Good day for Baseball in Milwaukee

MILWAUKEE – Pretty cool day so far. After all, it’s not every day that a guy like me wakes up, goes to the ballpark, talks to a Hall-of-Famer near the cage during batting practice, heads up to the press box and is greeted by another Hall-of-Famer who hands out the day’s lineup card.

After chatting with Robin Yount and Harry Kalas, I had waffle fries and the best veggie dog I ever tasted for lunch. Usually those things taste like pencil erasers, but the people in Milwaukee know their wieners.

After that, the great writer from The Inquirer, Phil Sheridan, took my photo beneath the huge Rollie Fingers poster, which was pretty cool. Needless to say, I learned a lot about ol’ Rollie when I was a kid.

Besides, wieners, they also know how to make a lot of freaking noise in Milwaukee. As the fans walked in this morning, the ushers handed out those thunder stick things and now everyone is beating the hell out of them. With the lid closed on Miller Park, it was almost impossible to hear yourself think down on the field.

But Jimmy Rollins didn’t have to think – just swing. And on the sixth pitch of the game, the Phils’ leadoff hitter lined one into the seats in right field.

Suddenly it got eerily quiet.

They got noisy again soon, though. When Ryan Braun laced a two-out single to left against Joe Blanton it sounded like they were beating a tin trash can with a crowbar. Thankfully, when Prince Fielder ended the inning with a fly out, the fans all got up, put down the thunder sticks and went to the concourse to get a wiener or some fried cheese curds.

They eat a lot of weird things out here.

End of 1: Phillies 1, Brewers 0

Game 4: The Kid and The Hammer

MILWAUKEE – If the folks in Philadelphia are torn about making the choice between the Eagles against the Redskins or the Phillies in Game 4 of the NLDS, sports fans in Wisconsin are close to a meltdown. After all, just about the same time as the first pitch is thrown here at Miller Park at noon central time, the Packers will be teeing it up at Lambeau Field against the Falcons.

They love the Packers here in Milwaukee and all over the dairy state. In fact, when talking to folks around town this morning about “The Game,” we were quick to learn that it didn’t mean playoff baseball.

Still, they have a very significant baseball history here in Milwaukee. A scan of the retired numbers hanging from the roof of Miller Park proves as much. Paul Molitor and Rollie Fingers were as good as any designated hitter and closer in the history of the game. Molitor collected more than 3,300 hits during his career, was MVP of the 1993 World Series and guided the Brewers to the playoffs twice during his Hall-of-Fame career.

Fingers was one of the first closer specialists in the game and helped redefine the role. But more than just a one-inning trick pony, Fingers worked two or three innings in order to pick up a save. In 1981 Fingers won both the Cy Young Award and the MVP for the Brewers by posting a 1.04 ERA during the strike-shortened season.

But when one talks baseball in Milwaukee, the two names are Hank Aaron and Robin Yount. Aaron, of course, was one of the greatest players in the history of the game. He also played in Milwaukee for 14 of his 23 big-league season for both the Braves and Brewers. Better yet, Aaron led Milwaukee to its one and only World Series victory by clubbing three homers and batting .393 in 1957 against the Yankees. Aaron’s Braves got there again in ’58 but lost to the Yankees in seven games even though Hammerin’ Hank hit .333.

In 1975, the season after he broke Babe Ruth’s all-time, home-run record, Aaron returned to Milwaukee to play his final two seasons for the Brewers. But by then Aaron was in his 40s, winding down and hardly the same player he was when he came up more than two decades before.

However, one of his teammates was a young 19-year-old shortstop already in his second fulltime, big-league season. Eventually, Yount went on to play 20 seasons for the Brewers, won the AL MVP twice and took Milwaukee to its last World Series in 1982. He retired with over 3,100 hits and was an easy selection for the Hall of Fame in 1999.

But in 1975 the Brewers had the youngest player in the league with the teenaged Yount and the oldest with the 40-plus Aaron. Needless to say it was a curious dichotomy, but one that Yount, even at such a young age, understood completely.

“He was significant,” Yount said about Aaron as the Brewers took batting practice before Game 4 of the NLDS on Sunday morning. “Even though I was just 19 I could see how important he was and not just in baseball, either. He had already broken the record. I knew how big he was, but he didn’t come off that way in person. I mean he didn’t let it get to him. We knew all he had accomplished in this game, but like I said before, he acted just like anyone else.”

