I really hate when people describe a professional sports team as “disappointing.” Sure, disappointment is an inevitable part of sports fandom, but this makes it sound like the team is a talented but troubled teen you just caught smoking in his parents’ basement (I have no idea why you’re hanging out in his parents’ basement. That’s on you.)
Arguably, any season that doesn’t end in a championship is disappointing, and any team that doesn’t win one is disappointing, but that argument is stupid. Twenty-nine teams are going to go home non-champions this year. Nationals fans and Orioles fans should be pretty pleased with the direction things are heading, even if their teams fall short of any sort of title or pennant or championship (I’m ninety-five percent certain that both teams can’t win a championship at the same time.) Indians fans can be thankful that they’re in the American League Central. Cardinals fans can pretty much just shut up and be smug, annoying jerks as far as I’m concerned.
The Brewers, in contrast, have by many people’s estimation been in “win now” mode for about four seasons now, and have not won a damn thing. If this were actually the case, the team would be down to Ryan Braun and a ragtag bunch of little leaguers by now, so it’s probably a bit of a mischaracterization. Still, it sometimes feels like the squad is bleeding talent with diminishing returns.
I’m writing this in spirit of hope, actually –the apolitical variety- even though things are pretty dire at the moment. The Brewers are dead last in the National League according to the relative power index, although we’re apparently entitled to an additional Pythagorean victory, which I suppose is comforting. This is not a team suffering a long stretch of bad luck, it’s a team failing to hit balls well, or pitch them well, or field them well. Granted, the team’s hitting BABIP is at .282, but that’s only .11 off of last season; and anyway, Oakland’s at friggin’ .250, and they’re doing just fine, albeit in a weaker division. That said, the pitching staff has been nearly as unlucky, so perhaps some readjustment is inevitable. (This is assuming that the team’s third-worst-in-the-National-League UZR/150 isn’t going to give the pitching consistent problems, and I have no idea why I would assume that.)
Management is back to its annual shortstop scavenger hunt, and we’re about to find out what happens if Marco Estrada also falls apart -we probably won’t get to see Wily Peralta start, because why would Ron Roenicke want anything fun or interesting to happen.
At least Corey Hart looks fairly comfortable at first base. Given that he’s a few inches taller than Charles Barkley, though, the appearance of comfort is a minimum expectation.
I was lucky enough to attend last Sunday’s Twins-thrashing, and I came away from the game feeling optimistic, but also knowing that feeling was a bit silly. Full disclosure: once Gonzalez and Gamel ruined their respective knees, I started to emotionally distance myself from the team and its fortunes. My life was thankfully pretty busy at the time, and I didn’t need to have my night ruined by, say, another crappy road loss to the Astros while, say, trying to cram for a Copyright exam. I knew that a big portion of the wins management replaced after Prince’s exit were gone for the season, and there was no use pretending they were going to magically appear elsewhere. After a full season of watching the Milwaukee Bucks struggle mightily to overcome their inherent Bucks-ness, I couldn’t stomach the idea of devoting six months of my attention to a team that simply lacked the parts to compete.
That carefully maintained emotional distance disappeared when I was at last Sunday’s game, surrounded by fans who’re a little more constant, or at least less obviously cynical. Miller Park has a familiar feeling to it now, and my family has had seats in the same place in the upper deck for years. Basically, I could draw you a picture of what the field looks like from where we sit, although it would be a badly drawn picture mostly filled with stick figures labelled things like “umpire”, “first base”, and “Front-Row Amy.” The game was fun, the team looked good, and I started to care again.
So yeah, Sunday felt good, because all of the good things about the Brewers were good. As all of you know, Jonathan Lucroy has been fantastic so far this year, far surpassing his hot start last year (compare his WAR totals when you get the chance.) Sunday was Lucroy’s day, even though Greinke’s stuff was mostly excellent. Lucroy said his second home run was meant to be a sacrifice fly; that’s the very definition of overachieving… or at least, it’s the definition of not knowing your strength.Greinke was hitting his spots, and Jason Marquis wasn’t. Even Morgan managed to tickle a ball into the outfield; on another day, it surely would’ve found its way into someone’s glove, but not Sunday. Basically, if every game were a Zack Greinke home game, we would be in excellent shape, but also Greinke’s arm would have fallen out of its socket by now.
Anyway, mid-thrashing, I forced myself to look back on the last few seasons and honestly evaluate the state of the team. It’s always difficult to look beyond my expectations for a given season, but I found a useful reference point: the Milwaukee Bucks.
Milwaukee is, by many accounts, the last place an NBA free agent wants to sign. The most heartening piece of news in the last month was a sponsorship deal for an arena no one goes to. One of the biggest bright spots last season, Ersan Ilyasova, is almost certainly going to be an overpaid free agent elsewhere. The backcourt is manned by two small guards who take bad shots and can’t consistently run an offense. A substantial part of the almost non-existent fan base advocated tanking late in the season to go up a few spots in the draft, apparently having forgotten that anything can happen in the playoffs and even 8th seeds get lucky sometimes. (Congratulations to the 76ers, and apologies to Derrick Rose’s ACL.) But I digress.
Outside of a few freak injuries, underperforming bats and, you know, the team’s performance generally, could the Brewers’ situation be any less similar? Attendance at Miller Park is still top ten in the league. Tailgating continues to be awesome. Ryan Braun is still Ryan Braun, even if he’s not quite Matt Kemp. Weeks and Ramirez… have nowhere to go but up, I guess. Gallardo has thrown, what, four quality starts in a row? Sure, neither Marcum nor Greinke have re-signed, but unlike the Bucks, the Brewers have built themselves into a team capable of attracting top shelf, starting rotation talent. Sure, no one really thinks Cole Hamels is going to end up in a Brewers uniform, but the idea is far from crazy. Same thing goes for Kyle Lohse, but that one’s even further away from crazy.
Plus, the Brewers seem to have an All-Star caliber catcher, and he’s not going anywhere anytime soon. Please repeat that to yourself as many times as necessary.
Basketball is probably my favorite sport, but the Brewers are my favorite sport team, in part because they’ve established a culture of winning (if not yet a culture of winning championships.) Despite several farm-clearing trades, the free agency exit of a possible Hall-of-Famer, season-ending injuries to key position players and a starting pitcher, a national steroids scandal surrounding its key offensive piece, sluggish starts from two slightly less key offensive pieces… the Brewers are still relevant. The farm is starting to slowly fill up with talent again, or so I keep telling myself. They’re only seven games back, and the Cubs still suck. Worse comes to worse, we can still enjoy a blowout victory once in a while.