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Brewers in (extremely) rarefied air

Tonight, the Dodgers and Brewers begin the National League championship series in Milwaukee. The roof will certainly be closed.

Good thing Bud Selig demanded it when Miller Park was built. At least the Brewers don’t have to worry about freeze outs in April like the Red Sox, Cubs, White Sox, Twins, Indians and Pirates often have to put up with, and the Royals, Cardinals, Rockies, Phillies, Reds, Yankees, Mets, Orioles and Nationals sometimes do, and the Blue Jays did before Skydome (now Rogers Centre) was built. Even the Rangers and Braves have had a game iced out every so often. The Rangers won’t have to worry about that anymore starting in 2020 when their retractable roof stadium opens next to Jerry World.

The Dodgers, of course, are one of baseball’s iconic franchises. Dem Bums, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider and Don Newcombe, then Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Tommy Lasorda in Los Angeles. Clayton Kershaw has done just about everything in his Hall of Fame career except win a World Series. He could cement his plaque in Cooperstown if the Dodgers win it this year, especially when the American League champion, the Red Sox or Astros, will be heavily favored in the World Series.

The Brewers? Put it this way: the Dodgers have won 48 games in the World Series and six championships, and since 1969, have won two World Series and lost in four others. Tonight will be the Brewers 36th postseason game in franchise history. The sweep of the Rockies in the division series brought the franchise’s all-time postseason record to 17-18.

The franchise didn’t even begin in Milwaukee. It started life in 1969 as the Seattle Pilots. The original owner of the Pilots, Dewey Soriano, was grossly undercapitalized, and there was no suitable stadium anywhere near Seattle for Major League Baseball. The bond issue to build the stadium which became the Kingdome was approved in 1968, but even if construction began immediately, it would not be ready before 1971.

The idea in Seattle was to begin in 1971, along with a new team in Kansas City, which lost the Athletics to Oakland after the 1967 season. However, Stuart Symington, a U.S. Senator from Missouri, demanded Major League Baseball grant Kansas City a new franchise in 1969, or he would introduce a bill to revoke MLB’s antitrust exemption.

It was a reverse move of how the New Orleans Saints were born, when, in 1966, Senator Russell Long and U.S. Representative Hale Boggs agreed to introduce legislation to provide the National Football League an antitrust exemption to merge with the American Football League if New Orleans were granted a franchise.

Baseball commissioner Spike Eckert–who would be fired by owners at the end of the 1968 World Series–and American League president Joe Cronin bowed to Symington’s threat, and American League owners did not want an imbalanced schedule where every team would be force to sit for at least two periods per season, so they awarded Soriano and William R. Daley, who almost moved the Cleveland Indians to Seattle (before the Indians almost moved to New Orleans), the Pilots.

If baseball wanted to do it right AND appease Symington, the best idea would have been to give Kansas City and either Montreal or San Diego a franchise in 1969, and have Seattle and the other city wait until 1972 so the Kingdome would be ready for sure.

The Pilots had to pay the Pacific Coast League $1 million since the minor league club which played in Sick’s Stadium had to relocate to accommodate the Pilots (the minor league team didn’t move far–to Tacoma). Sick’s Stadium wasn’t up to MLB standards, and it was hastily expanded, but still short of the 30,000 minimum capacity. Worse, the plumbing often got clogged by overflow crowds, and visiting teams had no hot water for showers on many a day and night.

Soriano was meeting in secret with Bud Selig, then a Milwaukee automobile magnate, to sell the Pilots. Selig would then move the team to Milwaukee to become the Brewers. Milwaukee had been without MLB since the Braves left for Atlanta after the 1965 season, hosted the White Sox for 10 games in 1968 and 11 more in ’69, and the attendance for those games was triple that what the team averaged in Chicago during those seasons.

The deal between Soriano and Selig was consummated in Baltimore on the opening day of the 1969 World Series, but Washington state called in its political heavyweights, the same way Louisiana and Missouri did.

