Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Never Forget

I get it. The Wisconsin Badgers and the Green Bay Packers are a combined 12-0. It's awesome and surreal, don't get me wrong, but I'll have plenty of time to talk about the success of Wisconsin football. For now, the Brewers should get your undivided attention for one last time this year.

Last night, when the clock struck midnight on the Brewers' magical run, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I've sat through countless playoff defeats from the Packers, the Badgers, the Bucks and the Golden Eagles as a die-hard fan of Wisconsin sports, but NOTHING has ever hurt as bad as losing game 6 of the National League Championship Series to the hated St. Louis Cardinals. I sat with my head in my hands for several minutes, trying to allow all the unforgettable memories from the past season override the agony and despair of the season being over at the hands of a team who I hope a rivalry will continue to grow with. I'm sure I wasn't the only one who questioned the decision to start the lifeless corpse of Shaun Marcum or the idea to go with a lineup that didn't give the Brewers the best chance to win, but the fact of the matter is that the Brew-City Bombers ran into a buzz-saw Sunday night. The Cards were the hotter team, but not necessarily the better team...I refuse to acknowledge that. From the day that Nyjer Morgan went to Twitter to begin a mini war of words and tell St. Louis to "have fun watching the Brewers in October from their couches," the Cardinals went on a tear. Whether you want to blame it on what Plush would consider some friendly trash talk, managers like Tony LaRussa and players like Albert Pujols don't need to be given any extra motivation to succeed, and that's exactly what they've done. Succeed. Succeed beyond expectations.

As difficult as this may sound right now, none of those things should be what defines the 2011 Milwaukee Brewers. The expectations were higher than ever heading into April because of acquisitions like manager Ron Roenicke, Morgan, Takashi Saito, Shaun Marcum (ugh) and Zack Greinke, and they got even higher towards the end of July and the beginning of August by adding all-time single season saves leader Francisco "K-Rod" Rodriguez and utility man Jerry Hairston Jr. All of these additions were somehow pulled off without losing any core players like Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, Corey Hart, Rickie Weeks and Yovani Gallardo, although the farm system was left almost completely decimated. But just like when the Brewers traded everything and the kitchen sink for C.C. Sabathia three years ago, fans supported the moves. They were all-in, just like General Manager Doug Melvin. Naturally, I made some predictions:

1. Shaun Marcum will win 15 games. (WRONG, although a lack of run support didn't help)
2. Prince Fielder will either collapse under the pressure of a contract year or have a career year because of the motivation of a contract year...then walk after '11. (RIGHT (so far), it was a career year without question...Prince has yet to walk though)
3. Nyjer Morgan will eventually become the main guy in center field after starting the year in a platoon with Carlos Gomez and the Crew once again realizing Go-Go sucks. (RIGHT, although by the end of the year I was calling Gomez's name)
4. John Axford won't top his 2010 season in the closer role but do enough to stay in it. In addition, set-up man Zach Braddock will be an absolute beast. (PAINFULLY WRONG for obvious reasons)
5. The Brewers will rank in the bottom five in the MLB in defense. (BARELY WRONG, they were 24th, but are currently dead last in postseason defense)
6. Zack Greinke will not perform as well as expected, but Yovani Gallardo will succeed thanks to a lack of pressure. (KIND OF RIGHT)
7. The Brewers will acquire a key bench player mid-season. (RIGHT, Hairston)
8. Manager Ron Roenicke will win NL Manager of the Year. (STAY TUNED)
9. Mark Rogers will be called up at some point during the season and make some key spot starts...maybe even earn the fifth spot at some point. (WRONG, Rogers was injured/we didn't end up needing any rotation replacements)
10. Sergio Mitre will make one start and then find his way to the bullpen, where he had some success last year with the Yanks. (WRONG, but who cares)
11. Mat Gamel will not be touched in the minor leagues (barring injuries at the major league level), but will replace Prince Fielder in 2012 at first base. (WRONG, unfortunately, but he may be the opening day guy in 2012 at first)
12. Milwaukee Brewers 2011 record: 91-71, 1st place in NL Central (PRETTY RIGHT, 96-66, a franchise record in wins, was enough for 1st in the Central)

Some of these predictions are still pending, but let's move on.

