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.