It is a familiar situation in Milwaukee. In between the cold-outs and rain-outs the Brewers have managed to get in a few games—13 to be exact—and have won most of them. Their 9-4 record at the end of last week put them in a tight race with the Yankees for first place in the American League's Eastern Division.
It would be reasonable to expect that a fast start like this would cause the first stirrings of excitement in a city that has not enjoyed a pennant in almost 20 years, but Milwaukeeans are understandably wary. Last year the Brewers also started quickly, and as late as July 5 led their division by 1½ games. Then injuries and clubhouse bickering set in, and Milwaukee collapsed, finishing 28 games out of first and 26 below .500. The fact that the same players who put together that record are the mainstays again this season is not apt to provoke premature enthusiasm among Brewer loyalists.
Despite the depressing familiarity of all this, Milwaukee fans do have one good reason for thinking that this year's team will not cool off once the weather warms up. It is new Manager Alex Grammas, the former utility infielder who had been the Reds' third-base coach for the past six seasons. During his tenure in Cincinnati he gained a reputation as a man of exceptional managerial potential.
If Grammas has not awakened pennant fever among the citizenry, at least he has stimulated the thinking of his players. "I can see us stealing first place," says Rightfielder Bobby Darwin. "The thing that is going to keep us up is the new attitude. It's a positive, winning attitude." Grammas set that tone in spring training when a game went awry. "Just like last year," groaned one of the Brewers. Grammas snapped back, "I don't want to hear about last year again. Last year is history."
May 9, 1976
That incident made a firm impression on the Brewers, a young team with a salubrious sprinkling of seasoned players like Henry Aaron, First Baseman George Scott and Third Baseman Don Money. Certainly Milwaukee did not look like the down-in-the-dumps 1975 club when it pulled out a game in Chicago last week. The Brewers had a 5-0 lead going into the eighth inning, when the White Sox rallied to tie. Unshaken, Milwaukee came back in the ninth for an 8-5 victory, with Shortstop Robin Yount singling in the winning run with two out.
Although he is only 20, Yount is in his third major league season. So far this year he is hitting .356, .375 with men on base and .600 in what the Brewers call "clutch situations." Another young player, 24-year-old Reliever Eduardo Rodriguez, has six saves and one win. Bombed for four runs in two-thirds of an inning in Milwaukee's second game of the season, Rodriguez has had a 0.94 earned run average in his seven appearances since. In the comeback victory against the White Sox, he relieved with the score tied, runners on first and second and one out. He got the next two batters to pop up. Rodriguez is so unfazed by tough situations that he needs only two English phrases to talk with Catcher Darrell Porter: "no worry" and "everything O.K." No wonder Eduardo is called Edweirdo by his teammates.
Under Grammas the Brewers have become an old-fashioned kind of club; the players and coaches often sit in hotel lobbies discussing baseball. "Most of my guys are thinkers," says Grammas. "And they do most of their thinking about baseball. That's great, because to win you consistently have to be on top of things. Things are always happening in games that must be talked about. Say a player gets lackadaisical, careless with a fly ball. If you're careless today and don't realize it, aren't told about it, you'll never be on top of the situation. It's little things that make a winning team. You make your own luck. This game is no mystery. Grinding it out every day—the everydayness of it—is what wears a guy out. The process is not physical, it's mental, and if your mind says you're weak, you'll be tired physically. Your mind is where you control everything. What you think is what you are."
To Grammas Aaron is not just a player but a fifth coach. "I can't express how much help he's been," Grammas says. "He came into my office one day and I said, 'Make me a promise. Since you know baseball and the Brewers the way you do, never hesitate to offer advice.' You want the advice of a man who's been through the wars. You're remiss if you don't get it. It doesn't bother me to ask people what they think. Some people see that as a sign of weakness. I don't."
In his final year as a player Aaron still bats cleanup even though his power has gone the way of the spring in his legs. "If your legs are weak, your swing is not as strong," says Aaron. "You can't generate as much power. The ball just doesn't go as far."
Aaron's batting has validated his thinking. Ten of his 11 hits have been singles, the other was a double. Still, he feels he is hitting better than he did last year, when he batted only .234. "I know the American League pitchers better now, and I don't have all the interviews I had last year," he says. "I'm trying to hit the ball up the middle more, and I've been trying to hit it more to right because the outfielders give me more room out there."
Aaron, whose goals for this season are a .280-.290 average and a dozen home runs, was finding plenty of room for his hits in Milwaukee's first nine games. He was batting a youthful .345 going into last week, then a one-for-15 slump dropped his average about 100 points. He looked all of his 42 years during a frustrating afternoon at Minnesota, when the Brewers had a chance to take over first place. In a game that was close until an eighth-inning Twins' rally gave them a 9-5 victory, Aaron went hitless in four at bats and left six runners stranded. Twice he popped up, his swing only a weak facsimile of his old home-run cut.
While Aaron closes out his career as a singles hitter, Grammas is depending on several younger Brewers to develop into the accomplished players Milwaukee will need if it is to maintain its lofty position. One of them is Leftfielder Charlie Moore, who is a converted catcher. "Charlie's a go-gettum type of guy," says Grammas. "He just doesn't want to be a leftfielder. He wants to be the leftfielder." The trouble is that despite Moore's hustling he is hitting only .205.
Considerably more successful has been the shift of Sixto Lezcano from right to center. A rapidly improving fielder, Lezcano is batting .286. Grammas is also allowing the 24-year-old Porter to call all the pitches for the first time in his four big-league seasons. "His job as the catcher is to get winning performances out of our pitchers," Grammas says. "He's doing a great job. The combined ERA of our starters has been 1.44."
For the young Brewers the testing time is likely to be July and August. Grammas knows that, and he sees some encouraging signs that they may be able to withstand the midsummer heat. "When you come to a club you've never seen before, a bad club the year before, you wonder how well they can play the game," he says. "Heck, they've been playing solid baseball. It's nice to win. It's even nicer to play solid ball."