Brewers' bandwagon grows, win-by-win
Joy, paranoia and caution fill the fanbase after red-hot start
MILWAUKEE -- Every day or two on the Brewers' just-completed homestand, a new sportswriter would show up at Miller Park to tell the story of this year's early-season Cinderella. You'd forgive him if it took a while to find his way around Miller Park, because it was usually his first visit.
Joe Scribe would introduce himself to Brewers manager Ned Yost and ask some questions about J.J. Hardy's strong start, Prince Fielder's ascension to a leadership role and the impact Jeff Suppan has had on an improved starting rotation. A generally glowing story would follow, pointing out that Yost & Co. had the best record in Major League Baseball, possibly comparing them to the 2006 Tigers and predicting the Brewers would be "in it" in September for the first time in years.
That may be the national perception, but a survey of talk radio hosts in Milwaukee found that many of the local fans have yet to go emotionally "all in" with the Brewers. Why are so many still sitting on the fence?
"Because this has been a team that has broken our hearts so many times since 1982," said Doug Russell, who hosts the morning show on WSSP-AM 1250. "Like 1987, they get off to a great start, win 13 straight, then lose 12. In '92, it was a team that teased us for the entire year and then kind of broke our hearts in the last weekend of the season when the Blue Jays got into the playoffs and went on to win the World Series.
"That was pretty much it, because then [Paul] Molitor left and a year after that, [Robin] Yount retired. They haven't had a winning season since."
That was the consensus from sports talkers around Milwaukee, who said a significant proportion of the population is taking a "wait and see" approach, even as the Brewers won their sixth straight game on Wednesday, capped a 9-1 homestand and improved the best record in Major League Baseball to 24-10.
Maybe it's because the Brewers are beginning a brutal stretch of the schedule -- 13 of 16 games on the road beginning Friday in New York. That run includes tough trips out east and out west separated by a three-game Interleague series against the Twins at Miller Park.
More likely, the skepticism is rooted in the fact that the Brewers have not posted a winning season since 1992, and they have not been to the playoffs since 1982.
"In terms of our callers, we're getting a mix of euphoria, disbelief and dread," said Drew Olson, a former Brewers beat reporter for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, who now writes for OnMilwaukee.com and hosts a late-morning show on Milwaukee's ESPN radio affiliate, 1510-AM.
"When Ben Sheets tweaked his groin [on April 25 in Chicago], a lot of people said, 'Here we go again,' and were ready to jump right off the bandwagon," Olson said. "When he ended up making his next turn, people relaxed on that.
"People in our culture love to complain, so we get a lot of, 'Why isn't Bill Hall playing third?' questions and things like that. But there isn't a lot to complain about when the team is winning this much."
No one is complaining about Fielder and Hardy, who have been trading control of the team home run title, a race Fielder currently leads with 10. The much-discussed outfield platoon is working, with Geoff Jenkins batting .341 and Kevin Mench .308. Brewers starting pitchers have a 2.86 ERA over their last 23 games. With Derrick Turnbow and Francisco Cordero (15 saves) at the back end of the bullpen, the Brewers are 20-0 when leading after seven innings.
"It's new ground for us Brewer fans," said Tim Allen, who hosts a daily postgame show on WSSP. "I have asked some fans of other, more successful teams, and they have said that the 'nerves' are way up as you get closer to a potential playoff berth. I feel the same way. Others seem to have automatically evolved into this confident, 'I knew it all along' attitude. I think that's amusing."
Allen and others were quick to say that most fans they hear from have bought in. Still, owning the best record in baseball after more than five weeks of the season qualifies as a surprise. Ditto, the fact that the Brewers' 6 1/2-game lead in the National League Central through Wednesday matched the widest division lead in franchise history. The '82 team led the American League East by 6 1/2 games in late August of that season and made it to Game 7 of the World Series.
"Most people thought the Brewers would be good, but this good?" said Cliff Saunders, one of WSSP's afternoon hosts. "I'm not sure many fans imagined the team would be 14 games over .500 after 34 games.
"There are those who have not gone 'all in' yet, and I can understand why," Saunders said. "If they get through this month in good shape, then it's going to be a special summer here."
Olson points out that the early Brewers buzz can be partially attributed to some outside forces. Brett Favre made an early decision to return to the Green Bay Packers, taking one hot sports-talk topic out of the rotation. The men's basketball teams at Wisconsin and Marquette made early exits from the NCAA tournament. And, Olson says, "the Bucks were so horrible and irrelevant down the stretch that they fired a coach and hired his replacement with time left in the season."
So when the Brewers opened their season April 2 against the Dodgers, they were essentially the only show in town. Aided by an early-season series against the Cubs, attendance is up about 6,000 fans per game over last season, and television ratings are also markedly higher, according to a Journal-Sentinel report this week.
Brewers players and officials say they can sense the difference.
"People I bump into say something like, 'Thanks for making it fun to go to a Brewers game again,'" said general manager Doug Melvin, who took over just as the Brewers were limping a 56-106 finish in 2002, the worst season in franchise history.
"I think we've built a team that is fun to watch, and that makes the experience at the ballpark a lot better," Melvin added. "You're always going to have the fans that are a little bit guarded and want to see it a little bit longer. But we have a lot of confidence in our ballclub."
The only thing Melvin fears is a rash of "catastrophic injuries, long-term, disabling injuries." But all GMs have that fear, and few clubs can guard against that.
Reliever Matt Wise joked that he used to fear frustrated fans causing some catastrophic injuries.
"People see you now and say, 'You're a Brewer, keep up the good work!'" Wise said. "In the past, it was like, 'You're a Brewer?' And they made a face and you would kind of slowly duck away.
"We all do see the big picture. But just like we've said in the past when we've struggled, we just concentrate on tomorrow. Nothing changes. There have been a lot of teams that dominated April and May, and then come October they're watching on TV with everybody else. Obviously, a good start helps you get to the playoffs, but no one has ever got to the playoffs in May."
If they continue inching closer to their first playoff appearance in 25 years, you can bet on those fans currently sitting on the fence jumping over to the Brewers' side.
"Bottom line: This is still a football market," said Olson. "But ... baseball is every day and a good team can captivate and energize a city. That hasn't happened around here in a generation. If they can play deep into October, the mania will be as intense as the Badgers' first Rose Bowl victories and the Packers' Super Bowl trip during the 1990s."
Added Russell, the WSSP morning guy: "It's building. There are still a lot of skeptics out there, but the tide is turning in favor of this team. People are really starting to buy in."
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.