Roenicke brought a lot of excitement to the table and it took him some time to feel out the cast of all-star players and the situation he walked into, but any realistic fan knew there would be some growing pains. He had an aggressive style of managing, which naturally excited Brewer fans, and eventually he figured out the right assortment of players to put on the field and implemented strategies in certain situations once he got a feel for the club. It was a slow start to the season, partly due to a lack of chemistry, but mostly due to injuries to several key players. Players came back, and things started to click, especially once Greinke returned from his freak basketball injury. They hung around the top of the division for the next few months, and the post-All Star game additions Melvin made were enough to jump-start the Crew once again, despite the gruesome ankle injury Rickie Weeks sustained, and give them a comfortable edge in the NL Central. Throw in the inspired performances of potential MVPs Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, the leadership in the rotation of Yovani Gallardo, the shut-down closing ability of John Axford, and the Brewers simply showing more will to win than their opponents - many times in heart-stopping fashion - and that in a nutshell is why the Brewers landed in the postseason.

So Milwaukee, the smallest pro baseball market in the league, drew the Arizona Diamondbacks in round one, a team they battled with until game 162 to earn home-field advantage in the opening round of the playoffs. I was fortunate enough to earn the right to buy tickets to game 2, but decided to pass. Ha. Yeah, right. They won that game for me along with game 1 thanks to a dominating performance by our ACE, Yovani Gallardo. Of course, the road woes crept back into the minds of the Brewers and as much as I felt it wouldn't happen, there would be a game 5 at Miller Park. Speaking of Miller Park, if that stadium could seat 100,000 people, it would have been filled each and every game this postseason. The SMALLEST MARKET in baseball. What about Chase Field in Phoenix, you ask? Game 4, there were roughly 10,000 empty seats in the D-Back's home ballpark. That's embarrassing. Also, it gave me the feeling that the Brewers deserved to win this series, even after the lackluster performances by Marcum and veteran lefty Randy Wolf. The night of Saturday, Oct. 8 rolled around and I was planning on watching the final game of the series either on my own coach or from one of the many bars located in Oshkosh, but then I remembered something. Kyle's mother, who had purchased four standing room only tickets to game 5, was giving her tickets to Kyle, which meant I had to consider if I wanted to or would be able to go. Of course I wanted to go, and thanks to the gracious gesture of my roommate Will, I drove his van down to Milwaukee Sunday morning for the biggest baseball game in Milwaukee in decades. Flash forward to about 7:30 PM...

Can I even explain this moment? Probably not. Gomez, a defensive replacement, singles to left. He takes second on a wild pitch. Plush knocks one up the middle, Go-Go scores the NLDS-clinching run. Hysteria ensues. The Keg was flowing. If there is one moment of my young life that I'd never forget, it was being at Miller Park when Gomez crossed home and the ten minutes that followed, fans going absolutely nuts, the building maybe the loudest it had been at any point during the actual game. Unforgettable to the maximum meaning of the word. I embraced tens of hundreds of random people and made sure to snap some pictures, capture the moment on video and grab a few pieces of confetti for keepsake. I know the Brewers would eventually lose in six games the next series, but being there for that moment might just make up for it alone. The only thing I missed as a result of attending game 5 was T-Clutch shouting obscenities into the TBS microphone held by Sam Ryan. Shouldn't have been standing there, Sam.

Most of you who talk to me regularly about baseball, are friends with me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter probably already know what I'm about to tell you about the Cardinals/Brewers suds series II, but I'll go through it nevertheless. After the first few games, it was apparent who wasn't going to help contribute to the Brewers' run at a World Series, and those names included Corey Hart (slumping at the plate, useless in the field), Nyjer Morgan (one of the most clutch hits in Brewer history, I know, but facing the same struggles as Hart), Rickie Weeks (simply not healthy enough to contribute in any way) and Shaun Marcum (completely out of gas). Marcum's performance in game 2 was hard to watch, but not as hard to watch as in game 6. Usually, when you give up more runs than record outs, you're in trouble. The fact of the matter is that Marcum had never gone past 200 innings in his career and Roenicke was leaving him for dead by putting him out there in an elimination game. Sure, he had a very short leash...if even a leash at all...but he never should have been out there in the first place, and it was enough to set the tone for how the Crew's final game in 2011 would end up. And of course, Hart, Plush and Weeks were all out there for game 6 as well. What should have the stubborn Roenicke done for game 6? I know it sounds extreme and idiotic, but...

RF Morgan, CF Gomez, LF Braun, 1B Fielder, 3B Hairston, SS Betancourt, C Lucroy, 2B Counsell, P Gallardo/Estrada

Gallardo on three days rest? But it's only three days rest! And then he can't pitch in game 7! Shut up. Even if Gallardo can't go here, pitch Estrada. He was a gem spot starter.
Counsell over Weeks? He hit .170 on the season! Yeah, but the Brewers needed defense, and Counsell >>> Weeks in that regard. Oh, and Weeks hit .146 in the playoffs.
If you were against playing Plush, why is he in there? Because he's the best DEFENSIVE option in right, plus there needs to be someone in the lineup with lead-off experience.
Hairston in the 5 hole? And Yuni in the 6? Why mess with that chemistry towards the bottom of the lineup? Sorry, you're right. Protecting Prince isn't that important.

