TALENT CHALLENGED/NL CENTRAL
On Opening Day the giant tote board hanging from the facade of
County Stadium will read 732 MORE DAYS. For many in the Brewers
organization, this represents a countdown to prosperity--the
time remaining until the christening of Miller Park, a
retractable-dome stadium scheduled to open for the 2000 season.
If 732 days sounds like a long time, it is. Especially in
Milwaukee, which has been waiting so long for the Brewers to
play a postseason game (15 years) that time seems to stand
still. Luckily, Brewers fans are nothing if not patient.
Despite suffering from a lack of star power (the plague of many
small-market teams) plus the playoff drought, Milwaukee narrowly
gained the public funding needed for the new stadium. As they
were preparing to break ground for the ballpark, the Brewers
began to adopt a plan similar to the one used by Indians general
manager John Hart in the early '90s, signing most of their core
players to long-term contracts in anticipation of the revenue
boost that will be generated by Miller Park. The soul of the
team--infielders Jeff Cirillo, Dave Nilsson, Jose Valentin and
Fernando Vina; pitchers Cal Eldred and Scott Karl; and
outfielders Jeromy Burnitz and Marquis Grissom--is signed
through 2000. Despite losing $6 million last season, the club
increased its '98 payroll by 60%, from $22 million to $35
million. "For years it seemed like this team was just trying to
survive from one year to the next," says Eldred, who has spent
seven years in Milwaukee. "Now it's like we have an actual
Part of the franchise's optimism stems from its off-season move
to the National League, a migration engineered by Brewers owner
and acting-commissioner-for-life Bud Selig, who appears to be
indulging in his own radical interpretation of interleague play.
The switch creates a natural rivalry with the nearby Cubs and
with the Braves, who abandoned Milwaukee in '66. The novelty of
a new league has sparked season-ticket sales, which are running
about 25% ahead of last year. The club record of 8,994, set in
'93, will almost certainly be broken.
That manager Phil Garner spent 12 of his 16 years as a player in
the National League should facilitate his team's adjustment.
Alas, the Brewers are still a team without a superstar. "All our
signings have improved our reputation," G.M. Sal Bando says.
"But at best we've gone from a flyweight to a lightweight. We're
still asked to beat the heavyweights, so we have to bob and
weave and hope to win split decisions."
The Brewers' strength in recent years has been their pitching,
but shoulder injuries to Ben McDonald (who was traded to
Cleveland in December, only to be sent back last week for
healthy lefty Mark Watson) and Jeff D'Amico leave them with only
three healthy returning starters, Eldred, Karl and Jose
Mercedes, none of whom had a winning record in 1997. While they
have good hitters in Burnitz, Cirillo, Grissom, Nilsson and John
Jaha, the Brewers finished 13th in the American League in runs
because they lack a quality leadoff man and power, shortcomings
they hope won't be as costly in the lower-scoring senior circuit.
If Milwaukee can hang in the race in baseball's weakest
division, the NL Central, the most important player may become
Grissom, who was acquired in the vexed deal involving McDonald.
Grissom, who appeared in the last three World Series, could
provide valuable experience down the stretch for a team that
last season trailed the Indians by just 2 1/2 games on Sept. 2
but wilted, dropping 16 of its last 24 games.
Garner, who has the rare distinction of having managed the same
team through five consecutive losing seasons, likes to point out
that everybody in his Opening Day lineup except Grissom, a
nine-year veteran, has between four and six years of major
league experience. "That's when a player feels like he really
belongs in the big leagues," Garner says. "We've been struggling
with youth for years. Now is our window of opportunity to
succeed, and so we're left to wonder, how much more time will it
How many more days? A frequent question in Milwaukee. But when
it comes to winning a pennant, there is no way to be sure if
that countdown has really begun.