the other side of the Zoom Lenses and is a congenial chap, despite not being a billionaire. (We think.) Radio Headset Man, sitting over the portal, may look a bit stoned, but he’s managed to locate the stadium’s low-power FM frequency for the radio broadcast of the game, and that’s an accomplishment that’s eluded us.

In the communal sense, though, we hardly ever see a neighbor, or someone we work with, or someone else from around town that we know. Our encounters at the ballpark are largely transactional rather than social. Our relationship is with the whole scenario rather than the specific actors.

Today, however, was different. In a sense, we knew everyone at the game today: Brewers fans, Phillies fans, locals, sports tourists from afar. On this 10th anniversary of the horrific events of September 11, 2001, everyone in attendance was in reflective communion. We’ve all had a shared experience, one that exceeded our prior imagination, a nightmare that we can barely fathom to this day.

The sea of blue jerseys and t-shirts and caps that Brewers fans wear in common were merely a cover today; the real solidarity, the reason every pre-game step toward the sports cathedral seemed meaningful, the reason it felt almost tearfully good to see the green grass and diamond of dirt as we emerged from the portal into the sunlight, was that these steps shadowed the shell-shocked steps we took nearly ten years ago in this same venue, when we first resumed attending baseball games to try to chase the shock and numbness away.

The game itself was a festival of seriousness and silliness, both real and symbolic, full of inspiring plays and errors, two-base hits and strikeouts, patriotic songs and sausage races. Does it matter who won? Absolutely, it does! The Brewers are in a divisional race, and if divisional races matter in peacetime, they do so even more in times of peril and anxiety, when we need their distraction the most. So I’m happy to report that the Brew Crew salvaged the last game of the four-game set with Philadelphia, winning 3-2. Blue-clad fans breathed a sigh of relief when Corey Hart, Nyjer Morgan, and Ryan Braun finally delivered clutch hits, scarce commodities of late, in the late innings. Yovani Gallardo whiffed twelve batters while going seven strong, and closer John Axford allowed two batters to reach before completing yet another anxious, perilous save. The "magic number" for the Brewers to clinch the NL Central crown, their first divisional title in nearly three decades, is now ten, with a mere fourteen games to play.

Moreover, the chicken curry in fish sauce that my Beloved Spousal Unit conjured up for our pre-game picnic was delicious -– and our creative cuisine was the envy of the tailgating families to our left and right! All in all, a perfect Sunday afternoon in September, despite the somber occasion. Or perhaps, with deliberate intention, because of it.

My only regret about this memorable day, apart from our inability to tune into the radio broadcast and tune out the bozo behind us, is that we once again didn’t see anyone we know personally at the ballpark. Maybe next time I’ll bring a camera along and ask our Terrace Box neighbors for their expert advice on buying a zoom lens. It might be time for a new resolution.


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