Tuesday May 13th, 2008

The trouble with watching baseball games on the Internet is that you're always about two pitches behind the live action, and people like Cory Melvin do not give spoiler alerts. Cory, a senior at Marquette, watches Brewers games live on Fox Sports Net Wisconsin. His father, Doug, the Milwaukee general manager, is frequently off in some minor league outpost following the team on mlb.tv. Such was the case on May 4, a Sunday on which the Brewers clung to a 6-5 lead in the bottom of the ninth inning in Houston, with two outs, the bases loaded and Astros cleanup hitter Lance Berkman at the plate. Sitting in his hotel room in Clearwater, Fla., Doug watched Milwaukee closer Eric Gagné run the count to 2 and 2 on Berkman.

That's when the phone rang. "He walked him," Cory announced. "Tie game."

Doug did not hear from his son for another three innings. Then, in the bottom of the 12th, with the score still tied and Berkman on first base, Doug watched Hunter Pence digging into the batter's box for the Astros. The phone rang again. No way could this be good. "Game over," Cory said. Doug turned off the laptop before he could see Pence bash a 2-and-0 fastball over the leftfield fence, completing a brutal three-game sweep.

The Brewers, a team on the verge, suddenly looked like a club in some trouble. Three days earlier Yovani Gallardo, their best young starting pitcher, tore his right ACL and is likely done for the season. Then Derrick Turnbow, an All-Star reliever only two years ago, was shipped to Triple A Nashville after giving up 11 earned runs in his first 6 1/3 innings. First baseman Prince Fielder, the defending home run king, was in the midst of a severe power outage. Second baseman Rickie Weeks, shortstop J.J. Hardy and third baseman Bill Hall were all batting under .235. And Gagné, the closer signed to a $10 million deal in the off-season, had five blown saves in 14 chances. The visitors' clubhouse at Minute Maid Park was silent, save for the running water in the showers.

"I'm not the kind of guy who throws things -- much," Doug Melvin said. "I just observe. I think our team can learn from this. We have a lot of talented young players who haven't experienced a lot of failure. They may be going through it for the first time right now."

The Brewers had been on the road for a week, in Chicago and Houston, but they could not go home yet. This was a 10-day trip, the bane of any baseball team's existence, a test of endurance and concentration. The final stop would be a three-game set against the Marlins in Miami, a place that presents its own unique challenges: how to motivate oneself, for instance, when playing in front of 40,000 empty seats, 15 miles from South Beach, in the first week of May? Last week the Brewers allowed SI to get an inside look at how a promising but still young team handles an arduous road stretch.

Every team bus has the same unofficial seating chart -- coaches in front, players in back, no exceptions. As Milwaukee players filed onto the bus beneath Minute Maid Park, they passed first base coach Ed Sedar, a longtime manager and coordinator in the Brewers' minor league system. Sedar was promoted before last season, in part because of the rapport he had developed with the club's numerous highly regarded youngsters. He extended a fist to each passing player, and the player bumped his fist back. "I always do that," Sedar said. "I want them to know that this is not the end of the world."

On May 12 of last year Milwaukee was 25-11, eight games up in the National League Central. Fielder was on his way to 50 home runs. Hardy was on his way to the All-Star Game. Leftfielder Ryan Braun, the eventual NL Rookie of the Year, had not even been called up yet. When the Brewers ultimately failed to make the playoffs, their fade was attributed to inexperience. None of the core players -- Fielder, Hardy, Braun, Weeks and rightfielder Corey Hart -- were older than 25. None had been in the majors for more than two years. Their time would come. Perhaps as soon as this year.

"I was standing with Prince on the field at the World Series last year," said Mark Attanasio, the Brewers' principal owner, of the day Fielder received the Hank Aaron Award. "I told him, 'We could be here.' "

Major leaguers travel in a fashion that makes losses easier to stomach. The team bus snaked through the dusk of downtown Houston to Hobby Airport to an executive terminal aptly named Million Air. At Million Air no one is subjected to the indignity of a metal detector. The bus pulled right onto the tarmac, and players boarded a Midwest Air MD-80, with seat backs bearing the Brewers' logo. Dinner options, printed on a menu, included assorted cheeses, beef enchiladas, tarts and warm cookies served with cold milk. Fielder, who gave up meat in the off-season, was served the vegetarian option.

For a young team, many of the Brewers have been together a long time. Fielder, Weeks and Tony Gwynn Jr. were playing together five years ago at Class A Beloit (Wis.), where the road trips were not quite as deluxe. "I remember one bus ride in the middle of the summer from Beloit to Dayton, and about four hours in, the air conditioning broke," Gwynn said. "Guys were sweating and taking off their shirts and just sitting around in their boxers. We opened the ventilation on the roof, but then it started raining so everyone got wet, and we had to shut it. It smelled so bad in there. And now -- we're flying charter with DVD players and plenty of air conditioning that never breaks."