The Evergreen State had two very powerful Democratic U.S. Senators at the time, Warren Magnuson and Henry “Scoop” Jackson. They, along with Washington attorney general (and future successor to both) Slade Gorton, went to federal court to block the sale and give MLB to find an owner which would keep the team in Seattle.

Two potential deals failed. Soriano and Daley fell into bankruptcy, and came very close to a deadline which, if the players and staff had not been paid, would have made the players free agents and left MLB with 23 teams, not 24, for 1970.

Meanwhile, the Pilots were training in Arizona, not knowing where they would be playing 81 games in 1970. The moving trucks which left Arizona with equipment stopped in Salt Lake City, not knowing whether to drive north or east.

Finally, six days before Opening Day, bankruptcy judge Sidney Volinn awarded the franchise to Allan H. Selig. The Pilots were now the Milwaukee Brewers.

Selig originally envisioned the Brewers wearing the Braves’ colors of scarlet and navy, but it was too late to order new uniforms, so the new Milwaukee team took the field in the Pilots’ colors, royal blue and gold. The colors stuck through 1993, after which the Brewers went to navy blue and old gold, and even added green for three seasons (1994-96).

Milwaukee’s early teams were terrible. The Brewers played in the American League West in 1970 and ’71, building impressive rivalries with the Twins and White Sox. Then, inexplicably, they were moved to the AL East in 1972 when the Washington Senators became the Rangers. MLB would have been just fine keeping the Rangers in the East; after all, the Dallas Cowboys competed in the NFC East. Instead, the AL stunted the Brewers-Twins and Brewers-White Sox rivalries until 1994, when all three were (briefly) in the AL Central together.

The Brewers didn’t enjoy a winning season until 1978. To be fair, though, the Expos were horrid until 1979, and the Padres didn’t succeed until 1984, but since the Royals went the full five games with the Yankees in the 1976 and ’77 ALCS, Milwaukee fans were getting restless.

In 1978, the logo which has been called “the most clever in all American professional sports” was created. The famous ball-in-glove logo shaped in a lower case “m” and “b”. The asshole who changed that logo after 1993 needs to be found and beaten brutally. Why the team won’t wear the logo full-time is beyond me.

In 1981, the Brewers made the playoffs due to Bowie Kuhn’s asinine decision to split the season because of the players’ strike which cancelled games from June 12-August 8. Milwaukee had the best record in the AL East in the second half, earning it the right to play the Yankees in the best-of-five series to determine which team went to the ALCS. The Brewers lost the first two games in Milwaukee, but somehow won the next two in the Bronx before losing game five.

The next year, manager Buck Rodgers was fired with the Brewers below .500. In came Harvey Kuenn, and Milwaukee rocketed to the top of the division, thanks to “Harvey’s Wallbangers”, consisting of sluggers Gorman Thomas, Ben Oglivie and Cecil Cooper, and steady hitters Robin Yount and Paul Molitor. The pitching staff was led by Cy Young winner Pete Vukovich and closer Rollie Fingers, the anchor of the “Swinging A’s” bullpen on Oakland’s championship teams of 1972-74.

However, the Brewers nearly blew it. They went into Baltimore on the final weekend of the regular season with a three-game lead over the Orioles. Earl Weaver, who was retiring at the end of the ’82 season, led his club to three straight victories,  leaving a winner-take-all game 162. The winner of that game would be on a plane to Anaheim for the ALCS vs. the Angels, who barely held off the Royals in the West. The loser would go home.  (There was a potential playoff in the NL West, where the Braves held a tenuous one-game lead over the Dodgers.)

The Brewers somehow pulled it together on October 3, 1982 and won 10-2. However, Milwaukee foundered on the west coast, losing twice to the Angels and standing on the brink of elimination.

The cold and hometown fans warmed up the Brewers, who won three straight and earned the right to face the Cardinals in the World Series.

Mike Caldwell pitched the game of his life in the World Series opener, shutting out the Cards 10-0. St. Louis won the next two games, but Milwaukee rallied to win Games 4 and 5 at County Stadium. As the Brewers loaded the plane at General Mitchell International Airport the evening of October 17, 1982, Milwaukee was one win away from its first World Series championship since 1957, and its first sports title since 1971, when Oscar Robertson and Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) led the Bucks to a four-game sweep of the Baltimore Bullets for the NBA title.