And if you even question having Gomez in there because it was against a righty, don't even look at me.

I hated the idea of starting Mark Kotsay in game 3 and then I hated not having him in there in game 5. I hated how our defense sucked, making Greinke's game 5 start look bad when it really wasn't. I hated how Roenicke wouldn't give Taylor Green a chance to at least pinch-hit instead of continuously marching out McGehee (why even put him on the roster then?). I hated a lot of the decisions that were made in the NLCS, only proving why 29 years of experience managing trumps one year. I appreciate what guys like Marcum, Hart, Weeks and Plush did for us all season long and they were a HUGE reason why the Brewers got to the point they did, but just because someone helps you get to where you are doesn't mean they have to go the distance with you. Man, I sound like a dick. No wonder I don't have a girlfriend.

So what's next? First things first, I don't think I can bring myself to watch a single inning of the World Series. I said the same thing in 2007 after the Packers' depressing loss to the Giants in the NFC Championship game about the Super Bowl, but I watched it. Not this time. I hate the Cardinals way too much and not seeing the Brewers in the first World Series of my lifetime just hurts too much. Plus, I really have some school work to catch up on after watching all this playoff baseball. Once the World Series comes to a close, we as Brewer fans have a few things to root for:

Ryan Braun or Prince Fielder (or both) winning the MVP award.
Ron Roenicke, despite his joke of a managing effort in the NLCS, winning the NL Manager of the Year.
The Brewers front office continuing to push forward and making this team as competitive as possible.
Fielder returning in a Brewer uniform in 2012 without crippling our payroll for the next decade.

For as greedy as I am, I would be happy to see two of these things happen and for as awesome as personal accolades are, I hope those two things are the last two listed. What else will be going down as soon as free agency hits in a few weeks?

Yuni B will probably be gone.
Craig Counsell will be gone.
K-Rod will probably be gone.
Haiston will probably be gone.
Hawkins will probably be gone.
Saito will probably be gone.
Kameron Loe might be gone.

Greinke will be back.
Marcum will be back.

Prince Fielder. Sigh...this is probably it, Brewer fans. Over six years of the big fella crushing baseballs, cracking that boyish smile in the dugout and celebrating with Ryan Braun after each home run. Not sure if you caught this, but Prince still hasn't left out returning to Milwaukee according to the post-game interview he gave last night. His exact words were "the amount of fun...it's just been the best, easiest year I've ever had for me mentally, just going out everyday and playing hard. This year's been awesome...HOPEFULLY I'LL BE HERE FOR MORE YEARS TO COME, but if not, it's been cool."

Yeah...that's just me clinging on to the last string of hope. The way everyone got choked up when the team left the clubhouse for the final time this season, especially Casey McGehee, who's son has cerebral palsy. Fielder was especially supportive, and just thinking about the embrace they had before Prince left for good is bringing tears to my eyes as I type this. The tone of players, coaches and Prince himself give off the impression that one of the greatest players in Brewers franchise history is walking into greener pastures, if you catch my drift. If this is indeed the case and the Brewers, who will certainly make a strong push to bring back Fielder's services, are unable to re-sign Prince, then that money should be used to fill other voids that will undoubtedly be left. Despite losing so many studs from the farm, there are still promising youngsters that will have their shot to make the big league club next season and free agents brought in to do the same. As much as I want to get into that discussion right now, I'll save it for another time.

Right now, let's just remember what the 2011 Milwaukee Brewers and Prince Fielder gave us: the highest of highs and at times, the lowest of lows. Moments we'll never forget. The deepest playoff run in 29 years. And in Fielder's case, six-plus years of the greatest display of power to march through Wisconsin in...well...perhaps ever. What a ride it was, and maybe what a ride it will continue to be. Just like back in '08, now that I've gotten a taste, I want the whole thing. This will forever be the sport I love the most, and it's still hard to accept that I must move on. The success in Madison and Green Bay will help me cope. Okay. We've given the Brewers the time they've deserved, but while you're tuning in to football, basketball, hockey or any other sport this winter, NEVER FORGET the ride a group of 25 men gave you last summer, and remember how we all enjoyed every second of it.

Sports are amazing.

See you next year.