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.

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