Wisconsin needed the Brewers to win. The Packers hadn’t done a blessed thing since Vince Lombardi left the sideline following Super Bowl II; the Bucks always seemed to come up empty, losing in the 1974 finals to the Celtics and then falling short time and again in the playoffs after that; and Wisconsin football and basketball were second-worst in the Big Ten consistently (Northwestern kept the Badgers from the bottom).

It didn’t happen. The Cardinals bombed the Brewers 13-1 in game six, then claimed game seven 6-3 to celebrate on the Busch Stadium turf.

Milwaukee was done for a long, long time. The Brewers came close to winning a division title only in 1992, falling just short as the Blue Jays were on their way to the first of back-to-back World Series titles. In November 1997, Milwaukee baseball fans got some great news: the Brewers were moving to the National League.

The Royals were the first team asked to move from the AL to the NL, since the leagues did not want to have an odd number of teams and be forced to stage interleague play every day (that would come in 2013 when the Astros moved to the AL). The other idea, to place the expansion teams in one league, was vetoed by the AL., because it did not want to cede Florida to the NL (the Marlins started in 1993). Therefore, one team was asked to switch from the DH league to the No-DH league.

Kansas City made perfect sense. The Royals would have been in the NL Central with the Cubs and Cardinals, meaning St. Louis and Kansas City would play for something much more meaningful than three picayune interleague games in late August.

Instead, David Glass, chairman of the board which ran the Royals following founder Ewing M. Kauffman’s death in July 1993, said no. claiming Kansas City was an “American League” city.

Next up? The Brewers. Bud Selig, chairman of the owners council and acting commissioner (he became full-time commissioner in July 1998) said yes in about one-eighth of a nanosecond.

The new league did nothing for the Brewers. In 2002, Milwaukee went 56-106, eight games worse than the Pilots did. The Brewers reached .500 in 2005, barely missed out on the wild card in 2007, then finally reached the playoffs in 2008, finishing second behind the Cardinals in the NL Central. Milwaukee traded for the Indians’ CC Sabathia at mid-season, knowing he was a rental (he signed with the Yankees in the offseason and promptly helped the Bronx Bombers to their 27th, and most recent, World Series title), then fired Ned Yost (yes, Kansas City, THAT Ned Yost) in September with the Brewers trailing the Mets for the wild card.

Milwaukee ended up losing its division series in four games to the eventual World Series champion Phillies. The Brewers hovered around .500 in 2009 and ’10, then won the NL Central in 2011, thanks to Zack Greinke, who won a Cy Young in 2009 with the Royals.

To get Greinke, the Brewers had to significantly mortgage their future. Traded to Kansas City were a couple of prospects, shortstop Alcides Escobar and outfielder Lorenzo Cain. Escobar and Cain, along with Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, gave the Royals what many termed the deepest farm system in baseball. With hotshot catcher Salvador Perez already in the bigs, the Royals were looking towards 2014 as the year they hit the big time.

How right they were.

The Brewers defeated the Diamondbacks in the 2011 division series, but lost to St. Louis in six in the NLCS. The Cardinals went on to defeat the Rangers in seven in the World Series.

Milwaukee regressed in 2012 and ’13, but in 2014, started 20-7 and led the NL Central by as many as 6 1/2 games. Yet a disastrous final six weeks left the Brewers barely above .500, 82-80. The Brewers plummeted to 68-94 in 2015, earning manager Ron Roenicke, who led the team to the 2011 NL Central title, a pink slip. In came former MLB utility man extraordinaire Craig Counsell.

Many suggested the Brewers tear it down and rebuild from scratch, much the way the Astros did in the early 2010s when they lost over 100 games for three straight years, bottoming out at 51-111 in 2013. Milwaukee looked like it was doing that in 2016, when it went 73-89.

Then  came 2017. Most expected the Brewers to occupy the basement of the NL Central, and possibly one of the worst teams in baseball.

