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Brewers may be young, but they're ditching the youthful exuberance

MARYVALE, Ariz. -- The Milwaukee Brewers are a young team, but they are growing up fast. They recognize that they are new school and not old school, but that they must go to school to avoid the mistakes of a year ago, when their youthful exuberance alienated their opponents.

They will adapt. They will temper things. They will not pull out their shirttails after walk-off wins.

At least that's the goal after a season of inventive celebrations earned them a fair amount of animosity. There was the time Bill Hall darted directly into the dugout; that upset the Cardinals. And of course, there was the infamous bowling pin incident; the Giants didn't forget about that for six months.

That's over, they say. Their celebratory choreographer, whoever he was, has been canned. They are going to have fun, just not at the expense of others. "We all respect the game," Brewers star Ryan Braun said. "There's no reason to give other teams motivation."

It's either tone it down, or expect more plunkings like the one Giants pitcher Barry Zito gave Brewers star Prince Fielder in the first game this spring. While Zito suggested he was merely "working inside," it was obvious to all that his first pitch, which found Fielder's backside, was retaliation for the 10-pin celebration the Brewer kids perpetrated last August when Fielder hit a walkoff homer against the Giants' Merkin Valdez.

"We knew it was coming," one Brewers person said of Zito's retaliation.

And they weren't necessarily that impressed, but that's another story.

The story of the day is that the Brewers are going to change their ways. They're going to contain their youthful exuberance before they make any more enemies. But they've still got plenty of youth.

The Brewers return their superb corps of kids, even younger than last year after the defections of Mike Cameron and Jason Kendall. But not all of their kids are child-like. Braun prepares like almost no one else. According to manager Ken Macha, Fielder works and plays as hard as anyone in the game. Rickie Weeks is so serious about his craft, Macha likens him to a former teammate, Hall of Famer Andre Dawson.

Though Fielder appears to be the most vocal, the Brewers are still looking for a leader. When asked who the leader is, Macha replied, "We'll find out."

Whoever it is will have some work to do. Some of the kids are, well, childlike. Alcides Escobar is exceedingly talented -- bench coach Willie Randolph likens him to Jose Reyes, though he distinguishes the two by noting that Reyes is a "fast-twitch guy" and Escobar a "glider" -- but he needs to grow up. He lost track of the count the other day and neglected to cover second base, leading to seven runs by the A's. Randolph said he was pleased Escobar owned up to the mistake, but also said the mistake shouldn't have been made.

The Brewers figure it's hard enough to play at the major-league level without a target on their backs. The loss of Weeks and a decided lack of depth in the pitching staff torpedoed the talented team's season last year; they were in first place in May but finished 80-82, well behind the Cardinals, one of the teams that took offense. But Brewers players don't single out the Cardinals. They noticed quite a few teams took exception to their ways, and they are starting to wonder whether their over-the-top celebrations made them a team other teams loved to beat.

"We were getting some bad vibes -- just the way people came after us," Corey Hart said. "We're midmarket, so in the past we were a team people rooted on. We were like the Pirates, a team trying to rise. We don't want negativity surrounding us. We weren't trying to upset anyone. But some teams took it negatively, and some fans did, too.

"We don't want to give the other teams reason not to like us. There's a lot of old-school guys out there that might look at things differently."

The Brewers even have a couple old-school guys in their midst -- including their manager and their bench coach. "You want guys to express themselves," Randolph said. "That's the culture we live on. But players have to understand there's an etiquette to baseball, and if you run into teams that take offense, you have to deal with that, too. Players have to be conscious of that, they have to decipher what is right and the core leadership has to keep tabs on it."

It's unlikely Braun and Hart delivered the very same message without a hint or two from the top. Hart said the players all gathered to talk about changing their ways, even before Zito sent his message. Macha, though, won't cop to telling the team to tone it down.

"We," Macha emphasized, "are all in favor."

Macha is old school, after all, and old-school men don't reveal what goes on behind closed doors. "Those are all discussions not to be put in the paper," Macha said. "All the stuff that's done with the players, that all stays within house."

As for the celebrating, Macha acknowledged that the game has changed since he played, and that at 59 he's more than a generation older than almost all his position players and most of his pitchers (Gregg Zaun, LaTroy Hawkins, Jeff Suppan, Randy Wolf and of course Trevor Hoffman are the rare exceptions who are only a generation younger).

"I'm OK with guys having fun," Macha said. "But there's a way to have fun and still respect the other team. ... You've got to focus on playing the game. I feel we're good enough. People should see we respect the game by playing it hard. We play it as hard or harder than anyone."

This season, they hope to do so without upsetting the opposition.

Joe Nathan's diagnosis of a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow has cast a pall over Twins camp, which had been energized by an improved team and stadium and the prospect of many more years for Joe Mauer, assuming the sides can finalize a deal for close to 10 years.

Sadly, it appears the club will have one less year of Nathan, who's going to wait two weeks to let the swelling subside before testing his arm. "He was excited about the club. He was excited about the new stadium," Nathan's agent David Pepe said. "He's a competitor. He wants to pitch."

It makes sense to give it a shot, but the reality is surgery seems likely, which would be a major blow to the Twins. Not only does Nathan have more saves than anyone since 2004 (three more than Mariano Rivera), but he is a leader on that young team.

