In baseball, the t-shirt is the medium for the clubhouse message, and in Milwaukee, where the T's read 1990-IT'S A NEW ATTITUDE, the medium is the message. The message, you see, is printed on the backside, where Brewer batters were routinely deposited en route to an 81-81 finish in 1989.
This is an article from the June 11, 1990 issue
Third baseman Gary Sheffield remembers that season, his disappointing rookie year, as the one in which he was ostracized by his Milwaukee teammates for saying aloud what had long been whispered around the league: Brewer pitchers wouldn't protect the plate or their own hitters. That, of course, is a paraphrase of what Sheffield said. To be specific, he called the pitchers "girls."
"I wasn't trying to prove anything," says Sheffield, who was demoted to Denver in the middle of the 1989 season and then recalled in September after spending all of August on the disabled list. "I was just saying that it's a part of the game. Guys threw at me all the time, and it made it tough to do what was expected of me—to hit .300 up here." Sheffield wound up with a .247 average.
This season Sheffield is doing what was expected of him, hitting .318 before pulling a leg muscle while running the bases on May 27. He had missed six games through Sunday, but otherwise Sheffield has been a happier Brewer this season, for several reasons: Don Baylor, 40, who was hit by a record 255 pitches in his 17-year career as a player, is the Brewers' new batting coach; Dave Parker, 39 and a one-time prodigy, has befriended Sheffield while bringing much-needed menace from the Bash Brothers in Oakland to the Brew Grew; and on the mound, that famous Milwaukee gemütlichkeit has given way to Eine Kleine Chinmusik.
By winning two of three in Toronto last weekend, Milwaukee recovered quickly from a disastrous West Coast swing and regained first place in the American League East by a half game. The Brewers blew a 2½-game lead and fell out of first when they lost the first six games—and seven of eight—on that road trip to Oakland, Anaheim and Seattle. Toronto, which won five of eight during its own West Coast trip against the same three teams, was in front by a half game before meeting up with Milwaukee.
Of course, reasons for the Brewers' 25-22 record at week's end run deeper than Baylor and Parker and the deployment of depilatory fastballs. For instance, Milwaukee's shallow starting rotation survived the team's first 21 games without losing a decision. Manager Tom Trebelhorn, who hasn't had a healthy team in his three seasons with Milwaukee, continues to have the patience of Job—and has, at last, a roster no longer filled with the patients of Dr. Frank Jobe.
But make no mistake: The primary reason the Brewers are putting their year of frustration behind them is the winning aura brought to Milwaukee by Baylor and Parker. To discover the effect these two old men—Parker and Baylor have six pennants between them—have already had, one need look no further than to the transformed attitudes of the 21-year-old Sheffield and the mild-mannered middle reliever Chuck Crim, 28.
Crim was ejected twice in eight days in April for precipitating bench-clearing fights with retaliatory knockdowns—the Texas Rangers' Jeff Kunkel and the Kansas City Royals' Frank White were the dustees. "We changed some things," Crim says of Milwaukee's pitching staff. "We had a lot of guys hit this year and last year, and we're not going to put up with it. We're doing something about it."
"Last year the pitchers thought that wasn't part of their job," says Baylor, who became an assistant to Brewers general manager Harry Dalton last September. "That gets around the league and more of our guys get flipped. A country-club attitude in here"—he's standing in the County Stadium clubhouse as he speaks—"got carried out there. I saw it right away."
In other words, says righthanded pitcher Chris Bosio, "it wasn't just the staff, it was the whole team. Now, instead of watching things being done, we're doing them. We're all playing aggressively."
That aggressiveness has manifested itself in the Brewers' scoring first in their first 21 games. And in their pasting of the Red Sox 18-0 on Patriots' Day in Boston. And in their uncoiling of the Cobra, as Parker is known, who through Sunday was batting .341 as the designated hitter. And in Trebelhorn's saying, "Once again, we have a chance to win this division."
Once again. Last season, Milwaukee opened with five starters on the disabled list: infielders Paul Molitor, Dale Sveum and Greg Brock, and pitchers Teddy Higuera and Juan Nieves. During the year, 15 Brewers spent time on the DL. Still, Milwaukee was only a half game out of first on Aug. 20, when they left on a seven-game trip to Baltimore and Toronto. They lost their first six on that road swing and never reentered the race.
That was when they brought in Baylor, a baseball wise man who had grown weary of the road. "I was sent here to check the pulse of a team that was in contention, but was not in contention," says Baylor, who last played, for Oakland, in 1988. He found a dead clubhouse full of Brewers, who, he says, seemed primarily interested in playing five-card draw and watching reruns of Taxi. "There were social factions here and there," says Baylor while hooking up a VCR to a TV installed in an empty locker in County Stadium. "There was just a dull attitude in general."
To be sure, the Milwaukee players still sink into the two hideously upholstered sofas in their clubhouse to catch some cathode rays. But this year, the programming they're watching is produced by Baylor, who became wired up after he accepted Dalton's offer to become batting coach, on Dec. 4. After three months as the general manager's assistant, Baylor's business suit had begun to itch.
Now Louie and Latka have been replaced by a library of videotapes—one for every player, each of whom can cue up any of his at bats (or pitches) from this season. Baylor, who caught the video bug while touring Japan last summer, takes the TV and VCR everywhere so that young Brewers like Sheffield and rookie outfielder Greg Vaughn will gather around it with their batting coach, as if Baylor is Dad and they're all in the den.