Instead, Milwaukee’s youngsters played out of their minds. The Brewers led the NL Central (over the defending World Series champion Cubs) in July, and even though they could not hold that lead, stayed in the wild card race to the bitter end, falling only one game short of the Rockies. An 86-76 record whetted fans’ appetite for 2018.

And here we are. The Brewers fashioned the best record in the NL, trailing only the Red Sox, Yankees and Astros overall. Milwaukee has its best chance to win a World Series championship since the days of Hank Aaron, Warren Spahn, Eddie Mathews and Lew Burdette. The Packers have won plenty since Brett Favre’s arrival, but Green Bay is almost two hours north on Interstate 43, and the team stopped playing games in Milwaukee in 1994, so some Milwaukee fans feel quite detached from the Packers.

I’ve followed the Brewers since 1984, the first year I was old enough to follow MLB. That year, the Brewers made history by playing a 25-inning game against the White Sox. That, and 1987, when the Brewers started 13-0 and Molitor fashioned a 39-game hitting streak, was about it for me until 2008. Then 2011 was it until now.

I had given up on the Brewers when they were swept in a five-game series at Pittsburgh near the All-Star break. Yet they’ve won 11 straight as they head into the NLCS.

I hope the Brewers can pull it off. But I’m always a doubter. I don’t know if the starting pitching can hold up against Justin Turner, Yasiel Puig, Chris Taylor and Cody Bellinger. I don’t know if Christian Yelich can continue to hit out of this galaxy against Kershaw. I don’t know if Moustakas and Cain can regain the magic of 2014 and ’15 when they helped the Royals win two AL pennants and a World Series. I don’t know if Knabel, Hader and Jeffress can get the key outs.

Prove me wrong, Milwaukee. Prove me wrong. Change my doubt into faith.  Hopefully that  the Brewers are playing in Boston or Houston the night of October 23.

 

 

One-Mule State

The Los Angeles Rams made a huge splash Thursday morning when they traded with Tennessee to acquire the Titans’ No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft, which begins April 28.

It’s the first time since 1991 that a team from outside the top 10 traded up to the No.1 pick. That year, the Cowboys acquired the top overall pick from the Patriots and selected Miami (Fla.) defensive tackle Russell Maryland, who was a starter on Dallas’ three Super Bowl championship teams in the 1990s.

Nobody knew it at the time, but New England and Dallas would someday share a common coaching link. Bill Parcells, who did not retire as Giants coach until after the ’91 draft, would coach the Patriots from 1993-96, and then the Cowboys from 2003-06.

The Rams and Titans already share a common coaching link. Jeff Fisher coached the Titans (previously Houston/Tennessee Oilers) from the middle of the 1994 season through 2010, and then took over the Rams in 2012. The franchises have another link with the late Jack Pardee, who played linebacker for the Rams from 1957-70, then was Fisher’s predecessor as Oilers coach from 1990 through the middle of ’94.

Of course, the Rams played in St. Louis from 1995 through 2015, making Missouri a two-team NFL state, as it was from 1963, the year the Dallas Texans moved to Kansas City to become the Chiefs, through 1987, the Cardinals’ last year in St. Louis before moving to Arizona.

Now, you can clearly tell Missouri is once again the exclusive domain of the denizens of Arrowhead Stadium.

The Chiefs’ radio network now shades all of Missouri as part of “Chiefs Kingdom”, a term liberally used by play-by-play man Mitch Holthaus. It used to only include the section of Missouri roughly along and west of US 63, which includes Columbia and Jefferson City. Those two locales did not have many Rams fans until Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk and Isaac Bruce began “The Greatest Show on Turf” era until 1999. The Rams were dominant in mid-Missouri from 1999 through 2003, but after that, the pendulum began to swing back to the west, but really, both teams were pretty pathetic for many years between 2004 and 2012.

I went to a Bed, Bath and Beyond yesterday after eating lunch with Bill. I did not see a single Rams item. I saw plenty of Chiefs, Royals, Blues and Mizzou. But no Rams. Not even in the clearance bin. It’s been only three months since NFL owners approved Stan Kroenke’s request to move the Rams back to Los Angeles, and you can’t tell the team played its last game in St. Louis last December 17.