Players used to treat team planes like clubhouses in the sky, surfing food trays down the center aisle. Now trips are not quite as fun. Per dress code, the Brewers wear suits or sport coats, usually accessorized with the biggest headphones they can find. By the time their plane had risen over the Louisiana bayou, most players were watching movies, listening to music or fast asleep. Five of them -- Hall, Craig Counsell, Gabe Kapler, Guillermo Mota and Mike Rivera -- had resumed the regular game of Texas hold 'em that they play on every flight. "Just for chips," Kapler clarified.

For the 32-year-old Kapler every game counts. He retired in 2006 and spent last year managing Class A Greenville (S.C.) in the Red Sox organization, part of his 10-year plan to become a major league manager. There was one problem: Kapler found that he desperately wanted to play again. So last winter Milwaukee signed him as a backup centerfielder, and while Mike Cameron served a 25-game suspension to start the season for taking a banned stimulant, Kapler filled in and hit four home runs in his first 23 at bats. He will not be managing again anytime soon.

When the Brewers landed in Fort Lauderdale at 10:30 p.m., two buses and a stretch limousine were waiting for them. The limo was for Gagné. What timing. He had just blown a save -- he was in fact a week away from losing the closer job -- and now he was going to parade down Ocean Drive? Gagné, in fact, had ordered a town car, not a limo. And his trip was not to South Beach but to Vero Beach, a sleepy retirement community two hours north where the Dodgers held spring training. Gagné, who spent 12 years in the Dodgers' organization, was headed to see friends in Vero. It was Braun who was headed to South Beach, to meet up with some old University of Miami buddies for a late dinner at his favorite restaurant, Prime 112.

The players could afford to stay out late because they were off on Monday. The ones who did not sleep until noon reported early to the main pool at the Hyatt Regency Bonaventure in Weston, Fla., a resort designed to look like a rain forest. "I just want to sit by this pool and do nothing," Hardy declared. Then he saw the Ping-Pong table next to one of the tiki huts, and he couldn't sit still anymore. Hardy, who hosts an annual team tournament during spring training at his house in Tempe, Ariz., challenged Hart to a match. Before long, about a third of the Brewers' roster was playing either Ping-Pong or underwater basketball. Among the spectators was team announcer Bob Uecker, finally in the front row.

The first day of a series is always the busiest. By 12:15 p.m. on Tuesday -- six hours and 55 minutes before the first pitch -- every Milwaukee coach was in the visitors' clubhouse at Dolphin Stadium. Manager Ned Yost sat at a locker with bench coach Ted Simmons, reflecting one more time on the final at bat in Houston and whether the Brewers should have pitched around Pence. Using laptops, pitching coach Mike Maddux reviewed video with Gagné and worked on the closer's release point, and batting coach Jim Skaalen studied Marlins lefthander Scott Olsen, the opposing starter that night. Skaalen had already written down every pitch that Olsen had ever thrown to Brewers hitters, looking for trends and tendencies. For instance, he noticed that Olsen always started Weeks with a fastball away. "I have to make sure I remind Rickie about that before the game," Skaalen said.

Skaalen also had an important message for all of his hitters: Relax. "Coming out of spring training, they were trying to do too much," the coach said. "They all wanted to get on the pace they had last year, and they started overswinging. I want to tell them, 'Quit the expectations. Stay under control. Stay soft. Just see the stinkin' ball.' "

When Cameron, a 14-year veteran who had just returned from his suspension, walked into the clubhouse, he was greeted by a stuffed parrot hanging from his locker with a bandage over one eye, a cigarette dangling from its mouth and a miniature Padres hat on its head. Cameron, who played for San Diego last season, blurted out, "What the hell is that?" The stuffed parrot responded, "What the hell is that?" Cameron looked at the parrot sideways. It was repeating every word he said. The Padres, who were in Florida right before the Brewers, had left the parrot so Cameron would have someone to keep him company on the rest of the trip. "I don't think I want it," Cameron said.

After stashing the parrot in Fielder's locker, Cameron pulled out a black case containing five pairs of Oakley sunglasses, each one designed for different sun conditions -- dark shades for bright days, lighter shades for overcast days. Given the glaring South Florida sun, Cameron settled on the darkest ones. Tony Migliaccio oversees all of the players' equipment, from sunglasses to stirrups. When Fielder felt as though his jersey was constricting his swing a few weeks ago, Migliaccio ordered one with wider sleeves. When Braun got a few hits with a new bat from Louisville Slugger, Migliaccio ordered a half dozen.

The new bats were of no help that night, however. Milwaukee mustered only two hits and was shut out 3-0. As much pressure as the young players were under to produce, there was substantially more pressure on Yost to lead. He was ejected in the third inning for arguing a called third strike and watched the rest of the game on a small television in the visiting manager's office. Every time he wanted to plan a pitching change, he sent a clubhouse attendant to fetch Maddux in the dugout. Maddux then hustled back to the clubhouse between innings to talk strategy. "The umpires think they're kicking you out of the game," Yost said, "but they're not. They're just sending you to the locker room."

