Jim Colborn, one Whittier College alumnus going good these days, likes to spend his idle moments dreaming up catchy names for the Milwaukee Brewers. "All pennant contenders need an identity," Colborn says. "Something like the Big Red Machine or the Mod Squad or the Amazin' Mets." So why is Colborn concerned about an identity for the Brewers, who have been well identified as hapless and pathetic since their arrival from Seattle in 1970?
Thanks principally to the right arm of Colborn, a 26-year-old with an 11-3 record and a 2.54 earned run average, and the wiles of Manager Del Crandall, Milwaukee once again is suffering a twinge of the kind of pennant fever that Henry Aaron and Eddie Mathews and Crandall himself brought so emphatically to Beerville two decades ago. A solid spring pick to repeat their last-place finish in the American League East, the Brewers thrust themselves into the pennant scramble with an 18-10 record during June. On five of those giddy days they were in first place. If they somehow end up there in October, Detroit Manager Billy Martin will be sorry indeed.
Colborn started thinking up team nicknames when the Brewers reeled off 15 wins in 16 games and knocked the Tigers out of first place. "We're the Big Blue Beer Truck," he said foamily. Then, when the Brewers lost a few games, Colborn decided they were the Who Are Those Guys Out There? Gang. Realizing that the Brewers needed a lasting identity, Colborn next bowed deeply toward Martin and coined another: the Chinese Bandits.
Martin, it seems, had laughed off the Brewers, saying, "If they can win with this team, I'm a Chinese aviator." After the Tigers encountered some unfriendly skies, Martin claimed the remark was inoperative. "Made big mistake," he said. "Brewers tough club. I got a friend named Howard Wong, and I'm taking flying lessons from him."
"People tend to think we're a fluke," Crandall says, "but we're not. We don't have any rookies hitting .360 now or any veterans hitting way over their heads. All our players are simply performing to the level of their capabilities. As I see it, we'll get better before we get worse. At least I hope we will."
Colborn is the only Brewer whose performance this season has far exceeded his previous accomplishments. Leo Durocher flunked Colborn three times in Chicago before the Cubs shipped him to Milwaukee after the 1971 season. Pitching mostly in relief, something the Brewer starters needed constantly, he had a 7-7 record and a sound 3.10 earned run average in 1972. He was scheduled for more bullpen duty this season but got a chance to start when Bill Parsons developed a sore arm. The bullpen has not seen him since.
His elevation has not fogged up Colborn's assessment of himself. "My pitches are all mediocre," he says. "I don't have one real outstanding pitch, but I usually can get the ball over the plate where I want it. When hitters see me for the first time, they say, 'Geez, his pitch looks like a watermelon.' Well, I hope they hit it like that and it splatters all over the place."
Colborn is no stranger to achievement. "I've always been a striver," he says. "In the eighth grade back in Santa Paula, Calif. I was the best student and the best athlete in school. In high school I was just a star. Now that sounds vain, I know, but I did have success and it did not go to my head. I was comfortable in the limelight because it was where I wanted to be." Colborn continued to display his academic and athletic prowess at Whittier College, from which he graduated in 1967 with a bachelor's degree in sociology.
"One of my old classmates," Colborn says, "tells me they have taken down a dormitory sign that read RICHARD M. NIXON SLEPT HERE and replaced it with JAMES W. COLBORN SLEPT HERE. It's a good story, but I don't think it's true."
Colborn believes he has found a mind-over-matter approach to the game. "I don't think I have been psychologically consistent in the past," he says. "I have taken myself too seriously at times; my mental attitudes kept changing. Now I think I have reached a permanent peace with myself. How? Simply by being closer to the type of person that I want to be. I don't care how many people say I'm great, as far as I'm concerned I'm no greater than a bricklayer or a garbage collector. The whole purpose in life is to achieve serenity. That makes happiness, not money or possessions."
Colborn is always analyzing and asking. He recently engaged teammate George Scott in a lengthy discussion about hitting. "George and I use different words and expressions to say the same things, perhaps," Colborn says, "but George has a lot to say, and I listen. For instance, he gave me his theory about guess-hitters. George is a guess-hitter, so he knew what he was talking about. Now I try to throw guess-hitters like Bobby Murcer pitches they can't hit out of the park, and guess-hitters like Frank Robinson pitches they don't want to hit. There's a difference. Murcer will not hit an outside fastball for an opposite field home run, but Robinson will. They're both guess-hitters, but you must pitch them differently."
Like many of the Brewers, Colborn has benefited from the methods of Crandall, who does not react with hot words or chair-tossing tantrums when his players fail to fulfill his expectations. "But patience is a tricky subject," Crandall says. "If you do not expect things out of players, they might think you're being patient out of indifference. You also can be patient to an extreme."
Crandall kept his customary cool recently when Scott, in a slump, balked at a batting-order change moving him from fourth to seventh. When he noticed the change, he developed an instant groin pull and missed two games. "I'm not a No. 7 hitter, let's put it that way," Scott said. "I get paid $80,000 a year, and they don't pay $80,000 to players who bat seventh." On the third day Crandall waited until game time and then asked Scott if he could play. "I guess so," he answered. "Good," Crandall said, and he wrote Scott's name into the No. 7 position in the batting order. Scott got two hits, and soon was back in his familiar No. 4 position.
Makes you think, as Jim Colborn might say.