The Twins have a strong bullpen, but since they have no one obvious closer-in-waiting (Jon Rauch, Pat Neshek, Matt Guerrier, Jose Mijares and Jesse Crain are among the possibilities), one option would be to sign a free agent starter and move Francisco Liriano into the closer's role. That scenario is said to be floating around Ft. Myers, though it could depend on whether the Twins have insurance on Nathan (it isn't known whether they do).

The Twins showed interest earlier this winter in Jarrod Washburn, who's the most obvious choice. Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz are other starters who remain free.

I spent a little time with Joe Torre on Tuesday (he gave me a ride on his golf cart -- he's an excellent driver, though a tad fast for my tastes, as some note paper flew out of my hands). Anyway, I remain somewhat unconvinced that Torre will walk away from managing the Dodgers after the 2011 season, as planned.

Torre is about to turn 70, but he seems more fit and youthful than he was a decade ago. He overcame prostate cancer diagnosed in 1999, but he attributes the appearance of increased energy to the knee surgery that restored his gait.

Torre is now in negotiations with the Dodgers on a one-year extension to the three-year deal that ends after this season, and the current talks have included a lot of discussion about what else Torre might do for the Dodgers after he stops managing following the 2011 season. The assumption has been that 2011 will be the end. Of course, it was first thought that 2010 would be his final year, and it seems like we've been here many times before. Retirement rumors have surrounded Torre for nearly a decade, and he's always been pulled back to the game.

This case is slightly different, of course, in that the Dodgers have a definitive succession plan, with longtime lieutenant Don Mattingly set to take over for Torre after 2011.

That is, if Torre goes. He did warn me several times he's taking it "one year at a time." But he doesn't sound like a man thinking about retiring at the moment.

"This is a great life," Torre said, adding, "I'm enjoying myself. We're enjoying being in the West Coast. I like working with Ned (Colletti)." He didn't mention one negative thing, not even the Dodgers' new reality or frugality. In fact, he said he loves his first four in his rotation.

It's apparent he still loves this job, too.

You see where this is going. You have to wonder.

"I don't want to say I'm waffling ... but I can't completely decide not to do it," he said.

"At some point, I'm going to say, 'Isn't this enough?'" Torre said. But he didn't say he was quite at that point. Until he leaves, based on his history I'm just going to have to assume he's staying forever.

• Sources say there has been at least some progress in extension talks between the Red Sox and Josh Beckett, but it isn't known how close the sides are.

• As for Joe Mauer's contract talks, Mauer's agent Ron Shapiro has left Ft. Myers. It's taking a bit longer than thought, and a new goal might be Opening Day. That would be a nice additional story to complement the opening of the new stadium.

• Jose Reyes' agent Ed Greenberg said Reyes' doctor is "very optimistic" after conducting tests on Reyes' thyroid. The Mets announced that Reyes has a hyperactive thyroid and that more would be known in the next day or two.

• Mets prospects Jenrry Mejia and Ike Davis are having big springs. Manager Jerry Manuel seems to want both players on the team, but GM Omar Minaya appears to want to be cautious with Mejia and would prefer to start him at Double-A Binghamton.

Jon Niese looks like he'll win the final spot in the Mets' rotation, but Hisanori Takahashi has been very impressive thus far.

• Macha is one of many managers who could be considered a lame duck (the team has an option for next year), but he has no regrets about telling GM Doug Melvin to give him a contract he thought was fair. "I don't care. If we win, they'll take care of it. If we don't, I guess they'll turn the page. It was a job for me just to get back in after the perception in Oakland," Macha said. Macha also said he prefers having a bench coach like Randolph, who's "been in those shoes and understands the implications of things," and that he doesn't mind at all having a bench coach who will obviously get another shot at managing (Macha had Terry Francona in Oakland).

Hank Blalock adds to Tampa Bay's already strong corps of hitters and could be a threat to take playing time from Pat Burrell, who's quickly fallen out of favor there.

• As a first baseman, Aubrey Huff looks like a pretty good DH.

Stephen Strasburg has been impressive in every way in Nationals camp. The Nats also like hard-throwing reliever Drew Storen, who may actually get to the majors quicker than Strasburg.

• It's been a great spring for newcomers such as the Braves' Jason Heyward and the Reds' Aroldis Chapman. The Reds seem determined to put Chapman in the rotation, and he looked good in throwing two scoreless innings in his debut Monday against the Royals. But other teams remain skeptical about whether Chapman can make that jump at 21. And he's a young 21, according to people who know him.

• Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd quietly signed a contract of unknown length this winter. There is a new trend of secrecy surrounding contract lengths for GMs. Ken Williams' contracts are never announced, and the length of Ned Colletti's contract was never made public (though it's believed to be for five years). Incidentally, the Rockies look very impressive in Arizona and will be a popular pick this year.

Manny Ramirez hasn't talked to the press for a week straight after coming to camp with a contradictory opener, first saying this was his last year with the Dodgers and then suggesting he'd play three more in L.A. before going to Japan for a final two. He's accompanying the team to Taiwan today, yet another surprise for a player who never even makes the trek to Tucson.

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