The Brewers woke up on Wednesday a .500 ball club, in fourth place in the NL Central, five games behind the division-leading Cardinals. Pitching was not the reason. The defense, a serious liability in '07, had been surprisingly solid. But the offense, considered the strength of the team, was misfiring. The team's batting average, down to .241, ranked 26th in the majors. "It's beyond frustrating," Braun said. "I'm sick of saying, 'It's early,' and 'We'll be all right.' You can only say that for so long. It's time for us to swing the bats."

Jeff Suppan had seen much worse. The 33-year-old righthander pitched for the Cardinals in 2006 when they endured two eight-game losing streaks but still won the World Series. Milwaukee signed him after that season to bolster its starting rotation and provide a young team with some veteran perspective. Riding to the ballpark on Wednesday in a rented SUV, he scrolled through his BlackBerry to check the previous day's sales at his restaurant, Soup's Sports Grill, in Woodland Hills, Calif. Suppan, who started working in the restaurant business as a 14-year-old dishwasher, opened his new place in November. "When I was coming up, my mom and dad couldn't get the games on TV, so they'd call whatever stadium I was pitching in and ask to be put on hold so they could listen to the radio broadcast over the phone," Suppan said. "I wanted to create a place where you could see any game you want."

Watching the Brewers up close for the past two years, Suppan has noticed a slight change. Last season the young hitters feasted on fastballs over the meat of the plate, he said. This season they are being pitched more judiciously. The hitters acknowledge that their willingness to take pitches could determine how far the team goes.

The Brewers gathered at 5 p.m. for an unplanned meeting, common during losing streaks. Yost reminded his players that this was no time to panic, that they needed to settle down and stick together. Milwaukee's starting pitcher that night was Dave Bush, who had been sent to Triple A Nashville on April 27 and recalled five days later after Gallardo injured his knee. While in the minors Bush went to Borders and picked up some light reading for the road -- The Brothers Karamazov, the 824-page tome written by Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky in 1879. As teammates watched American Pie 2 in the clubhouse, Bush sat at his locker, with Dostoyevsky. "I get some weird looks sometimes," Bush said, "but this helps me get away from it all."

Bush, alas, gave up six runs, and Milwaukee lost its fifth straight game, 6-2.

After the game Skaalen was back watching video in the corner of the clubhouse, joined by Braun, Cameron and Hall. "After a win nobody comes by much," said Joe Crawford, who is in charge of the team's video, "but after a loss they're lined up." When the three hitters looked closely, they saw themselves reaching for pitches outside the strike zone and swinging so violently that they sometimes lost their balance in the batter's box. It was another quiet clubhouse, another quiet bus ride to the hotel.

Yost was already thinking about mixing things up. He devised a lineup for the next day that included three new starters -- Kapler in rightfield, Rivera catching and Joe Dillon at first. Fielder, Hart and Jason Kendall were given the day off. Yost wasn't the only one in search of a makeover. Fielder had a barber come to the clubhouse and shave his Afro in an obvious attempt at a fresh start. "There are teams where people can get on each other's nerves at the end of a long trip," said Kendall, in his first year as a Brewer, "but this clubhouse isn't like that. It reminds me more of the A's."

Kendall has been in the majors for 13 seasons, including three in Oakland. Like the A's, the Brewers are stocked with young players who came up through the minors together and therefore tend to stick together during rough patches. Even when the game is at its most excruciating, they are able to find joy in it.

Take, for example, the Candy Man. As Milwaukee's least-tenured relief pitcher, Mitch Stetter is responsible for filling a duffel bag every day with Red Bulls, Blow Pops, candy bars and packs of bubblegum. Then he hauls the load out to the bullpen so the veteran relievers have something to munch on during the game. Stetter's goal is to keep the cleanest candy bag in the majors. He is meticulous about disposing of empty wrappers. "I know a lot of guys don't like this job," the 27-year-old Stetter said, "but I take pride in it."

The sugar rush wore off just in time for the Brewers to drop the series finale 7-2. It had been a week since they'd won a game. It had been four days since they'd led in a game. They finished the trip 2-7, with six consecutive losses. Every team goes through a slump at some point in the season. The best ones minimize it. Whether this was an anomaly for the Brewers or a harbinger was yet to be seen.

In the clubhouse afterward, players slowly started to chatter -- about families, homes, familiar beds. The last bus left Dolphin Stadium at 11:30 p.m., bound for the airport. The team plane was due to land in Milwaukee at 3 a.m. Nine hours later the coaches would be at Miller Park reading scouting reports and watching video. The Cardinals were in town.

"When it's ready to turn around, it will turn around," Yost said of the team's slump. "And it will turn around in a hurry."

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