The humanness of the all-time home run king is what stood out the most more than 33 years after the kid and the vet joined the same team.

“He was great to me and being around him was a great experience for me. What I learned was what a normal guy the greatest home-run hitter of all time at that time can be,” Yount said. “You know that made a huge impression on me. Here I was a young kid, in his second year in the Major Leagues, trying to learn this business and found out that everyone is pretty much the same. You know… he treated me just like he would anyone else. He was great to me.”

Both were even better to the game and to Milwaukee.

The Phillies are mixing things up a bit with their languid offense.

11 – Rollins, ss
8 – Victorino, cf
26 – Utley, 2b
6 – Howard, 1b
5 – Burrell, lf
28 – Werth, rf
19 – Dobbs, 3b
51 – Ruiz, c
56 – Blanton, p

The Brewers lost Rickie Weeks for the rest of the playoffs with a sprained left knee suffered in Game 3.

25 – Cameron, cf
5 – Durham, 2b
8 – Braun, lf
28 – Fielder, 1b
7 – Hardy, ss
1 – Hart, rf
30 – Counsell, 3b
18 – Kendall, c
37 – Suppan, p

Number 162

Ryan HowardTo me, there has always been way too much aggrandizing about Opening Day in baseball. Opening is just the first of 162 and rarely has any true impact on the season. Better yet, unless it’s totally extraordinary, Opening Day is never memorable. There is no significant action.

But the last game of the season – that’s when the memories are made. Game 162 is the time for heroes and for the real pros to step into the spotlight. Even when teams are just playing out the string, the last game of the year is like running that final 385 yards of the marathon.

Anyway can do the first 26 miles, but it’s that last stretch where legacies are defined.

As a kid I also romanticized about the last game of the year and suffered the wide-eyed, Field of Dreams-types during Opening Day. I was more interested in the guts of the action and not the first few easy strides of the race, which meant I spent all summer figuring out what it was going to take for a team to make the last day the most important one.

Sometimes I got lucky, too. I can recall being at the Vet for Game 162 in 1991 when David Cone of the Mets struck out 19 against a Phillies club that featured Doug Lindsey and Braulio Castillo. In fact, Cone had a shot to tie the all-time record for strikeouts in a game after he whiffed the first two hitters to start the ninth inning. But Wes Chamberlain doubled and Dale Murphy – a player who lead the National League in strikeouts three times and ranks 13th on the all-time whiffs list – grounded out to end the season.

The Vet seemed empty that day with most of the crowd holding Walkmen to listen to the Eagles’ early-season loss at Tampa Bay with Brad Goebel at quarterback, but when Cone had a chance to tie the record it was the loudest the fans were all day.

I also was at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore on the final day of the 1982 regular season where the Orioles nearly pulled off a stunning comeback to win the AL East. Trailing the Milwaukee Brewers by three games heading into the final, four-game series, the Orioles won the opener with Dennis and Tippy Martinez on the mound, and swept a Saturday doubleheader by a combined score of 18-4 to make the last game of the year a do-or-die situation.

Any good Milwaukeean can tell you what happened in that Sunday finale.

BrewersBen Oglivie made a sliding catch on the gravel warning track in left, Robin Yount pounded two homers off Jim Palmer by the third inning, and Don Sutton mesmerized the Orioles for eight innings in Earl Weaver’s last game as the Brewers went on from there to an improbable playoff run.

And I was there.

I’ll be there on Sunday when the Phillies attempt to pull off what the Orioles could not in 1982. Trailing the juggernaut New York Mets by seven games just two weeks ago, the Phillies go into Game 162 all tied and with a chance to make it to the playoffs for the first time since 1993. There is no doubt that the day will be filled with craziness of the type that we will discuss for years to come.

This time, though, I won’t be sitting near folks more interested in listening to out-of-town football scores or packed in tight in the left-field bleachers at long since torn down baseball parks. This time I’ll get to see the protective plastic sheeting that had been secured into place late last night when the Phillies took over first place (for less than 24 hours) lowered to stop champagne spray. Or maybe I’ll see ballplayers cry over the missed opportunities of a season stopped too short.

But then again, maybe I’ll see a team prepare for Game 163 on Monday to settle the season in winner-take-all fashion.

Either way, this is a lot more exciting than any Opening Day could ever be.