In Kansas City on May 1, Sheffield was being badly fooled by Bret Saberhagen's off-speed pitches. So before he batted in the top of the sixth, he popped in a tape of his first two at bats against the Royals' righthander and saw himself swinging too early, each time anticipating an incendiary fastball. Minutes later at the plate, Sheffield decided to wait for whatever pitch was thrown. His two-run homer off a Saberhagen changeup was his first of the season, and it iced the Brewers' 6-3 win. "That's something I couldn't have done last year," says Sheffield.
It is a tribute to Trebelhorn's managing style that he is thrilled, not threatened, by Baylor's presence. "There are people out there who, for one reason or another, have a reluctance to come in and talk to me," Trebelhorn says in his office, in the back of the Brewers' clubhouse. "The door is open, but there's a barrier. And I understand that. It's human nature."
So Sheffield and Vaughn and outfielder Glenn Braggs can be seen chatting up, being chatted up by, or simply basking in the presence of, Baylor, Milwaukee's clubhouse Buddha, who often just sits there, oozing baseball knowledge. "I go to him, he comes to me, I see him all the time," says Vaughn. "Probably too much. It's like going to school every day."
Says Crim, "I think the big change this year is that people are worried about the actual game now, instead of worrying about who is saying what and why they're saying what."
If the change is most noticeable in the Brewers' extra intensity on the field, it is almost equally apparent in the insanity in the clubhouse, a lot of it provided by Parker, who says, "Let's see. We got one brother in here that looks like a black Jimmy Durante. Sheffield? He's Home Plate Face—the man's got the widest face in baseball. Vaughnie? He's always got this devious look on his face. He couldn't date my daughter, let's put it that way...." Parker's needle finds everyone on the team, but it never breaks the skin.
The Cobra, who signed as a free agent two days before Baylor became a coach, has been nicknaming people and things at every stop in his 18-year career. He used to stroll the base paths after first stopping to admire his prodigious dingers. He called his endless victory lap The Thing. And while Parker has performed The Thing 311 times in his career, through Sunday he had done it only four times this season—twice last weekend against Toronto. He is slapping doubles and singles as he did 12 years ago, when he won his second consecutive batting title, with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Thing has been replaced by frequent appearances of The Fling, a new base-on-balls trot. With theatrical disdain, Parker tosses his bat nearly to the dugout on ball four, fixes his eyes on the offending invertebrate on the mound and fairly crawls to first, via a detour that takes him near the top step of the first-base dugout. "That's because I get ticked off when I walk," Parker explains. "I believe a pitcher should challenge a hitter."
If that means being dusted, Parker expects it. Which is why the day after the Seattle Mariners' Brian Holman brushed back Sheffield at County Stadium, Parker was showing Sheffield during warmups how to properly return to the batter's box after such an indignity. "Jump back in there," said Parker, jumping. "You waited too long." Never mind that Sheffield had doubled on the pitch that followed the brushback; Parker had him jumping out of—and immediately back into—an imaginary batter's box for the next 30 seconds. When he was finished, Parker said, "You got to be the intimidator."
To that end, the Brewers have been swinging a sledgehammer in the on-deck circle, reviving a tradition Willie Stargell brought to Pittsburgh years ago. The Brewers say that the hammer is heavier than the on-deck-circle doughnut and helps to strengthen the players' wrists, but it doesn't hurt that the hammer makes even the puniest Milwaukee batter look like the Purdue Boilermaker, to say nothing of what it does for Parker. "Intimidation is a big part of my game," he says.
His numbers have been frightening enough—22 home runs and 97 RBIs for last year's world champions. Parker has won two baiting titles, three Gold Gloves and one National League MVP award. "He's a player with a pedigree," says Trebelhorn. "He's been on winners in three different cities. He's been on world championship clubs in two different leagues. He's gone through the best of times a player could have, and he's gone through times...times when it's been tough."
In 1985, when Parker, then playing for the Cincinnati Reds, admitted that he had used cocaine while playing for Pittsburgh, commissioner Peter Ueberroth threatened Parker with suspension for a year but let him off with a $100,000 fine and 200 hours of community service. Parker then was sued in 1986 by the Pirates, who wanted to stop deferred payments of $5.3 million that they owed him. "They said they didn't get their money's worth out of me, and I'm the best player in baseball six of the 10 years I'm there," Parker says. The suit was eventually settled out of court.
Parker's eyes well with tears. He is in the same clubhouse that five minutes earlier had been gleefully hooting as he reeled off his nicknames. "It was a modern-day lynching," he says of the Pirates' lawsuit. "A modern-day lynching."
In a minute the interview is over, and Parker takes to the field. Never mind that he will not be in the lineup tonight. It is one of those evenings when only Parker's presence is required, an evening that makes "this leadership thing," as he and George Bush call it, so obviously pleasing to him—even if he rarely admits it.
"He's like a second father to me," says Sheffield, a comment which Parker quickly tries to pooh-pooh. "I just came here and tried to be me," says Parker. "Some people think that provides leadership."
In the same breath Parker will tell you that his career has come both "full circle" and changed "180 degrees." As he was with Pittsburgh in the 1970s, he is among the hottest hitters in baseball; and on the other side of the circle from his 11 years at Three Rivers Stadium, Parker is now the man who steadies the clubhouse of a team in contention.