Coincidentally, 2013 was a turning point for the loyalties of both NFL and MLB fans in mid-Missouri.

The Chiefs immediately improved under Andy Reid, starting 2013 9-0. They’ve made the playoffs twice under Reid, winning their first playoff game since 1993 earlier this year. The Rams? Did anyone in Columbia, Jefferson City (and Springfield for that matter) notice the Rams? Sure, they were on TV in those cities when it didn’t conflict with the Chiefs, but did anyone really watch? Those with NFL Sunday Ticket certainly didn’t. And most others could simply watch Red Zone to follow all the games at once.

Meanwhile, by September 2013, people in this part of Missouri realized there was a real MLB team playing on the western edge of the state, not a team playing in MLB masquerading as a minor league squad.

The Royals were pretty much irrelevant in all of Missouri, save for the immediate Kansas City area and the I-29 corridor all the way to the Iowa state line, from the mid-’90s until 2013, when Kansas City enjoyed a late surge and finished with 86 wins.

Now, I would say the loyalties may be 60-40 Cardinals, a major improvement for the boys in blue. Columbia is actually closer to St. Louis than Kansas City by a few miles, but there are an awful lot of Royals fans here.

Now hockey loyalties have NEVER been a problem in Missouri. All Blues, all the time. Yes, I’m aware there were the Kansas City Scouts for two seasons in the mid-’70s, but hardly anybody in Kansas City cared, so I’m certain nobody did 125 miles to the east.

Even Mizzou doesn’t have the entire state’s loyalty. The Kansas Jayhawks have owned the Kansas City metro in recent years, and that ownership has only grown after the Tigers left the Big 12 for the SEC. Right now, Mizzou is toxic in the City of Fountains.

The NBA hasn’t been in Missouri since April 1985, when the Kings left for Sacramento (Suckramento–thank you Jim Rome). The Hawks left St. Louis for Atlanta in 1968, four years before the Cincinnati Royals moved to KC. I guess the Bulls are the choice of most NBA fans here, although there may be pockets of Thunder fans in southwest Missouri and Grizzlies fans in the southeast.

Major League Soccer? Sporting Kansas City plays in Kansas. Never mind.

 

MLB’s second act at its end

The 162nd game of the Major League Baseball season will be meaningful for four teams in particular, maybe more.

NOTE: the second act is the regular season. The first is spring training, the third is the postseason. At least I can spin it that way.

The Central divisions of both leagues are still in question. The Tigers in the American League and Cardinals in the National League each have a one-game lead, but both missed opportunities to close out today.

Detroit lost its second consecutive game at home to last place Minnesota, 6-1, while St. Louis fell in Phoenix to the Majors’ worst team, the Arizona Diamondbacks, 5-2.

The Pirates came back from an early 3-0 deficit in Cincinnati and went to extra innings, but the Reds’ Todd Frazier launched a grand slam in the bottom of the 10th to doom Pittsburgh, 10-6. The Pirates must win tomorrow and the Cardinals must lose to Arizona to force a one-game playoff Monday in St. Louis. Regardless of what happens, the Pirates will be no worse than a wild card and play the Giants in the one-game playoff.

The Royals almost came back, but left a runner stranded in the ninth as they lost to the White Sox in Chicago, 5-4. If the Royals and Tigers end up tied, the playoff is Monday in Detroit. The worst that can happen to the Royals is the wild card game is in Kansas City. It will be the first playoff game at Kauffman Stadium since October 27, 1985,, the night the Royals won the World Series by blowing away the Cardinals 11-0. Back then, the stadium was known as Royals Stadium, the playing surface was artificial–the hard stuff, not the rubbery faux grass you see today–the seats were hard red plastic, and there was no replay screen, although there was the original crown scoreboard in center field.

Oakland still has a hold on the second wild card, but just barely. If Seattle can oust the Angels tonight, it will come down to tomorrow. The Athletics would have to lose and the Mariners would have to win, but there would still be hope in the Pacific Northwest. Every eye in Seattle and Washington State would be watching the M’s, because the Seahawks have a bye tomorrow.

The Brewers FINALLY clinched a winning season tonight by beating the Cubs 2-1. Milwaukee was 73-58 on the morning of August 25, and it has gone 9-21 since. Ouch. Pittsburgh was six games out of first on that earlier date.

Sloth-paced Saturday

I’ve been sitting in front of my computer most of the day–albeit sometimes I’ve dozed off–and yet I have not posted today. I am on the verge of getting back into my old lazy habits, where I would just neglect a blog after starting off fast. Then again, since I’m back in Russell, there really wasn’t anything doing. I did get out of the house for a couple of hours, because there was an open house at the Russell County News office to welcome the new publisher, Frank Mercer, and to say thank you to his predecessor, Jack Krier, since he and Kathy retired May 31 and have now moved to Missouri. It was the first time my Impala has left the garage since I got home Tuesday evening from my serpetine drive from Kansas City to Omaha to Lincoln and back to Russell through Belleville, Concordia and Salina.

The Brewers lost yet again today, ,and now they are tied with the Cardinals atop the NL Central. Tomorrow, the Cardinals will complete the sweep and knock the Brewers off the perch. Man, Milwaukee has looked beyond putrid the last two weeks. They are looking WORSE than the team I thought would win 74 games prior to the season, and that’s saying a lot. The Brewers were 51-32 on June 28, and now they’re 52-43. They have lost a 6.5-game lead over St. Louis in 14 days. REPEATING: THE BREWERS HAVE LOST A 6.5-GAME LEAD IN 14 DAYS. It was fun while it lasted, but now Wisconsin sports fans will be turning to the Packers en masse.

At least today wasn’t so painful for the Brewers. They were hammered 10-2. Last night, they led St. Louis 6-0 early, only to lose 7-6 when Matt Holliday hit a game-winning home run in the top of the ninth. The day before, Matt Garza no-hit Philadelphia through six innings, only to have the Phillies score seven in the eighth and go on to win 9-1.

I had a sinking feeling the Brewers were going to hit a bad patch. I just didn’t know it would be this prolonged and this painful. Then again, they probably had no business being in the NL Central race. The Cardinals still have one of the best rosters in all of baseball, even if All-Star catcher Yadier Molina will miss at least two months. The Pirates and Reds were in the playoffs a year ago, and bot of those teams have started to play much better. I’m expecting Milwaukee to continue its freefall past the All-Star Break. It’s one thing if they would have started the season slowly and continued to be bad. This makes it all the more painful to witness.

The MLB team closest to Russell is faring no better in an important series at home. The Royals’ hopes to win the AL Central are now ZILCH, barring a collapse by Detroit. Kansas City lost again to the Tigers at home, tonight by a 5-1 count, and now are 0-5 this year vs. Detroit at Kauffman Stadium. Detroit has owned the Royals in Kansas City since 2006, but most Royals teams from1996 through 2012 have been downright pitiful or worse. To continue to have those problems when you’re supposed to be a contending team is a sign of real trouble. The Royals are now nine games behind Detroit in the loss column. No way they’re making that up, unless there’s a 1978 Red Sox-Yankees plot twist in the wind.

By the way, the third place match of the FIFA World Cup was today. If you were watching it, you are addicted to association football and need to go into detox after the conclusion of tomorrow’s championship match.

Third place contests are the worst. Who cares? I cannot stand the fact the Kansas State High School Activities Association insists on them in every team sport except football. They are useless. Do two teams who lost their chance to play for a championship really want to come back for something totally meaningless? What’s worse about the World Cup is the Dutch players had to spend two more days away from home after they’ve been in Brazil for a month in that miserable climate. At least in Brazil’s case, they didn’t have to leave home. But why bother? Cut out the third place match, play the championship on Saturday and end the damn thing.

Speaking of the World Cup championship match, kickoff is now just over 14 hours away. Here’s hoping Germany takes it.